As climate and environment deteriorate almost everywhere and Chinese cities struggle with pollution, planners and architects increasingly are focusing on building low-carbon and more or less "green" and sustainable architecture to reduce carbon emissions.
"How are we going to survive after 50 years?" asks Chen Shuo, president of the Zero Carbon System, a Shanghai-based sustainable design company that constructed the London Zero Carbon Pavilion for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
"We are going to run out of fossil fuel in 46 years, gas in 38 years and natural gas in 60 years," he said in a recent talk about a "zero-carbon future" in architectural design. He spoke at an event held by the Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), a Shanghai think tank.
Untold families won't be able to pay their bills; even white-collar professionals won't be able to afford fuel for their cars because the cost of energy will be prohibitive. Cities that rely on fossil fuel will be abandoned, he says.
If people don't start concentrating on energy saving, then physical survival may well become an issue. "Zero-carbon is undoubtedly the future trend in architecture," he says. "It means the building is powered by sunlight, air and water."
He calls it a self-sustaining system, using solar power for energy, collecting and purifying rainwater for drinking water, which is later used to flush toilets and water gardens. It's built with recyclable materials and the construction keeps the building warm in winter, cool in summer.
But what's the reality of zero-carbon or very "green" building in Shanghai? There is no perfectly green, zero-carbon building. But there are 100 commercial buildings that hold China's Green Building Label, a certification of up to three stars, indicating more or less environmentally friendly and low-carbon design and operation.
There are some demonstration buildings that are very green, but as yet no residential buildings.
"Zero-carbon building should be smart and luxurious, it should first serve the people with highest income," says Chen, adding that he expects the trend to become popular and the costs much lower in five years.
Chen's company is building prefabricated 40-square-meter, energy-efficient homes that cost 500,000 yuan (US$16,182). The company said in December that it signed its first contract to sell 20 low-emissions homes to an environmental industry park in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Buyers can find a plot of land they like and set up their home, without the need to connect with power and water systems. The solar panels provide most of the energy for an air conditioner. Functions are computer-operated.
"Ordinary people can enjoy green building, and building efficiency doesn't mean the pursuit of high technology," according to professor Zhuang Zhi, senior engineer in the research center of Green Building and New Energy at Tongji University.
By the numbers
He tells Shanghai Daily that when architects develop efficient buildings they consider "passive" design, using natural resources as much as possible, such as natural lighting, ventilation and shade. The cost of building energy-efficient skyscrapers is huge.
As of March, 851 completed projects in China have been certified "green" and hold the Chinese Green Building Evaluation Label, according to a report from the Chinese Society for Urban Studies. The label is issued by the Chinese government and is the most common certification in China; it awards up to three stars and may be awarded for green design or green operation, or both. They cover a total area of 98.5 million square meters.
Of the total, 796 projects are certified for more or less green design, 93.5 percent of the total; only 55 projects are certified for green operation. Office buildings account for 45 percent of all these green certifications; public infrastructure, schools, hotels, hospitals, sports venues and shops account for 48 percent. The remainder, 7 percent, are residential.
The certificates are issued by the China Environmental United Certification Center (CEC) of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
Asked about the feasibility of zero-carbon or low-carbon building, professor Zhuang says it's more of an ideal than something that will be realized in a short time. Many demonstration projects have been built, nevertheless, high cost, immature technology and low efficiency are problems.
While energy-saving is the new mantra of architects, developers and investors, Zhuang says many projects do not stand up to scrutiny. Some projects with the China Green Building label are not very green in operation. Some "green" buildings are fake, he says.
He said that he has studied some state-subsidized projects using photovoltaic energy, groundwater sources heat pump and more.
"When we did the monitoring afterwards, many projects, such as solar power, performed far below the original design. If the guaranteed rate was 50 percent and the reality was actually 30 percent, then we would be thankful," he says.
"Monitoring measures are not stringent enough," he says. "Environmental protection and sustainable development should be concepts that everyone starts to embrace."
Shanghai's 'greenest' building
ONE of the city's "greenest" buildings is the Shanghai Research Institute of Building Science in Minhang District.
The seven-story building of high-performance concrete holds three green stars, the highest possible.
But it's not perfect.
It uses a lot of natural light and uses solar power for heating, but not for lighting and air conditioning. Building materials, design and ventilation keep it warm in winter and cool in summer.
Architect Ji Liang works in the building in Shanghai Xinzhuang Industrial Park.
"When entering a green building, it's a pleasure to see. Lighting and ventilation are both considered and enhanced, nevertheless, everything has its pros and cons," he says. The solar heating system isn't very fast. "You have to wait 10 seconds for hot water to wash your hands after using the toilet, meanwhile, you have almost finished washing your hands," Ji says.
He notes that to obtain a green certification, a building must use reclaimed water, but Shanghai has sufficient rain water resources. Thus, tap water actually costs less than reclaimed water.
"But if you want the green label certification, you are forced to use reclaimed water. I think evaluation systems should suit local conditions and a national standard isn't always reasonable," he says.