Walking into the InterfaceFLOR China headquarters near People’s Square in downtown Shanghai is like entering a fashionable city café. It is airy and spacious with high ceilings, tall windows and light wooden furnishings. The only sign revealing it as a sustainable office space is the small plaque inside the glass door entrance.
The office is the first commercial space in China to be certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) commercial interior rating system. LEED is becoming the international standard for rating sustainable buildings.
David Bates, InterfaceFLOR’s area manager, believes the office’s superb inner air quality, natural light and floor-to-ceiling solid blocks of timber décor make it a pleasant place to work. The space also boasts low-flow fixtures to reduce water consumption and daylight-sensitive lights with long lasting bulbs.
Offices like this are not the norm in Chinese cities, but the concept of sustainability is fast gaining exposure in the country’s construction industry and is set to become a key issue for the markets of first-tier cities. According to a Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) report, office buildings consume around one quarter of the country’s total electricity, and the Chinese government aims to cut energy in all new construction by 50% before 2010 and 65% by 2020.
What is sustainable?
It is the view of James Macdonald, senior manager of Savills Research in China, that truly sustainable buildings do not exist because the materials and energy used in construction are finite.
“In order for a building to be sustainable, it must only use renewable energy and a sustainable source of water,” he said.
Carbon-neutral, another term associated with sustainability, is also en vogue, but does not take into account factors like water consumption, recycling facilities and building materials.
The LEED system was created by the United States Green Building Council in 1998. Under the system, a building structure with the highest rating must have at least a 70% less negative impact on the environment than a regular building.
The space must fulfill requirements in six categories, which range from “water efficiency” and “innovation and design process” to “energy and atmosphere.” Among other factors, a LEED rating also evaluates the prevention of pollution during construction, recycling methods, how much office space has daylight views and provisions for bicycle parking.
But, as with most rating systems, it has its faults. LEED is said to be costly. Bates estimated a 20% additional cost on the firm’s initial investment for completing the LEED process. Furthermore, calculating energy savings is complicated, and because the system was designed in the US with dissimilar urban planning standards, it does not always sync up to local models.
However, Bates also cited significant cost savings in the long term, reduced overheads and fewer work-related illnesses among staff.
Another concern with LEED is that it does not address the sustainability of a building after completion. Ben Christensen, JLL’s head of research in Beijing, believes another system, the Australian Green Building Rating is more thorough. Under this system, all sustainable buildings must submit to an annual re-evaluation in order to retain their green certification.
In addition to the InterfaceFLOR office, there are currently four other LEED-certified offices in China: Plantronics Inc in Suzhou, HOK Shanghai Office Interior Fit-Out, HOK Beijing Office and Shui On Land’s headquarters in Shanghai.
As for entire LEED-certified office buildings, there is only one: Prosper Center in Beijing’s central business district. This building has attracted banks, service firms and other less rent-sensitive occupiers, Christensen noted.
Such numbers suggest that, for now, sustainability is a secondary concern for most renters. But for multinational corporations (MNCs) with corporate social responsibility concerns and global requirements on their energy use, eco-friendly offices have their appeal.
In Bates’s opinion, it is not only MNCs. Since the InterfaceFLOR office opened a year and a half ago, he has fielded an increasing level of interest from local businesses, clients and developers who have wanted to find out more about sustainable spaces.
For the property developers, a LEED certification can help them differentiate their buildings from the rest of the grade A office building pack. JLL identified this as the primary motivation for gaining LEED certification for Fountainwood Real Estate – the developer of Prosper Center.
Given the boom in office consturction, more LEED-certified candidates are certain to be on the horizon.
Additional office sites include: the World Financial Centre in Beijing, developed by Henderson Land and scheduled for completion in June; the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, which upon completion in 2009 aims to be the world’s first skyscraper to produce as much energy as it consumes; and Dongtan Eco-City on Chongming Island north of Shanghai, which wants 100% renewable energy for all its buildings.
It’s also worth noting that what is catching on in China is not necessarily making inroads in more developed countries. According to Simon White of London-based architecture firm Rolfe Judd, sustainable office buildings have yet to gain traction in the UK.
“Because of noise and traffic pollution, it’s very difficult to build new offices without air conditioning, so it’s almost impossible to build anything truly eco-friendly,” White said.
Yet an office’s eco-friendliness is a matter of degrees, and LEED certification relects this. The InterfaceFLOR office is gold-certified – the third-highest rating out of four – and it has no control over the air conditioning which is run by the building’s management.
Also, in China, the government remains the driving factor for overall increased sustainability. Between the ambitious energy reduction goals outlined in the 11th Five-Year Plan to efforts for a “Green Olympics,” environmental discourse is in the air.
LEED-certified office buildings are one part of this plan, but for now, the general message is to start low and apply rules broadly, said Macdonald of Savills.
“It will not be 1% of properties reducing energy consumption by 20% to 30%, but 50% of buildings reducing energy consumption by 1% that will help reduce the impact of commercial properties on the environment.”