SHANGHAI — Take a guess: What do Coca Cola’s Chinese factory, Beijing’s most expensive commercial center and the office building of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology have in common?
The answer is that they are all LEED-certified. Those buildings have turned to a U.S.-grown system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which provides third-party certifications of green buildings. In recent years, foreign green building systems like LEED have flourished in China, where outside players traditionally do not have the upper hand.
Among all green certifiers, the U.S.-made green building system grows in China the fastest. The nation received its first LEED certification in 2005. Today, China has earned more of the certifications than anywhere else outside the United States.
European green building systems are also gaining footholds here. BREEAM, a certification process developed in Britain, is now being used to certify a Chinese shopping center, the first of its kind in the country. And the German certification provider DGNB will soon give its first approval for an office building in Shanghai.
“The interest in the DGNB certification increased tremendously,” said Iris Berghold, the organization’s spokeswoman. “We are almost overwhelmed with inquiries of Chinese delegations that want to get informed on the specifications of the DGNB system.”
Such interest comes in line with China’s desire for buildings that can ingest less power and emit less pollutants. Currently, the nation’s building sector consumes more energy than its three largest heavy industries — iron, steel and cement — combined. And this appetite will only grow, unless greener models are found.
Additionally, companies here are increasingly attracted to buildings with recognized green certifications, hoping to burnish their environmental credentials, lower utility bills and pursue pleasant working conditions.
Besides that, there is also a less-known driving force. China’s love affair with foreign green building certifications has a long history. Even before Chinese policymakers acknowledged that a thing such as green buildings really exists, some foreign systems had already taken root in the country.
Starting by bucking a taboo
Back to the early 2000s, green buildings were taboo in China. The nation’s construction authority was wary of real estate developers using such terms as a sales pitch rather than a way of reducing the environmental impacts that buildings cause. So it simply prevented Chinese companies from touting their buildings as green.
But during that time, a U.S. nongovernmental organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), was working on behalf of the U.S. Energy Information Administration as well as China’s Ministry of Science and Technology to design a facility in Beijing that would demonstrate the American energy efficiency technology for buildings.
As Jin Ruidong, then the NRDC expert, remembers, his team was wondering: If an “energy-efficient building” would be achievable in China, why not a “green building”? And their most accessible tool to do so, Jin said, was the U.S. green building system LEED, which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit coalition of building industry leaders, with help from NRDC and other outside groups.
The results of the experiment awed Chinese officials. Using 80 percent of the budget the Chinese government provided, NRDC designed an office building that offered clean indoor air, wide green spaces and easy connection to public transit. That building runs on 30 percent of the energy that average Chinese buildings consume. It also uses two-thirds less water than the national level.
What started out as an intergovernmental cooperation, according to Jin, soon marked the beginning of China’s push for green buildings. The State Council gathered officials to witness the power of the green building, by checking out its energy and water bills. And China’s construction authority, which made a 180-degree shift in its attitude toward green buildings, began drafting out the nation’s own system, following the LEED style.
LEED catches on among Chinese builders
As Chinese officials raised their level of interest for green buildings, the Chinese real estate industry began following suit. Months after the Beijing project was awarded LEED certification, a residential complex in south China also won a green approval, applied for by a local developer.
Many of China’s real estate giants — Vanke and Vantone, for instance — are early adopters of the LEED system, says Parker White, head of energy and sustainability for Greater China of Jones Lang LaSalle, a U.S.-headquartered real estate services firm. “That’s because they are one of the first companies that promote green buildings. And when they started, there was only LEED,” he explained.
But surprisingly, after China introduced its own green building certification in 2006, the developers’ passion for foreign systems did not fade away.
Vantone, for one, has sent its architects through LEED training courses since 2010. The real estate developer also announced that it would equip its major commercial projects with LEED certifications, which should help lure more international tenants than the Chinese green building certification does.
“China’s green building certifications are very young,” said White, of Jones Lang LaSalle. “Companies usually make their first choice on things that they have most experience with. Most companies have LEED experience, but only a few have experience with the Chinese green building certifications.
“Also, global companies usually want to do the same thing in subsidiaries all over the world. Even if they can use the Chinese certification in China, they wouldn’t likely use it in other countries,” White added. For one, assessors needed in the Chinese certification process cannot be found outside its home country. In contrast, LEED professionals have helped certify projects in more than 114 countries.
Rising competition from local authorities
But China’s green building system has its own advantage. It comes from officials who admired foreign certifications but are now shifting their attention to the Chinese ones.
Municipal governments in some cities, from Guangzhou in south China to Qingdao in the north, have begun taking steps to subsidize projects that comply with Chinese green building certifications.
There are also media reports that the Chinese central government will provide supportive policies and financial incentives for green buildings — though it is unclear whether those benefits would flow to facilities with foreign certifications.
More challenges for foreign green building certifiers reside in the details of their systems. Because some of these standards are not tailor-made for the Chinese market, their users often find it difficult to cope with local conditions, such as climate, culture and the availability of materials.
But China’s own green building certifications cannot navigate all those problems, either. For one thing, the system speaks to China’s general conditions, while requirements for green buildings in the country’s tropical island Hainan might be totally different from those in the far north Hohe City, where the snowy season can last for half a year.
So gaining a competitive edge will partly depend on a system’s flexibility in how green buildings are to be certified.
Jennivine Kwan, vice president of the LEED international sector at the U.S. Green Building Council, said that the goal of LEED is to “enable experts in each country, like China, to use their experience to build the best building, which fits local conditions, while still showing how their buildings compare to a globally understood baseline.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr