Thailand: Going for zero

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The once elusive promise of “zero energy”, a long-sought milestone in the construction industry, has recently become an attainable objective both globally as well as in Asia. Despite the progress, adapting construction techniques and technology to tropical climates remains a challenge that has only been overcome by a handful of private sector companies.

In China, Singapore, Malaysia, India and Thailand teams of architects and engineers have designed and built entirely energy-independent commercial buildings. Given that energy used by buildings accounts for around 30% of the South-east Asian economy’s total energy consumption, zero-energy construction has significant implications for environment as well as energy balance.

The projects undertaken in these countries were led by a variety of different end users. China’s green building demand, for instance, is primarily being driven by multinational companies which responded to the government’s 2005 decree on mandatory designs to conserve energy used in cooling, heating and lighting in public buildings. Singapore has the widest range of green buildings, ranging from offices to residential and retail space. In total over 1000 such projects have been built since 2005 when the Building and Construction Authority's (BCA) Green Mark Scheme was introduced.

Malaysia’s first green building – G Tower – was a purpose-built business hotel but interest is rising among office, retail and residential property developers. In Thailand multinational companies located in Bangkok drive green building technology, and demand for green building in India is expected to also be driven by both multinational and domestic companies. In order to become a widespread phenomenon the regulators need to offer new fiscal incentives. Meanwhile, private sector companies need to engage more actively in assessing the benefits and costs of becoming net zero energy users.

The main challenge in expanding the stock of energy-efficient buildings resides in enforcement, according to Celina Chew, the managing director of Bayer Thai. Referring to the situation in Thailand, she says that Thai government must rigorously enforce the Building Energy Code Act and other standards that are currently in place. “This would demonstrate the government’s firm commitment to sustainability and environmental protection, in particular, in the area of building and construction,” Chew told OBG.

Also on the fiscal front there are tools to encourage firms to take a closer look at environmentally progressive building technologies. For example, the current government building design fee in Thailand for architectural design ranges from 1.75% to 2% of total building investment cost.

“The current fee is not enough to encourage the design of green buildings,” Chew said. “It would be a good signal from the government if it could support green buildings with additional design fees for green building designs.”

Despite these regulatory challenges, the blueprint for how to achieve zero energy standard in Asia has been written. The process has a multitude of stakeholders, all of whom need to be aligned in their incentives to achieve zero energy. Once an investment decision on maximum green efficiency is made, the clients have to search for suitable technology, experienced material suppliers and architects while keeping the additional cost of the project to absolute minimum.

ADAPTING TO LOCAL CONDITIONS: In Asia rule number one, according to advocates of green technology, is adapting Western technology to local conditions.

“Natural ventilation, for instance, is a no-go when it is 30-35°C outside,” said one sector participant. Zero-energy projects developed in China such as the 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou – designed by the US-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM) – cannot be easily exported to South-east Asia.

It was therefore a major breakthrough when the first zero-energy building in India was completed in early 2011. Designed by the Bayer Material Science’s EcoCommercial Building Programme, the structure draws 100% of its electricity from solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and requires 50% less power than comparable buildings in the region.

Located in Greater Noida, India, about 40 km south-east of New Delhi, it will save 67 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.

When the project began in 2007, the main challenge for Bayer was constructing a zero-energy commercial office building in a subtropical climate. The design had to balance energy-efficiency targets with cost, aesthetics and functionality, and had to serve as a model for South-east Asia.

As Ram Sai Yelamanchili, the head of Bayer’s EcoCommercial Building Programme India, explained, it had to be “adapted to local conditions and built using local expertise, with materials that are locally available”.

“At the same time, the building had to have the proper design that appeals to its users and the community. It could not be unacceptable to the corporate world,” he told OBG.

The EcoCommercial Building Programme experience illustrates that energy-conscious construction is as much an organisational as a technological challenge. The project required focusing the expertise and activity of architects, energy consultants, project managers and construction workers towards the goal of energy efficiency.

“Even using simple designs you can achieve a lot if you go through the proper procedure,” representatives from Bayer told OBG. “We have an integrated approach where we look at all the stakeholders in the industry [and] we bring all of them onto one platform, which really helps us to achieve zero emissions.”

SMALL PREMIUM, HIGH IMPACT: The main misconception amongst real estate developers is that zero-energy buildings are much more expensive to construct. “The public and the market should be more aware that, even though some products cost more in terms of initial investment, using such products is beneficial in the long run because of the lower operating cost and the reduced lifecycle costs,” Chew told OBG.

For example, polyurethane insulation has an initial investment that may be higher than normal bricked-wall but by using polyurethane insulation a developer can save investment in terms of air conditioning and result in lower consumption of electricity for the building, according to Chew.

Even the initial capital outlay does not need to be significantly higher. Although conceptually these projects are indeed far more complicated and require extra planning and effort in the end, the premium paid on the end project can be relatively low.

The Singaporean government, for example, kicked off its landmark, S$500m ($414.8m) green building initiative by unveiling its 4500-sq-m Zero Energy Building (ZEB) in 2009.

It proved that low-energy construction can be achieved at a cost of only 5% more than the average building. The impact of this relatively small additional capital outlay is significant. Average reduction in energy consumption of such building is between 40% and 70%.

The Singaporean example, however, confirms the importance of regulatory incentives. The existence of ZEB, which sets the standard for Singapore’s Green Mark Programme, mandates that every building reduce its energy use by 80% by 2030. This is a major driver of new interest in low-energy-consumption buildings in the country, according to sector insiders.

CHAIN REACTION: Though uptake of green building technology remains low, suppliers of technology and material are witnessing a strong budding interest.

Stakeholders in the EcoCommercial Building Programme project are already seeing the benefits of their first landmark project in India. “Green materials and technologies are being recommended to new developers which is helping to raise the bar higher,” Yelamanchili said.

Players in the building sector who “used to say zero-energy construction wasn’t possible” have begun to think otherwise. Where a project manager might request a 30% reduction in energy use, South-east Asian developers can now point to projects like Greater Noida as evidence that reductions between 40% and 70% are attainable.

More importantly the implementation of these projects has helped to develop local talent and know-how. The lack of human resources and capacity remains one of the key issues going forward.

“The capacity and knowledge of the building sector and its clients is the main issue,” especially in subtropical climates, said Poul Kristensen, the managing director of IEN Consultants, the leading green building services company in Malaysia.

GROWING SERVICES: Another major challenge in rolling out new low-energy consuming buildings is how to balance the need for technology with traditional demands for aesthetics. In practice what happens is that the initial design often has to yield to technical requirements.

The first design for Greater Noida, for example, looked nothing like the final building: developers revised the blueprints substantially after using a software programme to model energy use from lighting, sunlight exposure, windows, wall thickness, insulation and air circulation. The task cannot be just about finishing the building, one senior Bayer engineer told OBG. “The project manager needs to have a vision about energy consumption.”

Irrespective of technological, climatic, human resource and management challenges, the successful implementation of projects such as Greater Noida has set a compelling example that green technology in construction can be achieved at reasonable cost.

Going forward the response from the regulators will be key to expand the overall stock of low-energy consuming buildings. Meanwhile, suppliers of green technology have yet to educate the market and investors that “going zero” is good both for the bottom line as well as important intangibles such as corporate social responsibility and corporate reputation.

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