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What is Green Building?

John Herbert, hong kong energy saving expert, BEAM expert
John Herbert

Buildings significantly influence our daily lives and are fundamental to our way of life. Hong Kong, as the most vertical cities in the world, is famous for its spectacular high-rises and bright lights. However, the buildings which give Hong Kong its special character can have a considerable environmental impact says the HKGBC.

what is green building

What is certain, our buildings account for over a significant proportion of the energy consumption, and GHG (Green House Gas) emissions, contributing to global climate change, as well as local effects such as Hong Kong’s rising temperatures, and the heat island effect in urban areas.

Hong Kong has over 70 million sqm of building accommodation comprising commercial and institutional, and residential units.

More than 63% of Hong Kong's carbon footprint is created from our buildings, and 89% of all electricity generated is used in buildings therefore we must adopt environmentally and sustainable practices to ensure long term sustainability.

We will also need to urgently and dramatically reduce our GHG (green house gas) emissions, carbon footprint and environmental degradation, to protect our environment before too late.

What is a Green Building defined

There is still no universal definition of a green building. One definition by HKGBC is a green building is an occupied structure that is environmentally sensitive and sustainable throughout it entire life cycle. A Green Building would be:

  • Energy efficient having a low carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Low polluter
  • Minimising waste
  • Good neighbour
  • Has healthy and productive indoor and outdoor environments
  • Sustainable, using recycled materials, and conserving water

  • However, the Australian Green Building Council says a green building is one that incorporates design, construction and operational practices that significantly reduce or eliminate its negative impact on the environment and its occupants. Building green is an opportunity to use resources efficiently while creating healthier environments for people to live and work in.

    what is green building

    This difference arises because different countries and regions have different needs and priorities wholly depending upon their local environmental conditions and circumstances. For example in an area subject to water shortage and drought, water conservation would be more important than energy consumption or indoor air quality.

    And that is the crux of the issue, green building is a LOCAL issue, employing the USA system in Hong Kong is completely meaningless, the same way as applying the Irish system in USA.

    The Minimum Building Code

    Each country has its own set of local regulations governing the basiss for the construction of buildings, usually these regulations cover the basics, provisions for means of escape, fire safety, structural, ventilation, toilets, drainage, lease requirements, and the like. Collectively we refer to these as the minimum building code to meet those LOCAL government requirements.

    Obviously, if you constructed a building in Hong Kong, but followed the UK building code, it would never be approved.

    However, the minimum building code generally does not include any requirements or consideration for soft factors, such as community, or sustainability, GHG emissions, or environmental impacts, and that is where green building fits.

    Green Building Rating Tools

    In response to lack of environment criteria, green building and green building rating tools were create in 1995 to as voluntary scorecare, with the goal to reward developers who exceeded the minimum code requirement and lower the environment impacts.

    That is core principle behind green building rating systems, reward improvments over and above the minimum code requirement. Since the rating tool is voluntary schem, the reward is a certificate which can be used by the developer to market a project or demonstrate credentials.

    Yet there are countless studies written every year, comparing different rating systems which is completely futile exercise without first understanding the underlying local building code.

    the shopping list of targets are typically organised into similar categories, BEAM created in 1996, uses:

  • Site Aspects
  • Energy Aspects
  • Water Aspects
  • Material Aspects
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation

  • and other rating tools have a similar arrangement of categories.

    Some rating tools offer compliance choices so it is possible to earn a very high score under one aspect to gain a green building certificate for a development with a significant deficit in one aspect.


    A rating tool provides the framework for reward scheme, each rating tool is different, typically with shopping list of environmental targets. However, there is no universally accepted standard to benchamrk performance, would 5%, 10%, 15% or 20% improvement be acceptable?

    What are the benefits of certifed green buildings?

    Buildings contribute more than 63% of carbon dioxide emissions (globally the figure is approx. 40%) and 90% of the electricity consumption in Hong Kong.

    Green buildings have lower energy use by 30-50%, reduced waste output by 70%, and reduced water usage by 40%.

    Businesses and customers have become more socially aware, aware of the environment therefore many organisations now only take up a lease agreement within a green building and that’s important for speculative developments.

    In addition to lower environmental impact, owning or operating a green building also promotes your business as environmentally sensitive, a key opportunity to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace.

    Is there any Green Building Standard?

    There is no green building standard as such, eachis unique so a comparison basis is used. To establish if your building is green or not the environmentally sensitive building is compared with an ordinary "minimum code" building.

    If it scores better than an ordinary building in terms of less waste, less water, less energy, etc, it can be certified green. In Hong Kong we use a rating tool to compare base building and green building.

    what is green building

    However, since this is only a comparison between buildings, it changes overtime. The goals for a green building today are different and are changing. Every year, increasingly stricter standards and higher goals are set.

    Do funds prefer certified green buildings?

    Yes, certification differentiates and that adds value during the leasing and disposal, some funds will only invest in green buildings or green RIET.

    Do Green Buildings Cost More?

    Yes, we have studies show that "Green Buildings" don't actually have to cost the earth, 1-2% over and above traditional methods.

    Indeed, we need more 'design' not less, what does that mean you are asking yourself, it means more time and effort should focus on the design stage to optimise the design, that might include designing out non-green features (glass), developing the design to reduce waste during construction, considering the lifetime cost instead of the first cost.

    what is green building

    Sustainability is not an expensive value proposition, most often the best value solutions also have secondary environmental, and sustainability benefits. For example lowering the window to wall ratio means smaller and cheaper glazing, reudced cooling load that results in a small and cheaper cooling plant.

    The sustainability goal is requires a multi-faceted and complex target, reducing the environmental impact, providing sustainable buildings with lower embodied energy, and emitting as little carbon as possible. the early involvement adds value to the design process, influencing building form, function and operation, and helping to develop a holistic approach with the architect and other design team members.

    About the Author

    John A. Herbertis a green building professional involved with the development of Hong Kong green building rating tools for more than decade, is a non executive director of BEAM Scoiety limited, chairman of the BEAM Technical Review Panel, chairman of the BEAM water use expert panel, and he is BEAM Professional.

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