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'Green' makeovers of buildings can go a long way in saving energy

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As delegates from 194 countries gathered in the South African city of Durban late last month for a on to decide the fate of the on harmful gas emissions, the world’s tallest “green” building, Taipei 101, signed its first “green” lease with a tenant. If it was a coincidence, it was a significant one, and proved once again that saving the environment doesn’t necessarily mean fighting a political battle or altering the pattern of economic growth.

Taipei 101, as the 101-storey skyscraper in the Taiwanese capital is called, had undergone two years of thorough environmental upgrade before the US Green Building Council gave it a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum award last July in recognition of its highly improved efficiency levels. The building now consumes 30 per cent less energy than earlier, reducing its energy cost by about $700,000 a year. It also uses less water and produces less garbage.

Now, with “green” leases, the owners of Taipei 101 want to take the next step — get tenants, too, to join the green battle and take it forward. The 10-year first lease, signed with KPMG Taiwan, asks the company to adopt its own in-house measures to cut electricity and water consumption, minimise waste, harvest rainwater to water office plants, and use only environment-friendly products to clean its premises.

Since buildings are believed to account for 40 per cent of all energy consumed, a tenth of all water used, 40 per cent of all solid waste generated, and over 20 per cent of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in the world, “green” retrofitting of existing buildings can go a long way in mitigating some of the threats to the environment arising from human activity. Basically, the aim is to improve an existing building’s energy efficiency, reduce water consumption, and increase interior comfort levels in terms of natural light, air quality, and noise reduction. In most cases, it involves putting in new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems, replacing window panels, and redoing facades.

Upfront costs of retrofitting may appear high and put people off, but the example of the Empire State Building in New York serves to dispel doubts. Two and a half years ago, owners of the 1931 Manhattan skyscraper decided to give it a pronounced “green” makeover, as part of an overall renovation exercise, in order to enhance its market value. When the work is completed in 2013, Empire State expects to achieve a 38 per cent reduction in annual energy use, shaving at least $4.4 million off its annual energy bill. At this rate, it is hoped, the $20 million retrofitting cost will be recouped in about four years.

Taipei 101 is only one example of Asia’s growing interest in retrofitting as a valuable environmental initiative. Singapore, where greening is a national cult, wants all its buildings, old or new, to get a Green Mark certification – a rating system it introduced in 2006 – and has launched a S$100 million fund to help small- and medium-sized buildings retrofit. Initially, some 1,000 buildings are being asked to replace their cooling systems with more energy-efficient ones and audit the systems every three years. Utility companies will submit energy consumption figures for these buildings to the Building and Construction Authority. The government expects 80 per cent of all buildings in the island nation to be Green Mark-ed by 2030, achieving an annual saving of no less than S$1.8 billion in energy cost.

Japan, the most energy-efficient country in the world, known for its cutting-edge energy-saving technologies, introduced a programme last year to evaluate all buildings in the housing market for environment-friendly features. This, it’s argued, would act as a natural incentive for realtors to espouse green practices. Also, under Japan’s green labelling system, condominium sellers are obliged to indicate their buildings’ energy and environmental performance in all their advertising.

With a huge stock (some 470 billion square feet) of existing buildings, most of which is energy-inefficient, China places a great deal of importance on retrofitting since a green fix identified it as a key R&D area in its 11th five-year plan (2006-2010). A major ongoing project seeks to fix homes in the “cold” to “severely cold” areas of 15 provinces in the north that require a lot of heating. The government believes retrofitting alone could provide a quarter of China’s new power needs by 2020.

Beijing’s belief in retrofitting is reflected in the renovation of the 50-storey, 28-year-old in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. The facelift, to cost HK$600 million, began in 2009, involving, among other things, a double-layer glass façade with a glaze that will allow only five per cent of solar heat to penetrate inside. When completed, energy savings will reach 11.4 per cent per year, water consumption will go down by 36 per cent, and carbon emission will be reduced by about 7.5 per cent a year.

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