China Talks

Other
Friday, October 29, 2010
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From left, the panelists Ilana Judah, Wang Degang, Mesh Chen Dongliang, moderator Julie Iovine, Trespa's Todd Kimmel

It was a panel I couldn’t refuse: To moderate a talk with two architects from China about sustainability.  Not that it’s a topic with which I am very familiar, but I would guess that even architects working there find much about the Chinese approach to environmental issues a mystery. I do know that the country has a $375 billion dollar construction industry devouring resources and that, at least ten years ago, a new coal-fired plant was being built every ten days. But things are changing fast and the chance to talk to Wang Degang who has his own 20-person firm in Nanjing and with Mesh Chen Dongliang who has been working for the past six years at Arquitectonica’s Shanghai office about their impressions was quite an opportunity.

The event called “Deconstructing China: Dialogues on Design Process and Sustainability” was organized by the Trespa Design Centre, a pretty ambitious move for a manufacturer of high-end architectural panels but entirely in keeping with the company’s agenda to make the center an inspirational and educational source for architects and designers.

The Egg Building project in Ningbo designed by Wang Degang. (Courtesy W2 Architects)

English was a problem. But it was not an insurmountable one, and the two architects were wonderfully game making a huge effort to provide the most upfront answers to questions comparing LEED and China’s approximately five-year-old Three Star green-building certification program and questions posing whether or not there is broad popular support for environmental measures. To the latter, they answered frankly that it was largely a government directive, guided pretty much by the desire to be competitive with the West.  Mr. Wang offered that he was able to convince private clients to incorporate some green features by saying it was trendy. Mr. Mesh noted that the government is concerned about the environmental waste in the construction industry but has decided to deal first with the more urgent demands of industrial and water pollution. After that, he said, they will direct more attention to building green.  Also on the panel was FxFowle’s director of sustainability, Ilana Judah who knows the LEED system cold and was able to reveal interesting differences and incompatibilities between the USGBC rating system and Three-Star, the most interesting of which was that the latter is performance based and buildings cannot be certified until a full year after occupancy.  It also came out that, at this point, LEED is the default program used in both international buildings and buildings of any ambition and that only some 20-30% buildings currently in China have achieved, or aim to achieve, Three-Star status. Generally, the two do not mix on the same project.

When the floor was opened to questions, Cliff Pearson of Architectural Record asked about sustainable approaches to urban planning but the panelists seemed to agree that urban planning as we know it here is handled differently there. Or I think that’s what they said.  A Chinese gentleman in the audience asked a drawn out, heavily-accented, and multi-faceted question involving intentionality, architects, government, and nature. The panelists looked to me to translate and I hazarded a complete guess: Do architects in China want to be green?  They both answered with a resounding, Yes!

2 Responses to “China Talks”

  1. [...] approach into a city that has been running full steam ahead for the past few years, and the government is steadily applying pressure to developers to utilize environmental measures in new buildings. Meanwhile, studios at nearby [...]

  2. Roody says:

    If by mddlie class the author is referring to those Chinese who earn between US$10,000 and US$60,000 per year, then she is speaking only of people who belong to the top 12 or 15 percent of China’s population. A recent report suggests that approximately 150 million Chinese earn US$10,000 or more per year, with very few earning as much as the average American (i.e., ~$40,000). In other words, 85 percent of Chinese earn less than US$10,000 per year, with approximately 36 percent living on US$2 or less per day (according to 2009 IMF figures) – that is, twice as many Chinese exist on US$2 or less per day than earn US$10,000 or more per year. Extend the figure to incluce those Chinese who live on US$5 per day (RMB 35) and you almost certainly approach one billion people. People typically trumpet the fact that 400 million Chinese have been “lifted out of poverty” during the last 30 years. Even if you assume this figure to be close to the truth, that leaves out 900 million people. What’s more, the majority of the 400 million who’ve been “lifted out of poverty” would still seem quite poor in the view of the average American.Interestingly, the average annual salary in Beijing and Shanghai (China’s top 2 cities, in terms of annual salary) hovers just around US$10,000 per year. That is, your average Beijinger and Shanghainese belongs in the top 15 percent of all Chinese in terms of annual salary.I’m less interested in understanding how the top 15 percent of Chinese live than I am in how the bottom 85 percent live. I’ve lived in Beijing for the better part of 10 years, and I’m surrounded by well-educated people who own homes and cars, graduated from China’s best universities, and vacation/shop in Hawaii and Tokyo. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to forget how unlike most of their countrymen these people are.Less talk of China’s “mddlie class” and more talk about the “Latin Americanization” of Chinese society.

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