China Talks

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!

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