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To Sustainability and Beyond: Green Buildings in Japan, Singapore, S. Korea and China

Friday, February 4th, 2011

green buildings
The green trend is inescapable nowadays. Green tech is starting to become as firmly rooted — in recognition of the fact that it is both necessary and saleable — in the building sector as it has become in many other sectors, despite the high costs that must be incurred in order to “green” a building, or, moreover, construct one from scratch.

A sustainable building, according to the Architectural Institute of Japan, is one designed to save resources, recycle materials, minimize toxic emissions, harmonize with its local environment, and work to improve human life whilst maintaining the ecosystem.

Although more “dashing” devices like cars may be more evident and obvious ambassadors of green technology, it is the spread of such technologies to less “sexy” and more prosaic things such as buildings and living spaces that is beginning to signal that the green movement may be nearing widespread acceptance. Of course, if that is the case, then it may be due to an increasing awareness of the dire environmental straits the world may be entering, as the worldwide green movement has been trumpeting for some time now. But practical considerations are coming to the fore as well—such as the need to counter rising fuel costs and the corresponding recognition of the importance of energy efficiency, the need for many nations to reduce imports of strategically significant fuels such as oil and coal—that are pressing issues irrespective of whether or not one truly believes in global warming and other such issues.

Whichever way the subject is approached, green buildings are the future of building and living technology. Nowhere is the enthusiasm for green buildings more evident (and necessary, given the combination of economic strength and an as yet inadequate adherence to green principles that persists in the area) than in the developed and the developing nations of the Asia-Pacific Region.

Although other nations in the region have made their own—often significant—steps to ensure that green buildings take root there as well, this article is limited to four such nations—Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China—and will explore the status of green building in each, as well as policy initiatives geared at stimulating the further development of such buildings, incentives offered by their respective governments to do the same thing, and so on.


As pointed out by Russell Vare, Green Technology Advisor of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO ) in his article “Comparative Analysis of United States and Japanese Green Building Policy”, Japan is one of the world’s most densely populated island nations, and has historically suffered from a relative lack of many natural resources. 127 million people live on only 146,000 square miles, and the country has also less domestic fossil fuels than many others. In addition to regulations, Vare adds, residential electricity rates are high in Japan, significantly higher than they are in the United States—making it more expensive to heat, cool, operate and light buildings.

Consequently, the country’s approach towards energy efficiency has always been aggressive. The Japanese approach to such problems has always been to develop and construct high-tech solutions, such as a particular HVAC technology by Japanese firm Daikin that is 40-48 percent more energy-efficient than a regular duct system. It should come as no surprise, then, that Japan has been ranked as the world’s most energy-efficient economy—thanks, says Vare, to the aforementioned factors as well as a prevalent culture of environmental awareness.

Surprisingly, says Vare, the country has no mandatory green-building regulation such as that which exists in many other countries. There is a set of green building guidelines known as the Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental Efficiency (CAS BEE ), which was developed in 2002, that said, however, that significant government policies do exist, such as the first legislative series known as “The Law Concerning the Rational Use of Energy”, passed in 1979.

A 2008 article on regarding Japan’s building sector found that only a small number of Japanese buildings could truly be called sustainable—only 13 as a matter of fact. But the Japanese are quickly bringing their technological prowess to bear on the problem. Japanese home builders began to market Carbon Neutral and Zero Emission houses in 2008, while other firms sell such products as green roof systems, diatomaceous-earth walls and so on. In addition, energy and green-building policies continue to evolve as well.


Like many major developments in the tiny island powerhouse of Singapore, the effort to shift to sustainable buildings is “top-down”, or stimulated by the government itself. As reported by the Asia-Pacific LOHAS website, the country’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) helps companies upgrade existing buildings to match green standards and construct green buildings from the ground up. The Singapore government launched the BCA Green Mark Scheme, a building rating system, in January 2005 to further stimulate the shift to green buildings. The scheme is based on five key criteria; energy efficiency, water efficiency, environmental protection, indoor environmental quality and other features.

In addition, as discussed in an article in The Fifth State, the Singaporean government has also sought to stimulate the formation of green building councils. The report said that 80 of these councils are operational in Singapore. Another key mechanism is sectoral agreements to create a framework between industry and government that would further green building development.

The Singaporean government has ambitious plans—it aims to fully “green” 80 percent of the country’s building stock by 2030, has allocated $100 million to this task, and boasts some of the region’s strictest green building laws. The country boasts 500 green buildings, approximately 8 percent of the building stock. In addition, all new buildings are required to achieve certain sustainability levels depending on size.

Further, the Singaporean government outlined a target regarding boosting energy efficiency, stating that it was targeting lower energy use in buildings to 35 percent by 2030 based on 2005 levels, and to offer incentives for more sustainable buildings as well.

South Korea

In South Korea, as reported by Sung-Woo Shin of Hanyang University in a 2008 paper entitled “Current Work & Future Trends for Sustainable Buildings in South Korea”, a significant number of policies aimed at supporting a sustainable building related system has been implemented by the South Korean government. These policies include those aimed at reducing the amount of raw materials used, saving energy, reducing waste, and improving building and material durability. As Professor Shin adds that other systems, such as those that rate a building’s energy efficiency and certify green buildings, were also created.

Shin says that as of late in South Korea, the number of green technology applications for differing types of construction has increased, most especially in the application of energy reduction technologies like natural lighting and insulation quality improvements.

As of 2006, according to data presented by Shin, 217 buildings in South Korea have been certified as being green, from a low of only three in 2002 to a high of 163 in 2006. The bulk of successfully certified buildings are multiple-family houses (171), while 32 office buildings, seven schools and seven mixed-use residential buildings also gained certification.

UK Trade and Investment reports that the South Korean government is making a very strong push towards the establishment of sustainable housing and buildings by initiating a multibillion-dollar green-building package. New homes are scheduled to be carbon-neutral by 2016, and there are commitments to “green” 1 billion existing homes and construct an equal number of new ones. Also, repair and restoration businesses are booming, and plenty of green initiatives are being offered as well.


The Chinese case represents an interesting one—few other nations around the world, if any at all, share China’s challenges, which include its vast and burgeoning population, infrastructure that is rapidly being updated but is still on the antiquated side, a preponderance of fossil fuels such as coal, and so on. China is currently the most populous nation in the world, with slightly over 1.3 billion people or 19.5 percent of the entire population.

Construction is set to grow at a rapid pace in order for the country to accommodate its citizens; as quoted by the Queensland government in its Trade Queensland document concerning opportunities in China, the World Bank is estimating that by 2015, fully half of the world’s building construction is to take place in China. The Chinese government being painfully aware of the drawbacks of antiquated infrastructure and dated technology, have given green buildings considerable importance in the country’s 11th Five-Year-Plan, which runs from 2006-2011, as well as the country’s medium- and long-term plans for science and technology development.

The Queensland government says that energy efficiency is a major concern of the Chinese government. Building-related energy consumption currently accounts for 30 percent of the country’s total energy use; the Chinese Central Government seeks ways to reduce this figure drastically—it wants to cut building energy use throughout the country by 50 percent in 2010 and by 65 percent in 2020.

The Chinese government has said that approximately A$500B is to be invested in energy efficiency initiatives this year, on top of the hundreds of billions of dollars slated for investment in infrastructure and livelihood improvement, a large portion of which has been earmarked for constructing green buildings.

CB Richard Ellis says that there are currently more than 50 green buildings in China. Given the Chinese government’s interest in green technology, it is not out of the question to expect this number to balloon in the very near future.

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