It is no doubt that sustainable architecture has indeed become the need of the hour. Sustainability involves attaining a balance between the people, the environment and the economy – all three of which are globally in a relatively bad state. Not to mention, in the environmental aspect, 40% of annual global Carbon Dioxide emissions are from buildings, with 28% from building operations and the remaining 11% from building materials and construction. Seeing the climate crisis unfold and the dwindling of non-renewable sources of energy, the governments and citizens of most countries are stepping up to ensure that the new architecture is sustainable. Here, China also appears to be taking steps forward. Let us give you a look at how China seems to be approaching sustainability in architecture. 

Background of Chinese Architecture

Traditional Chinese architecture was derived from local vernacular practices and hence in a lot of ways, it was essentially sustainable. It was primarily timber-based with the typical roofs having upturned eaves. However, fast forward to the beginning of the Opium Wars in the 1840s and one can find traces of Western architectural influence coming into China, with even instances of communist architecture in the mid-20t century. Today, China is one of the global superpowers and the architecture surely stands to make a statement. Owing to making a global stance, the contemporary architecture of China has adopted traits of multiuse, which is vastly different from the traditional spatial usage of Chinese architecture. Verticality is also amongst the highlights of modern Chinese architecture owing to the huge population. Examples like the Bird’s Nest by Herzog & de Meuron and OMA’s CCTV Headquarters have become architectural icons globally. 

Architecture of China: Is it really Sustainable? - Sheet1
Beijing National Stadium or Bird’s Nest, an example of contemporary Chinese architecture. © chumsdock cheng

Need for Sustainable Architecture in China

Apart from the reasons for tackling the climate crisis and conserving non-renewable sources of energy, China needs sustainable architecture owing to much more specific reasons. Owing to the nation’s rapid economic growth, energy use of buildings has significantly increased and poses a serious challenge for the environment. Between 2001 and 2016, China’s building and construction sector consumed more than twice the amount of primary energy, equating to slightly under a billion tonnes of coal. The carbon cost of construction in the first place, which includes the raw materials and energy required along the supply chain, accounts for around a quarter of China’s carbon emissions. Moreover, according to some estimates, nearly half of the world’s construction of this upcoming decade will take place in China. The country is also dealing with high pollution levels, with construction dust being one of the major contributors. 

China’s Approach

It is safe to say that China as a nation has been actively attempting to make the architecture of the country sustainable. The Chinese government has made it strict for 50% of new urban buildings to be certified sustainable and also mandated public buildings to meet a minimum sustainable building standard i.e. a 3-star of the country’s rating system, the Green Building Evaluation Label. The US’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system is also quite popular in China. There also seems to be financial incentives to approaching construction in innovative ways which are sustainable. 

Architecture of China: Is it really Sustainable? - Sheet2
Concept of Liuzhou forest city. ©Stefano Boeri Architetti

The architecture of China is visibly becoming ‘greener’ is literally through vegetation-rich projects. Owing to spatial constraints in dense urban areas, vertical forests are coming up and it is increasingly becoming an attractive alternative to bringing more greens into the urban fabric. However, even though this effort is admirable, given the current number of vertical forest projects, it will take a lot more to make any significant contribution in reducing the overall carbon emissions of the country’s construction industry. Whether or not China will be able to do so remains in question, especially since vertical forests require a great deal of planning and sensitivity to ensure that the trees are well in reach of others of their species nearby, so that there is a continuous habitat benefitting the local natural eco-system.

Architecture of China: Is it really Sustainable? - Sheet3
Nanjing vertical forests by Stefano Boeri. ©Stefano Boeri Architetti

Another way to significantly reduce carbon emissions is to improve construction and building materials. One was being to use recycled construction materials. Some companies in China like WinSun are working in this direction. WinSun uses recyclable materials and turns them into an ‘ink’ for 3D-printing buildings. Reuse and repurposing are even better than recycling and this seems to be demonstrated in certain projects in China with an example being of repurposing an old, deserted clothing factory into an office building near Beijing. This work was carried out by Liu Heng who is the director of Green Architecture Design and Research Institute.

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WinSun’s 3D printing from recyclable materials. ©WinSun

Last, but not least, is the time-tested and most reliable means of using passive design strategies. For this, China’s traditional houses are the answer. The vernacular architecture of China exemplifies passive strategies like the stack effect to regulate temperature, many of which are being slowly incorporated into contemporary buildings. Architects of today can use the modern technologies at their disposal to improve and contextualise the above mentioned traditional techniques to effectively reduce the overall energy demand. 

Traditional Chinese courtyards can provide examples of passive design strategies for modern buildings. ©Alamy

So, to answer the question in the title, the architecture of China is indeed turning sustainable today, but what remains uncertain is whether or not it would be enough to keep up with the rapid urban development of the country. However, there is hope that soon the measures by the government, the awareness of the people and the innovations and efforts of the Chinese construction industry would be able to address and push China into a sustainable future.

Reference List:

  1. Architecture2030. (n.d.). Why The Building Sector? – Architecture 2030. [online] Available at: https://architecture2030.org/why-the-building-sector/  [Accessed 12 Sep. 2021].
  2. Criss, M. (2010). Modern Chinese Architecture: Design & Styles | Study.com. [online] Study.com. Available at: https://study.com/academy/lesson/modern-chinese-architecture-design-styles.html  [Accessed 12 Sep. 2021].
  3. Silbergeld, J. and Liu Qiyi (2017). Chinese architecture. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-architecture [Accessed 12 Sep. 2021].
  4. UBS (2019). How China is radically reinventing urban architecture to go green. [online] Mashable. Available at: https://mashable.com/article/green-cities-china  [Accessed 12 Sep. 2021].
  5. Zhang, C. (2020). The country building a “new London” every year. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at:https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200610-how-china-can-cut-co2-emissions-with-sustainable-buildings  [Accessed 12 Sep. 2021].
Author

Divyang, a young architect, is curiously exploring the field of Architecture and Design. He is keen on pursuing research on the relationship between the built environment and general well-being. One can find him playing music, clicking pictures, and writing poetry, whenever he is not geeking out over cinema and other forms of art.

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