Taiwan a World LEEDer for Green Buildings

Taipei 101, the tallest and largest green building of LEED Platinum certification in the world since 2011. Photo: Romain Pontida
Taipei 101, the tallest and largest green building of LEED Platinum certification in the world since 2011. Photo: Romain Pontida

More can be done, say experts, particularly through government incentives, education, and retrofitting old buildings.   

Green buildings would seem to be perfect for hot climates. They’re cool (literally) and energy-efficient. They save money and may even contribute to saving the planet. Why then aren’t more of Taiwan’s commercial and domestic buildings green?

According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a green building is “generally accepted as the planning, design, construction, and operations of buildings with several central, foremost considerations: energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, material selection, and the building’s effects on its site.”

Although Britain’s BREEAM (the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), established in 1990, proffered the first sustainability assessment method for buildings, the USGBC has gained broad acceptance, particularly in Taiwan, through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system for new constructions.

“LEED was developed in the U.S. but has become international, with parameters that can be adapted to all regions in the world,” explains Lizzie Gerock, LEED project manager and interior designer associate at the interior design consultancy Steven Leach Group (SL+A) in Taipei. “Its standards are more stringent and it has global recognition.”

Based on acceptance of LEED standards, Taiwan has done rather well. According to a 2015 USGBC study, Taiwan was in seventh place (fifth the previous year) among the top 10 countries outside the United States for LEED accreditation. This metric, which considers gross square meters (GSM) of LEED-certified space, gave Taiwan a score of 3.84 million GSM, just behind Germany at 4.01 million and three places ahead of Sweden at 2.54 million.

Further burnishing Taiwan’s green building credentials, in 1999 it was among the first countries to formulate a green building evaluation system – after the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada – according to the Ministry of the Interior. In 2007, Taiwan also enhanced its own EEWH (Ecology, Energy Saving, Waste Reduction, and Health) evaluation system by adding ratings for five classes of green building design: Certified, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Diamond.

As of the end of this August, Ministry of the Interior figures show, there were 5,987 certified green buildings or projects in Taiwan, saving 71.04 million tons of water a year (equivalent to 28,416 Olympic-size swimming pools) and 1.49 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Additionally, Taiwan can boast of the tallest green building in the world, Taipei 101, which is certified at the highest LEED level, Platinum, and in June won the 2016 Asia Responsible Entrepreneurship Award (AREA) in the “Green Leadership” category.

Meanwhile, the government’s Intelligent Green Building Promotion Program, which ran from 2010 to 2015, promoted intelligent design, energy efficiency and Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) improvements. Partly as a result of this initiative,  a number of signature green buildings dot the island, though mainly centered in the Taipei area. A prime example is the Beitou Public Library, with its elevated mezzanine and “floating air current” design, which keeps temperatures down with the help of an air exchanger. Its lightweight, eco-wood roof has solar panels and the architecture blends well with the park’s natural-spring surroundings.

At Taipei’s Yuanshan Park, site of Flora Expo in 2010, the quirky EcoArk is made of bamboo and recycled plastic bottles, is partly powered by solar and wind energy, and includes a water purification corridor. The Fubon Fu-An Memorial Hall on RenAi Road lures birds and butterflies with its layered rooftop gardens, and there is even a LEED-certified Starbucks in Neihu, designed by the Steven Leach Group, which features a rainwater collection system, plant wall, and locally made lamps and driftwood tabletops in a nod to Taiwan styling.

Since 2012, Taiwan has maintained a classified green building evaluation system for five types of buildings: basic, residential, factory, renovation, and community facility. But while many publically funded and corporate buildings are “obligated to obtain a certain green building level, others are not,” says Michael Fei, an architect at Fei & Cheng Associates in Taipei, referring to privately developed housing or light commercial-use buildings.

The fact is that most of the country’s housing stock is old, gray, mold-stained, and decidedly not green. “I think the green building regulations are a good thing, obviously, but if you really think about it, the cities we inhabit only have a certain percentage of new build,” Fei observes. “We can only make small increments of change. If you look at cities as a whole, the vast majority of the buildings are old, so it actually makes more sense to make old buildings green.”

Fei makes the point that buying a new, energy efficient refrigerator, water-saving toilet, or putting in LED lights, are examples of the simple measures that can be taken to make an old building more efficient or greener. “Buildings generally last a long time, but if old buildings had new insulating windows with two-layer glass, they would immediately reduce heat gain.”

Installing solar panels, rooftop gardens, and roofs that reflect light, as well as retrofitting old buildings using green materials, would also significantly improve the situation, especially when an estimated 30% of the country’s energy consumption is taken up by buildings.

Fei also notes that people often don’t appreciate the advantages of green building because it’s hard to see the effects. “The green things we do can be hard to perceive, like more sunlight, energy-efficient LED lighting, and better air quality, increasing productivity. This is hard to measure.”

Getting your average developer to go green is difficult, however, because LEED-certified buildings cost about 2% more on average than conventional buildings. In addition, the regulations can be difficult to navigate, and buyers don’t always recognize the benefits. Savings accumulate over time and developers rarely take a long-term view, as they don’t receive the benefit directly.

Changing the situation will take a concerted, long-term effort on the part of the government, industry, and the public, says Simon Sue, division director for sustainable design at Steven Leach. “Yes, the market is growing, but most green products and energy-efficient appliances come from overseas because the Taiwan market is so small,” he says. “We need more government incentives and public education.” Incentives could include grants or tax breaks for using green building materials, retrofitting old buildings, adding garden rooftops or erecting new, greener structures.

As an analogy, he cites Taiwan’s recycling rate – 55% in 2015 according to the Environmental Protection Administration – which in recent years has gone from among the world’s worst to among the best. “This success was due to good government and education, which included elementary school programs to broadcast the message that green is good.”