'Green' building techniques from U.S. get test in China
Beijing --- It is easy to overlook the small community of houses rising northwest of this sprawling capital.
But these aren't just any suburban homes. They will be some of the cleanest and most energy-efficient structures in China --- or almost anywhere else in the world --- when they are completed this year.
Wind turbines and solar panels will power the 10 houses, which will also use innovative techniques to save water. The project uses "green" technology from the United States, Europe and elsewhere in an effort to showcase building methods that could be used more widely in China.
In a country with 1.3 billion people and massive migration from the countryside to the cities, the stakes are high. Over the next 20 years, as many as 400 million more Chinese are expected to move to urban areas.
"Because of the rapid growth of China, the global community needs to work together with Beijing to improve energy efficiency, or we're all going to feel the costs," said George Bialecki Jr., director of the Future House USA project and founder of the Alternative Energy Living Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit group working to promote efficient energy use.
China's growing energy demand has created a spike in greenhouse gas emissions. China overtook the United States last year as the world's top emitter of gases causing global warming, partly due to more coal-burning power plants and growing cement production.
Since urban Chinese use more appliances, tend to rely on cars and buses, and are more likely to heat and cool their homes, they consume roughly three times more energy than rural residents, said Robert Watson, director and chief scientist at American Sinotech, a Beijing-based consultancy promoting sustainable engineering.
"Most people have no clue about how [environmentally] damaging buildings are and how much room there is to improve their environmental performance," Watson said.
The project rising on Beijing's outskirts --- called the Future House Community --- includes designs by researchers and students at Miami's Florida International University. Their Future House USA will use roof-mounted solar panels to generate electricity and underground pipes to heat and cool the building efficiently.
Permeable pavement outside will allow rainwater to sink back into the ground, where it can replenish the local water table.
"On an optimal sunny day it will consume absolutely no energy to operate," Bialecki said.
The combination of environmental pressures in China and lobbying from governments and environmental groups has begun to focus Beijing's attention on improving building standards.
In Beijing, where the population has nearly doubled since 1978 to 16 million, underground aquifers have fallen by more than 41 feet since 1980, forcing the national government to earmark billions of dollars to move water north from the Yangtze River.
Last year, the Ministry of Construction announced that new buildings in large Chinese cities will need to be 65 percent more energy- and water-efficient by 2010. The level is comparable to current building codes in California --- which has the highest standards in the United States --- though experts said achieving the target will be difficult for China.
Beijing's prototype "green" suburb began in 2003, when Future House Real Estate Co., a firm partly owned by the government, sought support from foreign governments, universities, companies and environmental groups in eight nations.
"The idea is to show Chinese that they can adopt these technologies and that they can work in China," said Liu Haoxin, a manager with the company.
Among the innovations: One building, donated by Spain's Polytechnic University of Madrid, is powered entirely by solar panels; a home designed by Chinese government specialists will use pipes sunk up to 230 feet in the ground to tap geothermal vents for heating; and a home designed by Japanese engineers will store power from a small wind turbine.
The American contribution, Future House USA, will improve energy efficiency by 80 to 90 percent and water efficiency by 60 percent over "typical American homes," Bialecki said.
Some of the house's features are simple: While most Chinese homes provide little insulation, the walls of Future House USA will be filled with an efficient material similar to Styrofoam, and windows will be coated to reflect heat back into the house.
Other technologies, including underground pipes that heat and cool water by convection, will be more sophisticated but still generally within the price range of many Chinese, said Yong Tao, a professor of mechanical engineering at Florida International University who serves as a technical adviser to Future House USA.
"By introducing the U.S. technology, hopefully the Chinese will learn and create their own industry as well as create opportunities for U.S. companies," Tao said.
While the house will use at least $300,000 in building materials, including $100,000 worth of solar panels, making it more expensive than most Chinese homes of comparable size, China's large market size and low labor costs could force down the price of green technologies, Tao said.
"The Beijing government is setting up its standards first, and then they will bring over feasible technologies," Tao said. "They are going in the right direction."
But corruption, mismanagement and a lack of experience among contractors will make hitting the efficiency targets difficult, other experts said.
"China has started the engine of sustainable development, but the market incentives are still unclear for developers to advocate and adopt energy performance in housing development," said Jin Ruidong, a specialist in building efficiency with the New York-based National Resources Defense Council.
Bialecki hopes the Future House project --- which organizers will open to the public during next year's Olympic Games --- will build momentum for investment in efficient technologies.
"The Future House Community is about a lot more than building houses," he said. "It's about bringing minds together to come to a global energy solution."