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As European construction experts leave their mark on cities, they are teaching the country valuable lessons
China's rapidly expanding cities are generating immense opportunities for Europe's masters of planning, architecture and engineering, and attracting the interest of investors and academics.
With a home market in which new construction projects are thin on the ground, what particularly attracts European companies to China are the opportunities due to the speed, scale, and room for creativity in construction.
"Working in China certainly encourages a more pragmatic approach, and as architects we need to be responsive, flexible and intuitive," said Simon Blore, global managing director of the British architectural firm Benoy.
Founded in 1947 in the English county of Nottinghamshire specializing in farm buildings, Benoy has come a long way to win flagship projects in China such as the Elements shopping mall in Hong Kong and Raffles City in Shenzhen.
Benoy employs 500 people in six countries, 320 of whom are based in China. Crucial to Benoy's success in the country is the very short time-frame for projects, Blore said.
"A 200,000-square meter leisure development in China takes on average about three years from the initial design stage to opening. In the United Kingdom, the same size project could be anything from seven to 15 years."
To understand Benoy's rapid China expansion, one must examine the country's breakneck speed of urbanization.
China's urban population was only 18 percent in 1978 when the country first started to move away from a planned economy, but in 2011 urban dwellers outnumbered rural dwellers for the first time, reaching 51.3 percent.
China's urbanization has in effect completed many European countries' century-long journey in a little more than 30 years. But more striking is the potential for growth, as the country advances toward the developed countries' norm of having 70 to 80 percent urban population.
This pace of change has placed immense pressure on municipal planning departments across the country, not only for housing but also infrastructure, transport and other facilities such as education and healthcare services.
"It is important to have an integrated approach to urban planning, as the built environment can influence people's living habits," said Sue Riddlestone, CEO and co-founder of the charity BioRegional, whose headquarters are in the UK.
Since 2005, Riddlestone's team has acted as consultant to help the Chinese developer China Merchants Property Development embed sustainability measures into a new mixed-use development comprising 8,000 homes, known as Jinshan, near the city of Guangzhou.
With BioRegional's help, the Jinshan community successfully reduced energy and water demand, and carbon emissions partly because the buildings had green features such as renewable energy sources, rain water collection and green roofs.
To improve the wellbeing of residents, a community center in Jinshan offered information about healthy eating. Meanwhile, nearby agricultural land was divided into allotments to distribute to residents so they could grow their own vegetables, Riddlestone said.
"When I visited Jinshan, I saw the residents smiling and happy, so I'm glad that the sustainability measures we helped to introduce have improved their living standards," Riddlestone said.
Pilot projects like Jinshan are becoming popular in China because the country's new leadership is emphasizing sustainable urbanization as a key government aim.
In January, the State Council issued a Green Building Action Plan with ambitious targets, including adding more than 1 billion square meters of green building floor area by 2015, 14 times the area at the end of last year.
But Jaya Skandamoorthy, director of market development and innovation at the Building Research Establishment in the UK, said awareness of the benefits of green building is still lacking in China, even within the construction industry.
To help China raise awareness and understanding of sustainable construction, Skandamoorthy's team is now working with China's largest developer, Vanke, to build Green Building Park in Beijing, a public space that displays leading building technology for both practitioners and the general public to see.
Skandamoorthy said the park's visitor center is designed to comply with Europe's green building standard, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, and China's Three Star Green Building Standard.
"We don't want to just take our standards to China," Skandamoorthy said.
"Instead, we want to take good industry practice to China but adapt them to China's existing standards."
The UK's building standards are performance-based, he said, meaning a building's performance in its specific environment will be assessed. In comparison, Chinese building standards are prescriptive, meaning regulations exist for specific material or methods that must be used.
Encouragingly, many European companies are already taking best industry practices to China, one example being Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects of Denmark.
Chris Hardie, associate partner and head of SHL Shanghai office, said his team is now working on a project in Shanghai in which the materials proposed for a facade have an advanced coating that cleans the air around the building.
If the proposal gets the go ahead, Hardie's team believes the environmental benefit of the facade alone would be the equivalent of planting almost 3,000 trees on site.
Another example is the architecture firm Kazia Li Design Collaborative in the United States, which has developed a planning framework for its architects called DEEP, which stands for four factors needed to achieve sustainability -design, environment, economics and planning.
Founder and principal designer Clay Vogel said it is important to design sustainable buildings in China because he expects China's energy consumption habits to become more wasteful as Chinese citizens increasingly realize what living comfortably means.
"In China when you enter a building in the winter, the heating is not usually on and everybody tends to be wearing their outer jacket, which is green," Vogel said.
"However, it won't be long before the Chinese understand (the idea of comfort) and begin to push building owners to switch the heating on, so buildings will need to be designed with better quality weather stripping and other features to keep the heat indoors."
Challenges China faces in building a sustainable urban environment have gained attention from European academic institutions, one example being Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London.
"We hear all the time how keen China is to have world-class experience in architecture and urban planning, and we can certainly help," said David Cobb, director of business development at Bartlett.
Cobb said some of the faculty's professors already impart their knowledge to Chinese government officials and practitioners through public lectures in China. His team has also designed an executive course for Chinese urban planners to learn from British experience, and he is negotiating contracts for the first group of planners to arrive in the UK, he said.
"Doing business is new to us. Our mission is to educate students, but we recognize that in the changing (higher education) funding world of the UK, we should deliver as much impact as we can beyond teaching students. We feel China is a good starting point, and our experience there can be used as a proxy for many BRICS countries."
To increase influence in China, Cobb's team has established Bartlett alumni networks in the country so alumni and their colleagues can exchange ideas at reunion events.
Cobb said other ways for his team to help are by sending talented graduates to Chinese government or private sector institutions for internships, or having faculty staff act as consultants for specific Chinese urban planning projects.
At the same time, many European property funds are keenly eyeing China's construction projects, said Michelle Chen, director of China business at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP, a law firm in the UK.
Many European funds have already invested in or are in the process of investing in China's residential, commercial and recreational properties, where the rate of return is attractive.
"This provides opportunities for international law firms such as BLP, as we can help European funds understand China's legal environment, and help them to structure a deal with techniques that can minimize their risks," Chen said.
Examples of risk can include the amount of time it takes for the investment to receive approval from China's National Development and Reform Commission and the likelihood of the investor receiving revenue from the investment, she said.
While European property funds' current focus is on commercial projects in China, the country's public sector infrastructure projects are also potentially attractive, said Ben Pape, a founding member of the UK-China Eco-Cities and Green Building Group.
Britain's model of public-private partnership in which private parties invest in public projects to relieve the government of funding constraints is a model that has been successful in the UK and one that China can learn from, Pape said.
"Currently, a lot of funding for infrastructure and urban development in China comes from municipal governments, which puts them heavily in debt to local banks. This trend could be changed by encouraging more private sector investment."
But Pape said a current challenge is the distorted expectations of municipal governments when they borrow from private sector investors both domestically and internationally.
"Private sector investors want low risk and high return. But many Chinese municipal governments are used to borrowing from local banks with low interest rates."
There is potential for the UK's government and private experts in the country to help Chinese municipal governments understand the expectations of private sector investors through drawing on their own experience.
"There is a lot of interest from international investors in China's public sector projects, and these investments could be achieved if China's investment environment improves," Pape said.
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(China Daily 06/22/2013 page4)