China will complete 40 percent of all the skyscrapers currently under construction worldwide over the next six years.
The journey to this impressive stat has been a long time in the making; for nearly 30 years, China has been developing its construction technology and building methods to compliment its notoriously titanic ambition.
Research and development centres in Shanghai and Beijing have been busy utilising the 2.6 percent of GDP (over $100 billion) spent on R&D throughout China’s various industries every year, with the construction industry often at the heart of the research.
The end result of the seed of this investment is just beginning to bear its sky-scraping fruit.
What is more is that the Chinese administration is putting this spending emphasis on innovation, particularly in the sustainable sector, rather than the traditionally bland functionality associated with 20thCentury Chinese buildings. The 21stCentury is different - The new wave of Chinese architecture is about to arrive – the dragon is awake.
Perhaps more than any other country in the world, China has climbed aboard the commitment to sustainable construction in the past five years.
Granted, it has some catching up to do; its cities are notoriously smoggy and its high industrial output has led to unmanageable levels of carbon emissions.
However, the benefit of being the world’s only true economic superpower means that intense investment can harvest impressive results. Projects such as the Tianjin Eco-City, a carbon neutral city that will house 350,000 residents, would be eminently unreachable outside China.
Moving forward, China is committed to sustainable practice, not just in its landmark projects but also in its development of all new buildings – the ‘three star’ programme is set to rival America’s LEED rating system, and will ensure that developers (state and private) are rewarded for the creation of green and sustainable projects.
LAND OF NEW
The government in China understands, more so than many struggling Western economies, that green projects could be the solution to infrastructure problems, environmental degradation, as well as providing a significant boost to the economy.
“China is the land of new patents and new designs,” said Yingni Lu, Managing Director of Chinese analysts Ecoleap Ventures. “The massive amount of government and private investment into the research of new technology and new materials in recent years means that China can undertake projects that most developed nations could only dream of.”
Take the example of Prefabricated Housing – a well-known construction method in Western Europe and North America - China was slow on the uptake of prefab, but when the Chinese did eventually turn to prefab for some of its structures, it left the West in the dust:
"I've never seen a project go up this fast, it’s unfathomable,” said Ryan Smith, an expert on prefabricated architecture at the University of Utah, speaking about the Changsha hotel, which was infamously built in 15 days.
In other countries, the most advanced prefab construction methods can reduce building times by a third to half, whereas the Changsha hoteldid better, knocking one-half to two-thirds off the normal schedule.
So how were the builders able to do this? China has a few things in abundance that the West doesn’t; manpower and factories. Couple this with the recent accolade of being able to attract the world’s foremost architectural designers, contracting firms and investors, and you can see why China is the source for worldwide excitement in the construction industry.
TOWER OF STRENGTH
China’s new appreciation of ‘green’ is perhaps most apparent in one of its more exciting projects - the 121 storey, $19 billion Shanghai Tower:
“We hope Shanghai Tower inspires new ideas about what sustainable tall buildings can be,” said Art Gensler, FAIA, Chairman of Gensler. “We’ve lined the perimeter of the tower, top to bottom, with public spaces, and we’ve integrated strategic environmental thinking into every move. The tower is a stage that comes to life through the presence of people.”
Shanghai Tower’s sustainable strategies include the integration of wind turbines, a spiraling parapet that is integral to a rainwater collection system, and the use of geothermal technology to deliver energy to the building’s heating and cooling systems. Locally sourced materials with high-recycled content are being used when available and approximately 33 percent of the site is dedicated to green space.
Thanks to government incentives and that all-important green investment, the tower will be one of the most sustainable tall buildings in the world. Working closely with Thornton Tomasetti and Cosentini, Gensler adopted a fully integrated design approach, ensuring all design decisions uphold a sustainable intent.
Such partnerships would have been untenable in China 20 years ago, but China is now attracting architects in droves, eager to lap up the optimism and limitless potential that can be found in China, and China alone.
“Shanghai now wants human capital – the best designers, architects, engineers and individuals with sustainable development credentials,” says Lu. “Because of the infrastructure now in place we can offer those kind of people a competitive package – people want to come to Shanghai and be a part of these new buildings.”
MADE OF MONEY
The earmark of modern Chinese construction cannot be explained by speed and efficiency alone -today there is decadence and pomp about many Chinese building projects to rival the West’s supposed monopoly of handsome architecture.
The Rethinking Shanghai project, the Shanghai financial centre and Magnolia Tower will team up with Norman Foster’s remarkable Beijing air terminal and the 2008 Olympic stadia to capture the world’s architectural attention over the next three years like nowhere else.
Forget the Emirates and Dubai, their structures are made of money, the Chinese movement is a result of thought, investment and development.
“Dubai's real estate surplus is doomed and the Bhurj Khalifa is just an outlier symbol,” says Kevin Voight, a Chinese market surveyor. “In 30 years there will be half empty buildings and roads decaying in the sand in Dubai while China will be the world’s largest economy.”
China’s economy is not slowing or capitulating as some have suggested, it is maturing and moving into new, more elite markets, of which world-renowned building projects are a large part.
China has put itself into a position to soar ahead of worldwide construction competition in many ways, and most importantly in the building methods that will begin to define the future.
The only question is: when will the West catch up?