Recent environmental crises have made Bangkok’s need for eco-construction clear, but only a few developers are thinking green
By Liam Aran Barnes
Weaving in and out of Bangkok’s ever evolving skyline on the rails of the BTS, the sight of construction is almost impossible to avoid. The building of glitzy shopping malls, high-rise condominiums and lavish hotels appears to never cease and, driven by the demand of the crowded capital’s growing population, has come to define this sprawling, urban landscape.As with many other Asian nations during the last two decades, the level of urbanisation in Thailand has soared and the official population of the Kingdom’s capital has grown by more than one million since 1980. The clamorous construction of myriad developments in burgeoning Bangkok has resulted in city planning falling by the wayside, bringing noticeable consequences, particularly in the last 12 months.
A year after facing the wrath of the country’s worst flooding in half a century, Bangkok urbanites sweltered in a 30-year-high heatwave this summer, as daily mercury readings exceeded 40oC. Questions are once again being raised about the detrimental effect that shoddy urban planning and the lack of green space is having on the capital, with some experts citing examples set by neighbouring mega-cities as a way forward.
“Urban planning codes regarding pervious areas and vegetated open spaces are what Bangkok needs to learn from cities such as Singapore, in order to reduce the impact of the urban heat island effect and storm water runoff, which leads to flooding,” said Dr Atch Sreshthaputra, assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of architecture and chairman of Thailand’s Green Building Programme, adding that effort should also be invested in the construction of wider footpaths and larger capacity sewer systems.
In startling contrast to the progressive city-state, Thailand’s capital contains a meagre three square-metres of green space per person, compared to Singapore’s 66 square-metres and the regional average of 39, according to an Asian Green City Index released by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year.
A recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) report also warned of the necessity for green urbanisation in Asia’s emerging metropolises, stating that cities such as Bangkok must adhere to green planning policies and promote the use of new technologies, in order to accommodate the rising population and minimise the effects of natural disasters.
“Asia has seen unprecedented urban population growth but this has been accompanied by immense stress on the environment,” Changyong Rhee, ADB’s Chief Economist said. “The challenge now is to put in place policies which will reverse that trend and facilitate the development of green technology and green urbanisation.”
While many green building proposals have been laid on the table in the last few years, political instability and lack of awareness has hampered any real progress, until recently. The global Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate was adopted only last November, but received a rather lukewarm reception from most developers and relevant agencies. A locally focused alternative, however, could pave the way for a greener future. The Thai Green Building Institute (TGBI) launched it’s own initiative, named ‘Trees’, earlier this year. Based on the LEED system, it incorporates local green building standards and codes, according to Dr Atch, also a senior member of the TGBI.
He added that the new Trees initiative has been welcomed by the industry, with about 20 trained consultants now operating, primarily in Bangkok, in addition to more than ten buildings that will be certified by the end of the year, including Park Ventures’ Ecoplex.
Situated in the concrete-laden Lumpini district of the capital, the Park Ventures development is a breath of fresh air, with its purpose planted trees, vertical garden and commitment to energy conservation. The mixed-use complex has drawn many plaudits since its launch last December, but, it remains one of the few large-scale eco-friendly developments in Bangkok.
As in most mainstream Southeast Asian markets, the affordability and availability of high-tech green materials dampens demand from smaller developers and homeowners. However, in recent years, green expos have gained momentum, both regionally and domestically, providing a larger platform for sustainable building and urban environmental solutions.
In addition to Bangkok’s second Green Building & Retrofits Expo Asia held last month, the annual International Green Building Conference (IGBC) drops anchor in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands this month. The event will highlight the necessity for eco-friendly construction, ensure the sustainability of efforts by developers and raise awareness of the benefits of going green, according to Tai Lee Siang, president of event organisers, the Singapore Green Building Council.
“The IGBC conference component has organised one of the tracks to bring in the general public, including students, business communities and government officials to participate as speakers and audience,” he said. “Through this, we hope to not only engage the professionals, but also to help raise awareness amongst the lay people.”
Cities such as Bangkok can learn from Singapore how to deal with acute environmental challenges in a high-density, tropical metropolis within a short space of time, Tai Lee Siang added.
The Thai government and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) seem to be slowly waking up to the idea that construction in the capital cannot continue in the fashion of the last 20 years. The BMA plans to offer property developers a bonus system whereby projects designed in compliance with the local Trees rating tool can increase maximum allowable building area by 5-20%.
This bonus system is part of the BMA’s Bangkok City Plan draft, slated for implementation in May 2013, which has been created to reduce population density under the Green City concept. The draft also contains regulations restricting the floor-area of residential properties in relation to the width of the road, in the hope that property developers will start to target suburban areas.
The draft, however, came up against some fierce criticism at a recent seminar, with numerous property firms expressing concerns that the proposed plan will result in land price hikes.
Moral obligation alone, it seems, is not enough to save the city’s population and infrastructure from soaring pollution levels, searing summers and potential natural crises, as widespread acceptance of eco-friendly initiatives by the government, industry and the public continues to come second to the age-old imperative of financial gain.
“Developers are waiting for a signal from demand in the market. Like hybrid cars, people buy a Prius not because it saves the planet, but it saves them money,” Dr Atch said. “If people feel that they can save money by buying green buildings, that is real demand. Once there are more customers, developers will construct more green buildings.”