CTBUH 9th World Congress in Shanghai

Timothy Johnson, Partner at NBBJ and Chairman for Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

When John Portman & Associates developed the Shanghai Center in 1990, they helped launch a new era in tall building construction in China. The three-tower complex, with the tallest building rising to 165 meters, was a ground breaking development, creating China’s first mixed use center with homes, offices, a hotel, stores and entertainment facilities.

A little more than 20 years later China is in the midst of a historic tall building construction boom. There are 259 buildings of more than 150 meters in development, the most of any country in the world, according to data compiled by the CTBUH.

The volume of tall building construction in China is certainly one reason the CTBUH is staging its 9th World Congress in Shanghai, 19-21 September (www.ctbuh2012.com). The Congress will be a historic event, bringing together the top builders and designers in China to discuss new technologies and the issues facing the industry.

But the development numbers only tell part of the story. China is also helping to lead the way in creating environmentally sensitive, sustainable tall buildings.

This might surprise some people. China’s environmental track record has been spotty, at best, as the country deals with widespread pollution issues. The problems have been exacerbated by a rapid, unprecedented urbanization process, as millions of people move into cities from the rural areas.

But tall buildings are playing a key role as China moves to create modern cities. With land scarce, growing taller is seen as one way to accommodate the fast-growing population of white collar workers.

For most architects working in China these days, sustainability and efficiency are at the forefront of almost every discussion. The Chinese have fostered a global partnership with some of most creative and skilled urban planners, architects and engineers from the West, with a clear focus on creating a new generation of green urban environments.

The results are evident in the buildings under development. The 632m Shanghai Tower, which will be the tallest building in China when it is finished in 2014, includes a unique dual-skin design which provides atrium space for ‘gardens in the sky’ every 12 to 15 stories. The transparent tower, designed by Gensler to achieve a LEED Gold rating, will be a true vertical community, with wind turbines, a rainwater collection system, geothermal thermal heating and cooling systems, and 33 percent of the project devoted to green space.

Shanghai Tower is not an isolated example. In Wujiang, Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s Greenland Group Suzhou Center is built around a 30-story central atrium which serves as the “lung” of the building, inviting in cool air during the summer months and flooding the interior spaces with natural light.

Then there’s SOM’s recently completed Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, which utilizes many state-of-the-art techniques to help reduce the project’s carbon footprint. Careful wind engineering, a double-facade curtain wall, radiant ceiling, solar panels, daylight harvesting and underfloor ventilation all help make the tower a model for sustainable design.

But tall buildings remain controversial, even within China. A recent editorial in the Southern Metropolis Daily referred to skyscrapers as ‘white elephants’, citing concerns about safety and the high costs of operations. There are real concerns about the costs and long term-sustainability of projects. But several China developers are trying to create projects that enhance and grow the urban environment.

It will take more than a few high-profile projects to reach China’s goals. And there are many challenges to overcome. We’re expecting lively discussions at the Shanghai Congress, as experts explore new ways to work toward the ultimate goal of creating a zero-energy tall building.

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