Sunday, 06 May 2012 15:46

Building For The Future

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Ho Chi Minh City is expanding at an exponential rate. But with all these new developments sprouting up, how much are the future and the specific circumstances of this city being taken into account? Words by Nick Ross. Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

 

Sustainability. It's one of those concept-laden words that seems to go hand-in-parcel with NGO speak, in the process making the uninitiated head for the trees. But in the present building frenzy that is gathering pace in this city, it’s a concept that takes on extra resonance. For sustainability is about achieving and maintaining a satisfactory lifestyle today while maintaining resources for future generations.

 

And here is the issue — the future. There is a tendency in this metropolis to only focus on the present, to go in search of short-term profit at the expense of longer term stability. In the process, long-term consequences get ignored.

 

So, with the rebuilding and expansion of this city, what legacy will be left behind for the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the present younger generation of Saigonese? And how well will this city deal with the myriad of issues — physical, social, environmental and economic — that will determine its ability to stand the test of time?

 

For one thing is clear. While zoning, infrastructure and areas set aside for development are all in place, there remains a gold rush atmosphere to Ho Chi Minh City, all fueled by that overpowering mentality, cash in while you can.

 

A State of Oneness

 

It’s a Wednesday morning and after a false start we take a trip up to the top of Saigon One. Set above the tunnel at number one Ham Nghi, and giving company to its iconic neighbour, The Bitexco Financial Tower, this building looks likely to become yet another landmark in this changing city.

 

From the helipad on top we find ourselves drinking in the sweeping views of the expanding metropolis below. A bar is due up here when the building is completed in October, but it’s only when we descend to the 29th floor that the true significance of this foreign constructed, locally invested building becomes clear.

 

“Both the offices and residential apartments are built away from direct sunlight,” says An Ngo, MC & C’s project manager as he points to the north-south facing dimensions of the building. “This will save on air-conditioning costs as inside it won’t be so hot.” He then explains more about the glass that will be used on the outside of the building — it will have a special lamination that absorbs solar radiation. Once again this will reduce energy usage. It’s just one of the many sustainable design features built into this project.

 

That such factors have value in the new crop of buildings sprouting up in this city says much for the transformation of the thought processes going into architecture and design. But it’s far from being a new concept. Look at Centrepoint on Nguyen Van Troi, Saigon’s benchmark building when it came to taking into account ‘green’ architecture. The two Hong Kong Land properties in Hanoi — 63 Ly Thai To and Central Building — have also been maintained with such awareness. Many more are following this model. As Cosimo Jencks from the Hong Kong-based firm explains, “Our existing buildings are constantly upgraded and each year there is an investment programme which enhances the sustainability of the buildings. To date we have changed lighting, water usage and made electrical energy saving improvements and in the future new windows will be used to reduce the energy impact and improve the noise levels…”

 

The difference is that this awareness level is now far more widespread. In the past there was an almost universal ‘build it and they will come’ type of attitude. Combined with real estate speculation, costs versus short-term profit was the key element in construction — the long-term consequences were largely ignored. Most importantly, little thought was given to the people who would actually occupy these buildings.

 

“Engineers often design to the minimum standards, not necessarily the appropriate standards, because its not ‘visible’ value for the owner,” explains Melissa Merryweather of Green Consult-Asia. “The whole point of building buildings is that people occupy them, so the lack of emphasis on the occupants tends to backfire later. Its always the banal things — the amount of storage space, the number of WCs, the ability to ventilate smells out, whether the lifts are reliable — that make the difference between indifferent and good quality.”

 

The classic case occurred a few years ago when an official building was inaugurated in District 8, only for the occupiers to move in and discover there were no toilets. Quite rightly the press had a field day.

 

Melissa adds: “Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. And the aspects that have tended to be incorporated in Singapore — good ventilation and daylight, a little terrace — these can be cheap to implement if they’re thought about right at the beginning.”

 

This year a number of new buildings in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will be given LOTUS or the American LEED certification — Melissa alone is working on a total of 15 such projects in Vietnam. Developed by the Vietnam Green Building Council (www. vgbc.org.vn), the LOTUS accreditation is based on existing ratings systems in the US, Australia and the UK, and requires buildings to take into account a number of factors: energy efficiency, water usage and supply, construction materials, the local ecology, waste and pollution, health and comfort, adaptation to change, community, management and innovation.

 

The Wider Perspective

 

While this desire to achieve such accreditation is a good omen — it marks the start of a psychological sea change in the perception of how this country should be built — it is also part of a wider recognition that for Vietnam to overcome its unique set of environmental issues, then action must be taken now. No-one wants the flooding experienced last year in Bangkok to occur in Ho Chi Minh City.

 

Atlas Industries architect and consultant Matt Parkes believes that the unique circumstances of this country mean that “Vietnam has the potential to become the world leader in sustainable development.”

 

“If you bear in mind the uniqueness of [Vietnam’s] geology, geography, low lying land and the fact that it's a growing economy,” he explains, “if [this country] learns the lessons and mistakes from other countries around the world, if it picks and combines the international ingredient with the local ingredients it has and brings them together, it could come up with a very unique solution and set an example to other developing countries.”

 

Focusing on energy efficiency, Matt is clear on one key aspect when it comes to sustainability — there is a genuine financial benefit to constructing ‘green’ buildings.

 

“It's not just about building green buildings for the sake of being a tree hugger,” he says. “It's about an economic necessity… Energy efficient buildings are a cost benefit to the country in terms of using its resources. It's also a cost benefit to the user.”

 

He adds: “An energy-efficient building is by its very nature more in harmony with its local surroundings and its environment. Therefore it will be a pleasant building to live in. It will be more sought after and it will have a higher value.”

 

This is where perspective and changing it comes into play. For, beyond basic design, airflow and balconies, certain design features that need to be incorporated in such buildings cost money. At least they do in the short term. Long-term it pays off.

 

While not directly related to energy efficiency, Melissa takes the example of factories that have struggled to maintain staff in the highly volatile labour market that presently exists in this city. By having bad ventilation — a typical feature of many buildings locally — there is a build up of carbon dioxide in the air, leading to lethargy among the workers and an inability to concentrate. But by investing in improving ventilation and daylighting, many factories have seen a reduction in ‘churn’ or staff turnover, independent of any raise in income.

 

“This isn’t so strange,” she says. “The difference between toiling all day in a dingy, hot and noisy factory versus a cool and quiet one could mean the difference between going home exhausted or having enough energy left at the end of the day to spend quality time with family. The ‘churn’ rate is extremely expensive for all of industry here, whereas improvements to ventilation and daylight can be quite inexpensive.”

 

If you look at the likes of Unilever’s office in Phu My Hung and then the head offices of Google and Apple, and see how much time and money has been spent on designing a good, creative, pleasant working environment, you’ll understand why. The same goes for residential properties. Build in a range of features that aids and improves the lifestyle of the residents, and it has a substantial effect on wellbeing.

 

The New City?

 

That Phu My Hung has been such a successful project is a mark of its incorporation of sustainability right at the design stage. Not everyone is a fan of this suburb-cum-city — ultimately its design and layout marks a substantial departure from typical urban life in Vietnam. But, it has certainly done many things well.

 

Take for example the greenery. 40.89 percent of the land is green space and parks. Not only does this have an aesthetic appeal but it avoids the issue of getting trapped air thermals in and thus raising the air temperature. Then there is the construction of the East-West Highway with the future in mind — the central reservation has been left free for the future metro line that will run through the area. Other aspects such as keeping the existing rivers as natural boundaries, reclaiming water for landscaping purposes, and using softscape and permeable pavement to allow rainwater to recharge groundwater supplies also help. As does the deliberate spacing of the apartment buildings to allow for airflow — many residents don’t need to use air-conditioning at night.

 

It’s not all roses and smiles, though — as the corporation behind the development is quick to admit, they have problems with the sidewalks and roads. Moving sediment and land in the swamps below the construction means that until the ground below becomes settled, they have to constantly be resurfaced. But like the future development set to take place in District 2’s Thu Thiem, the future and the local environment have always been kept in mind.

 

For Matthew Duckworth, associate director and commercial agency manager of Knight Frank, while the sustainability factor of Phu My Hung is an example of the kind of models that need to be followed elsewhere, for him the key factor that makes this development stand out is lifestyle.

 

“Phu My Hung is very much catered towards a safe living environment,” he explains. “It’s nowhere near the density you would get in District 1. And you get an international range of people living there. We see it as a safe place, a place to bring up families. People joke about it and say it’s a place to get married. But people who live there want to be able to walk, to not have the threat of being run over. It’s reflective of a development you would see in the UK or Hong Kong.”

 

He adds: “It’s about living space and breathing space. A lot of people don’t like the intensity of District 1. They prefer to have the work life balance where they can go to the gym, have low stress, go to a restaurant, have a drink and have peace and quiet as well.”

 

With other such areas already completed — take Saigon Pearl — and projects already underway such as Celadon City in Tan Phu, there is a sense that in the near future Phu My Hung will no longer stand alone in terms of what it’s achieved. And yet, Matthew is cautious. While such well thought-out developments are great for the city, they tend to be focused towards the top-end. The majority of Vietnamese quite simply cannot afford to live in such places.

 

“There has to be affordable housing,” says Matthew. “But it needs to be done in a way so that you have green areas and nice housing and so that it’s nice for families to live in. You also need to take into account the growing number of smaller families, the people who are looking for one and two-bedroom places who don’t have multiple generations living under one roof. We need to cater for that kind of market.”

 

This gap in the availability of affordable housing and in the different types of housing available is now well-acknowledged in Vietnam. And as unit after unit of ‘luxury’ living space remains empty, oversupply and a lack of demand means developers are starting to turn towards filling this hole.

 

Melissa, though, believes there is another type of housing desire that could be tapped into, “owners who connect with people’s desire for healthy places to live”.

 

“[In Vietnam] people think a lot about health and they want it for themselves and for their families,” she explains. “Healthy people are happier. This is always good for society. And increasingly healthy buildings will be associated with quality.”

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