Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Building a Green Future

The Star, Tuesday February 10, 2009
Retrieved from


The greenest building in the country requires little energy, and whatever it needs, it generates itself.

STEPPING into the ZEO building, I felt momentarily transported to a building say, in Berlin. Sunlight filtered in through endless rows of windows and a glassy ceiling, flooding the atrium and offices with natural light. It was around 5pm when I visited, yet not a single light was turned on.

A typical Malaysian building would have been all walled up, and the dark interiors lit with multiple artificial lights. Not so the ZEO building which houses Pusat Tenaga Malaysia (PTM). It appears to embrace the sun and this is just one of the many tricks employed in the building to conserve energy.

ZEO is actually Zero Energy Office. It is the showcase for sustainable building and to demonstrate that a commercial building can be independent of the grid.

To shrink its energy needs, the 4,000sqm ZEO building in Selangor not only takes advantage of free sunshine to light its interiors and produce solar power, but also relies on insulated building materials to keep out the heat.

Though we hear a lot more about power generation and transport being the major emitters of greenhouse gases, buildings are actually the single largest contributor to global warming – they account for 33% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Green Building Council.

In Malaysia, commercial and residential buildings use up 48% of the electricity generated – which is why green architecture is so important.

Since its completion in October 2007, a staff of 60 has occupied the three-level ZEO building in Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor. The RM20mil project by the Energy, Water and Communications Ministry, was co-ordinated by Danish consultancy IEN.

To shrink its energy needs, the 4,000sqm building some 40km from Kuala Lumpur not only takes advantage of free sunshine to light its interiors and produce solar power, but also relies on insulated building materials to keep out the heat. Using low-energy lighting, office equipment and cooling systems add to utility savings.

Whereas most buildings guzzle between 200 and 300 kilowatt hour per square metre (kWh/m2) annually, ZEO is designed to use only 40kWh/m2 and even that is supposed to be met by its self-generated solar power – hence its name as Zero Energy Office.

However, ZEO cannot claim to be that – not yet anyway. Initial glitches have caused energy usage to exceed what was designed, so its energy index now hovers around 60 to 90kWh/m2/year.

The higher energy needs is because of a leak in the airtight building, according to Ahmad Hadri Haris, who heads the renewal energy division of PTM. “This means more heat is entering the building, thus requiring more cooling. Excessive use of office equipment such as printers might be another reason. Or it could be that too much heat is coming in from the windows.”

Indeed, the system is not perfect yet. Some areas of the building, especially those near the skylight, do get uncomfortably warm.

Ahmad Hadri says the cooling and lighting systems in the building are being refined and the energy index is moving towards the goal of 40kWh/m2/year. “Ours is still far lower than any other building in the country. It usually takes a year to fine-tune any building but this building is more complicated because of its many innovations, plus we want to optimise and perfect the systems,” explains Ahmad Hadri.

The green credentials of ZEO are not limited to energy savings. Harvested rainwater provides up to two-thirds of its water needs, and is used for the garden and for cooling the condenser. This has shrunk its monthly water bill to only around RM170.

There is also the healthier work environment. “We can wear lighter clothes and are not enclosed inside the building,” says Ahmad Hadri. “The windows allow us to see daylight and the surrounding greenery. This has a psychological effect that has been proven to increase productivity.”

Costly affair

But building green has its price – in the case of ZEO, an extra 45% or 21% if the photovoltaic (PV) systems are excluded. With such high expenses, would it be possible to replicate the eco-efficency of ZEO in another scyscraper? Ahmad Hadri thinks so, as many of the low-energy designs will pay for themselves.

“You might pay a little more for double-glazed glass but in the long term, you will have cheaper electricity bills as less air-conditioning will be needed.”

He cites the example of a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur that has a monthly electricity bill of RM2mil. The building needs strong air-conditioning because of the heat penetrating from its glass roof. “Why not spend a little more to use PV (instead of glass) as the roof? It can give shade as well as produce electricity.”

But many building owners and developers are loath to invest in energy efficient systems that only translate into cost savings in the long term. Resistance to change and to new technology, plus relatively cheap electricity tariffs, have further stumped the growth of green architecture.

To drive the trend forward, some cites in the United States require certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which evaluates sustainable architecture based on materials, heating and cooling efficiency, green roofs and water recycling.

Last April, Singapore made it mandatory for all new buildings or works on existing buildings exceeding 2,000sqm in size, to achieve a minimum Green Mark rating.

Locally, there are guidelines on energy efficiency but the decision for buildings to go green remains voluntary – which is why most office towers consume twice as much energy as that deemed efficient.

“Building managers do not include energy efficiency when vetting the performance of buildings. And they tend to over-operate the system, for instance setting the air-condition at cold temperatures, so as to avoid complaints,” says energy management consultant Steve Lojuntin.

To nudge the sector forward, the Government has fiscal incentives which include import duty and sales tax exemption on low energy equipment or machinery and investment tax allowance for companies involved in renewable energy or energy efficiency. Not many have applied for these, however. “Many people are unaware and some think it too difficult to obtain these incentives,” says Lojuntin.

Now, many have pinned hopes on the recently launched Green Building Index to steer architects, building owners and developers towards sustainable construction. Drawn up by Persatuan Akitek Malaysia and Association of Consulting Engineers Malaysia, the index evaluates the eco-friendliness of buildings on six criteria: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, a sustainably managed site, optimal use of materials and resources, water efficiency, and innovativeness.

Such a certification scheme has benefits. “If a developer builds homes which are certified as energy efficient, they will have a marketing edge,” says Ahmad Hadri. He also thinks it worthwhile to consider what Singapore has done – buildings certified as eco-friendly under its Green Mark are eligible for grants.

The ZEO project certainly demonstrates what is possible when resources are combined with high ideals and green design. Plus, if the trend of building green catches on, the battle against global warming would be half-won.

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