The Growing Concrete Jungle: Why Vietnam Struggles to Build Green
With the economic boom of the 2000s, vietnamese businesses have been vying for sacred storefront space, leading to an explosion of unsustainable construction and transforming cities once characterized by canals and wetlands into concrete jungles.
Saigon is a beautiful and mesmerizing city, but as anyone who has spent even a few hours here knows, cranes, and of course construction zones, are ubiquitous. Consequently, outside of the city’s wealthier central districts, parks and gardens are few and far between. Instead of the lush, tropical habitat that once was, motorbikes and shop fronts rule the land and pollution can be choking. In fact, according to Yale University’s 2014 Environmental Performance Index, the country as a whole was ranked among the top ten countries with the worst air pollution and did not fare much better in the overall environmental performance ranking.
Sadly, this has left 90 percent of children under five suffering from respiratory illness and has contributed to the overall degradation of Vietnam’s natural environment. With the economic boom of the 2000s, businesses have been vying for sacred storefront space, leading to an explosion of unsustainable construction and transforming cities once characterized by canals and wetlands into concrete jungles.
Likewise, foreign direct investment has flooded into the country, and many multinational corporations (MNCs) have since opened large manufacturing plants in Saigon and surrounding urban areas. As the Vietnam Green Building Council states, the country’s “rapid urbanization and economic growth is raising the general standard of living, but also poses a threat to ecosystems.” Today, only 2.5% of Saigon is considered green space.
The International Energy Agency estimates that buildings are responsible for more than 40% of primary energy consumption and 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the story is no different in Southern Vietnam. In fact, if current environmental trends continue, experts predict that, “Vietnam will be one of the five countries most affected by climate change.” It is becoming more and more evident that swift interventions are needed if the gloomy course of Vietnam’s environmental future is to be reversed.
Doi Moi and Vietnam’s booming economy
Following the 1986 installment of the Doi Moi policies – Vietnam’s perestroika and the official beginning of a movement towards a more free market economy – the country experienced a rapid and steady growth. By the end of the 1990s, Vietnam’s economy was growing at an annual rate of more than 7% and more than 30,000 private businesses had been established. This growth has continued and management consulting firm PwC predicted that Vietnam will be the region’s fastest growing economy by 2025. Much of this growth is expected to be concentrated in urban areas like Saigon.
Led by manufacturing, the country’s industrial sector accounts for more than 40% of GDP. Manufacturing in garments, footwear, and high-tech products continues to swell and with it, foreign investment. In fact, a recent trend has placed Vietnam among the top largest electronics exporter in the world and, with companies such as Samsung, Intel, and LG each investing over $1bil in local manufacturing operations.
Coupled with population growth, this dramatic economic expansion has fostered a frenzy of infrastructure development. Vietnam’s urban centers are exploding with factories, office buildings, small stores, and homes. These buildings are consuming a larger share of the country’s energy supply, leading to increased levels of air, water, and land pollution, and posing health hazards to workers and other occupants. In the current landscape, it is clear that this economic activity has come at the expense of the environment.
The Limitations of Green Building Certifications
The ecological impacts of the country’s building sector are not being completely ignored. Actors such as the Vietnamese Green Building Council (VGBC) are taking steps to create a larger market for environmentally-friendly buildings. VGBC, a program of Green Cities Fund, Inc., a nonprofit in California, was founded in 2008 with the mission of advocating for environmentally-friendly construction in academia, industry and policy arenas. With mixed results, it has begun to shape the discussion surrounding green buildings, and particularly green building certification, in Vietnam.
One of VGBC’s most important accomplishments is its establishment of the country’s very own green building certification system known as LOTUS. The LOTUS rating tool is tailored specifically for the Vietnamese built environment and was “developed through long-term research with the expert advice of specialists giving particular consideration to Vietnam’s economic and natural characteristics to existing Vietnamese standards and policy.” The three-step rating system – certified, silver, and gold – ranks buildings based on:
- Energy, water, materials usage
- Waste and pollution management
- Appropriate site selection and other ecological features
- Indoor environmental quality for the health and comfort of occupants
- Resistance to natural disasters and and heat island effect mitigation
- Engagement of local community and the management eco-friendly design features and innovation
VGBC ran the first non-residential pilot of LOTUS in 2010. Since then, six buildings have received a LOTUS certification with four more in development.
There is no denying that the LOTUS rating system represents a great stride forward in expanding the interest in and construction of green buildings, especially with the recent completion of the Gold LOTUS certified United Nations House in Hanoi. But is it enough to open up a larger market for green buildings? Is it enough to halt the rapid environmental destruction currently being caused by over-development in Saigon and other urban areas? Probably not.
The LOTUS system faces numerous challenges as a newly established and strictly-Vietnamese rating tool. While it does fit local contexts, it does not enjoy international recognition and is not widely known outside of Vietnam. This poses a serious problem as it “does not provide a globally consistent blueprint for MNC’s seeking to establish green buildings at global facilities.”As MNC’s seek to build large factories and office buildings, this represents a huge missed opportunity in the green building sector. VGBC has laid the initial groundwork for an effective program capable of promoting sustainable practices, but it will need to ramp up marketing efforts in order to be considered a serious contender by some of the most influential players in the industry.
LOTUS is not the only certification system operating within Vietnam. Other certifications in use include country-led guidelines such as the United States’ LEED program, Singapore’s BCA Green Mark and Australia’s Green Star, as well as hospitality industry guidelines such as The Green Globe Standard and EarthCheck. Southern Vietnam has recently witnessed exciting progress with the completion of the LEED Gold office building, President Palace in downtown Saigon and EarthCheck certified Anantara Resort in Mui Ne. Yet, despite this expansion of green building, as of October 2013, there were only 41 buildings in the entire country that had received any sort of certificate.
The problem with incentives
The incentives to seek certification remain weak, and prospects for the future are not promising. One of the biggest challenges to green building is the below-market price of electricity. As of August 2013, state-owned company Electricity Vietnam (ENV) was required by law to sell electricity for an average of $0.07 per kilowatt-hour. This price, which is amongst the lowest in the region, makes the more expensive short-term costs of building energy-efficient structures less appealing.
The government plans to hike power prices in the coming years, yet to date this increase has been too gradual to encourage a switch to energy-efficient practices. The government has put in place a series of laws to promote energy-efficient buildings, but will have to do more to boost the industry. According to Solidiance, an Asia Pacific-focused B2B marketing strategy consultancy, the government needs to create new incentives such as a “preferential and fast-track approvals process for new building permits, as well as the establishment of green building standards in public buildings, which would help raise awareness and drive demand for green building materials and technologies.”
Lack of know-how and limited access to relevant technologies poses another great challenge. Universities have only begun to offer green architecture training and local suppliers tend not to have green building materials. Perceptions, too, play a role in stunting the development of a larger green building market. For example, it is a common misperception that building green is much more expensive than not doing so, even though the short-term costs tend to be only marginally higher. The long-term paybacks in lower operating costs and increased rental income are often overlooked. The general public still prioritizes low costs above eco-friendliness, and this stands as a roadblock in the expansion of the green building market.
Green Innovators and the Future of Green Building
There are a multitude of reasons why the green building movement will struggle to catch on in the near future. However, several promising innovators throughout the country are pushing the boundaries and creating new opportunities in the sector. These innovators are only working on a small scale, but are helping to pave the way for more environmentally sustainable development.
Vo Trong Nghia, deemed “Rebel Architect” by Al Jazeera, is one such innovator. Nghia, who is deeply saddened by the loss of green space and level of pollution in Saigon and surrounding urban areas, has made it his mission to design groundbreaking, eco-friendly structures. He uses natural and local materials such as bamboo to create both residential and commercial buildings that are energy-efficient and have superior air ventilation. Nghia’s projects are uniquely beautiful, often integrating green spaces with lush vegetation into his designs.
He is famous amongst locals for his “stacking green house” and aptly named “House for Trees.” He has also won several architectural awards including “The Architectural Review” magazine’s AR House Awards for the “House for Trees” as well as the Architects Regional Council of Asia’s Gold Medal Award for Architecture for his Dailai Bamboo Complex (a resort 50km outside Hanoi). Nghia has not only focused on upscale spaces, but has also piloted a low-cost house project. He aims to provide resource-poor Mekong Delta residents with a cheap, but sturdy alternative to the unreliable, hand-built structures that often serve as homes in the region. Vo Trong Nghia’s company is still young, but the business shows no signs of slowing.
Dong Tien Packaging & Paper company is another enterprise taking a creative approach to green building. Dong Tien, which used to make packaging material for industrial clients, recognized an opportunity to shift to environmentally sustainable practices. The company now produces roofs using recycled milk cartons that would otherwise be buried or burned. Dong Tien buys used milk cartons from street collectors, kindergartens, and daycares, and turns them into “eco roofs” for farms, houses, and factories. One of its biggest accomplishments is the construction of a green roof for Hoa Phoung Kindgergarten in Saigon.
Finally, some the most noteworthy leaders in green building are MNCs. Many MNC’s operating in Vietnam are headquartered in countries with stricter environmental laws, and their factories in are adopting home-country policies. In fact, factories make up the industry with the largest share (42%) of green building certifications in the country. Taekwang Vina – a joint venture with a South Korean manufacturer, for example, owns a Nike shoe factory near Saigon that is LEED certified and uses 18% less electricity and 53% less water compared with a typical factory. Additionally, Intel has a $1 billion electronics manufacturing plant near Saigon that has one of the largest operating solar arrays in the country – so large that it is able to offset an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that produced by 500 motorbikes daily.
The green building movement’s prospects in Vietnam are mixed: incentives, access to green technologies, and institutionalized green policies are limited, but several individuals and companies are beginning to build the road to a more environmentally friendly future. At policy level, it may take many years and a worsening ecology for Vietnam to prioritize green building over rapid development.
World Cities Day 2014: Green Buildings in Vietnam
With the economic boom of the 2000s, Vietnamese businesses have been vying for sacred storefront space, leading to an explosion of unsustainable construction and transforming cities once characterized by canals and wetlands into concrete jungles. Growing numbers of Ho Chi Minh City’s innovators and architects are paying attention and developing innovative solutions to what promises to be one of the greatest challenges of Vietnam 2025.
As a follow-up to our opinion piece, this TwitterChat explored the role of the private sector and civil society in supporting eco-friendly building practices in #UrbanVietnam.