Healthier homes


A new green building rating tool encourages developers to build sustainable townships.

Poorly designed houses have left us largely reliant on air-conditioning systems to keep cool, while bad planning and inadequate road systems sacrifice green spaces and create a crippling reliance on fuel-guzzling cars.

Now, imagine this:

You’re lying on your couch in the living room, reading under natural light streaming in from the skylight above. A gentle breeze blowing through the windows and doors keeps the room cool.

When you decide it’s time to pop to the shops for a treat of ice cream, your seven-year-old son shouts “Yes!” and jumps onto his bicycle. You grab the other little one, put her in the pram and step outside.

Trees shade the bicycle lane as you and the kids head for the shops. A bus passes by and pulls up, and your husband alights from it. Having just gotten back from work, he decides to go along for ice cream. After all, the shops are but a leisurely five minutes’ walk away.

housing estate

That is Serina Hijjas’ response to why people should start considering buying properties located in sustainably designed townships.

An architect and member of the Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia (PAM) sustainability committee, she is also a member of the Green Building Index (GBI) accreditation panel and has been intimately involved in the drafting of the recently launched GBI for townships.

Just like the GBI for commercial and residential buildings, the new certification tool is based on a voluntary system that allows township developers to gain either Basic, Silver, Gold or Platinum Standard certification according to the fulfilment of various criteria.

To obtain the certification, buildings are judged on six categories: climate; energy and water; ecology and environment; community planning and design; transportation and connectivity; building and resources; and business innovation. The more points scored, the more “sustainable” your township is, and the higher the level of certification you can obtain.

The idea for a tool to certify whether a township is sustainable or not came up partly in response to the Malaysian trend of developing “Bandar Baru”, or new townships.

“The GBI Township Tool deals with infrastructure, planning issues, proximities,” says Serina. “True sustainability is when you can get the living and working environment within the same proximity.”

Indeed, as one town planner, Khairiah Talha – council member of the Malaysian Institute of Planners – will testify, ever since the formulation of town planning principles by Ebenezer Howard in the early 1800s, the basic goal has always been to balance the human environment with the natural environment.

“Human economics and physical needs, for example work opportunities, investments, production, as well as housing, roads, transportation and facilities, all need to be balanced with the careful usage and preservation of natural resources such as forest reserves, natural waterways and topography.

“The GBI Township Tool and the framework it lays out represents a good start towards communities realising the importance of their built environment ... not just about the design and green spaces but also other pertinent related matters such as the economic aspects, transportation linkages, ecology. There are many aspects to a livable environment and livable cities.”

It is precisely the aspects that contribute to an eco-friendly environment as well as a better quality of life that the GBI is trying to nurture within the local property development industry.

Ultimately, the goal is to stimulate a movement towards prioritising green developments among town planners and developers.

Demand-driven

There are a number of reasons why there are so few sustainable townships around. One is homebuyers’ lack of awareness regarding the concepts behind sustainable townships and the benefits of green buildings. Another is that many architects and engineers lack the knowledge and expertise to create green buildings. And this is an issue with many town planners – the people in charge of issuing planning approvals.

flats

Demand is crucial for developers to see any sense in forking out extra effort and funds for the additional expenditures involved in researching, designing and building green townships, according to GBI chairman Boon Chee Wee.

“Developers now do a TIA (traffic impact assessment) but green transport means taking it a bit further, for example, no house should be further than 500m from a bus stop or transport link. Therefore, additional research will be needed to develop a green transport masterplan. You might need to hire a consultant for this unless you have trained in-house staff.

“It will also require you to go to the various municipalities to discuss public transport connections to your development to ensure that it is convenient for those who choose to avoid relying solely on cars to get around.”

The higher the effort however, the more points you are rewarded with, and with the certification tool developers can advertise their efforts with the appropriate badge of honour.

“The green transport masterplan is worth 14 points for transport and connectivity because it deals with the important issues of linkages within and externally.”

Boon acknowledges that the additional research and expertise required to ensure your township is sustainably built will represent the bulk of the extra cost for developers, so the assessment fees to gain certification has been made affordable. For example a small project of 8ha to 16ha will cost about RM15,000 while a mega project of over 140ha will cost RM70,000.

“It really is not a large quantum in terms of acreage, especially considering the amount of time and effort our volunteers on the GBI panel have put into creating this tool,” he says.

Boosting green homes

architect

The GBI Township Tool presents a fresh new multi-pronged approach to the lack of green designs within the Malaysian property industry.

Firstly, it deals with the lack of enthusiasm by developers. By providing varying grades of certification, a monetary value is attached to going green.

Being able to market your certified product as something of added value to the customer will mean green advocates can finally share some common ground with hard-nosed capitalists.

Second, putting a monetary value on green design provides an incentive for developers (who have the advertising budget) to engage in a mass education campaign for the public. As Serina and Boon put it – communication is key.

People need to be aware of how passive building designs and better public transportation links not only contribute towards the global effort to fight global warming but also have the potential to save them money in terms of energy and fuel bills. And with sustainable townships, people can benefit from the opportunity to invest in eco-friendly developments, which provide for a better quality of life.

The concept of certificates for green buildings has detractors, however.

Some say the criteria for obtaining certification is too minimal for the buildings to be truly green whilst others say we do not need a certificate because developers should be made to incorporate green features in their developments anyway.

“A lot of people will point out that all these things (green features) have already been included in a whole range of rules and guidelines through the local authorities and various governmental departments,” says Boon.

“So previously, you had the developers trying to subscribe to requirements set by somebody else. This is a top down approach. What the GBI is trying to do is set up a bottom up approach for sustainable townships, so developers can take hold of the situation in the sense of ‘this is what I aspire to achieve on my own accord, voluntarily’.”

The distinction, Boon says, is very important because for the GBI to be sustainable, you have to build genuine interest and commitment from the key players involved. The point seems to be that if something is done just to comply with regulations, there will surely be the temptation to cut corners or only aim for the bare minimum.

With regards to the “minimum” criteria, both Boon and Serina agree that we have to start somewhere and it is one way to get non-believers onboard.

Ensuring expertise

The GBI team is covering all the other bases as well. They are addressing capacity issues by nurturing new cohorts of professionals trained in green design. The intention, says Boon, is to train up an entire generation of green professionals.

Of the 1,880 participants who took part in the green building facilitator course run by the Malaysian Green Building Confederate (MGBC), 409 opted to become registered green building facilitators (who can be hired by developers).

Many who attended the course have been sent by their respective engineering and architectural firms to get a holistic view on what it means to design a green building. “It shows a commitment to build up in house capacities in this area,” Boon says.

The MGBC is also running workshops with local universities to see how green principles can be incorporated into the curricula of budding young architects, engineers and town planners. In addition to this, there are workshops with local governments.

Serina says the GBI tool provides a framework for the creation of sustainable townships which governmental agencies can reference in their policy making. One of the challenges to both developers and town planners is that, though there are plenty of guidelines in existence, they all come under different departments.

“We have tried to incorporate all existing requirements, guidelines and frameworks as they have never been collated into one system,” says Serina.

In other words, it is all about providing more structure to the system and mainstreaming green principles.

It seems to be working.

The Petaling Jaya Municipal Council in Selangor, for example, now requires all new developments to at least have the basic standards spelt out in the GBI certification for individual buildings.

It has further made it compulsory for new commercial and residential developments (those seeking near maximum allowable densities) to submit for the GBI Gold Standard rating.

As for making use of the GBI Township Tool, the council is now vetting the framework. Petaling Jaya councillor and lawyer Derek Fernandez believes attaining certification should be made mandatory.

Only for the affluent?

There is a price tag attached to green homes, however; they are mostly upmarket properties.

“The medium income and poor sections of the community will end up with less attractive places to live in, with less green and recreational spaces. The result is the marginalisation of communities,” says Khairiah.

She points out that market forces are not entirely to blame for such situations; the authorities who approve such schemes despite the many planning guidelines are equally responsible.

Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association president Datuk Michael Yam says consumers need to understand and be receptive to the idea of paying more up front in exchange for lower operating costs in the future.

“Generally, developers are ready to go green but it is the purchasers who may not be ready to invest in such features due to affordability or lack of awareness,” he says. “At the end of the day, developers have to be sensitive to market forces which influence how the property is designed and developed.”

Boon, however, believes that consumer worries about a premium being placed on green developments should be short-lived as currently, the additional costs to the developer have a lot to do with current market prices for certain materials and having to commission extra research which is costly if you do not have trained in-house staff.

“Building green townships may not necessarily cost a lot more. Most of it can be achieved through sensible designs and we need to remember that not all buildings need to be Gold or Platinum certified. You can start from the basic principles, for example, building orientation, shading, positioning of openings and having a glass ratio of 30% instead of 50% for your building ... all these are passive designs which will not cost anything extra.”

Boon also points to a mismatch between supply and demand for green building materials in Malaysia, which pushes up prices.

“I think at the end of the day it’s an important business strategy. If you believe that eventually it will become the norm to have green buildings then if you are not green, you will basically be left out in terms of business. Those people who have the foresight will go down this direction.”

Aside from all that, one of the key intentions of the GBI Township Tool is to protect consumers against greenwash. Previously with no certification system, there was nothing to stop developers from pasting all kinds of green claims to their development even when it turns out to be nothing but nice landscaping.

Better living

The GBI Township Tool has garnered a healthy level of interest among developers, drawing in five projects to participate in the scheme.

They are: Elmina East in Bukit Jelutong, Selangor, by Sime Darby Property Berhad; Ken Rimba in Shah Alam, Selangor, by Ken Holding Berhad; Boga Valley in Bentong, Pahang, by Boga Valley Corp; Karambunai Integrated Resort City in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, by Karambunai Resort Sdn Bhd; and TTDI Alam Impian in Shah Alam, Selangor, by TTDI Land Sdn Bhd.

artist's impression

Elmina East

Key features:

> Ecological: Incorporates existing natural elements by use of green connectors, minimal earthwork and landscaping.

> Neighbourhood: Pedestrian networks with not more than five minutes’ walking distance between neighbourhood centres in order to promote a healthy lifestyle and discourage driving.

> Green travel: Integration of bus as well as walking and cycling routes.

> Open spaces: Plazas, civic squares, waterfront, greenways and parks to draw people together for social interaction.

> Green buildings: Houses will have rainwater harvesting and solar water heating systems, as well as passive design features such as large openings for light and ventilation.

> Connectivity outside of township: This will be through the Guthrie Corridor Expressway and the new MRT line in Sungai Buloh.

Shah Alam

TTDI Alam Impian

Key features:

> Connectivity: Connectivity between user spaces to reduce dependency on motorised transportation.

> User-oriented: There are ample communal landscaped parks, pedestrian linkages and amenities within easy reach.

> Green buildings: Building designs to ensure decreased consumption of natural resources.

> Activity points: An array of communal facilities including clubhouse, community hall, educational facilities, landscaped open spaces and security features.

> Connectivity outside of township: The LKAS (Kemuning-Shah Alam Highway) and KESAS (Shah Alam Expressway) link the township up with the rest of Selangor. - Stories by Natalie Heng

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