This new office building is one of the latest projects of group8, a Swiss-owned, Hanoi-based architecture firm that specializes in designing modern, sustainable buildings that embrace the local environment and adapt to the surrounding space.
As ‘green’ buildings increase around the world, Hanoi and indeed Vietnam is playing its part in embracing the sustainable development movement; whether it will actually catch on is yet to be seen.
Integrating Sustainable Design
“What is the question here that needs to be answered?” is the first question the partners at group8 ask before starting a project. According to Manuel Der Hagopian, one of the group8 partners based in Hanoi, “We cannot proceed with the design process until we understand what the problem is, why this building is needed and how it will be influenced by the natural and urban landscape.”
Group8, who have offices in Europe and Asia, is well known for pushing the boundaries of design. The group does not define themselves as a ‘green’ architecture firm, rather by the sustainability of their designs, something that is ingrained into their working process.
“Designing sustainable buildings does not have to be expensive and fancy,” says Der Hagopian. “We look at the environment and design buildings that are appropriate for that area.”
Decisions as simple as facing the windows away from direct sunlight, designing well-positioned air vents to increase air movement, and installing window shutters for shade are practical, low-cost design aspects which greatly reduce power consumption.
Walking Hanoi’s crowded streets, surrounded by the crush of buildings and the whirr of traffic, it can be difficult to imagine where green certified buildings fit into the cityscape. Yet they are here. Among the construction projects, dense housing pockets, and decaying colonial buildings, exist a few individuals working to change the future of development in Hanoi.
Instead of adopting the US-based LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system, which analyses buildings and determines their level of sustainability, Vietnam has created its own system, known as LOTUS, which has been designed specifically for the challenges facing Vietnam’s growing urban centers.
“Vietnam’s cities cannot be compared to Western cities,” says Nguyen Minh Tong, executive director of Hanoi-based Vietnam Green Buildings Council (VGBC). “We have our own set of challenges and as such we need our own system of certification”.
VGBC was created in 2007 as part of the World Green Building Council, an alliance of over 90 national green building councils around the world that works to transform the local building industries towards sustainability. Although the LOTUS system is based on the same principles as LEED and other notable certification systems such as GreenStar in Australia and BREEAM in Europe, Vietnam felt it needed to establish its own system to reflect the existing building regulations, climate zones and specific concerns, such as the rapidly changing urban environment. Unlike the US, UK, Europe and Australia, Vietnam is dealing with a larger scale of urban immigration and a lower budget, making it even harder to adapt green principals.
The LOTUS rating tools, which differentiate between residential and non-residential developments, aim to guide the local construction industry towards an efficient use of natural resources and introduce environmentally friendly practices that may not otherwise have been thought of. “Of course this is easier said than done,” says Nguyen. “It is a slow process, but now we are moving out of the discussion phase and into implementation”.
Three new Big C shopping complexes in Binh Duong, Viet Tri and Ninh Binh have applied for Silver LOTUS ratings. If completed, these buildings will be leaders for sustainable business development across Vietnam. The new United Nations House in Hanoi is expected to be awarded a Gold LOTUS rating upon completion in early this year. Developed as a joint venture between the UN and the authorities, this building is not only significant for its small carbon footprint and resource use reduction, but it is also a notable collaboration involving the full support of the Vietnamese Government in favour of moving towards a more sustainable city.
Although these are positive steps forward in terms of Vietnam’s commitment to prioritize sustainable planning for the rapid urban growth across the country, the pace of development is slow. Solidance, a consulting firm active in advising green building suppliers throughout Asia, recently released a white paper entitled Is There a Future for Green Buildings in Vietnam? According to the report, Vietnam has 40 green certified buildings. A low number compared with neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Asia’s leader in the green building market, which celebrated its 1,000th green certified building last year. Yet the number is growing — a positive sign.
The Solidance report confirmed what architects and urban planners have previously said; that urban sustainability across Vietnam is restricted by cost sensitivities, low electricity prices, short-term thinking and a limited supply of skilled employees with green building awareness. Many argue that until electricity costs go up, developers and consumers have no incentive to reduce power consumption. As such, the majority of buildings are built without much consideration of the natural environment. Nguyen suggests more incentives, such as tax breaks or low rent for developers interested in sustainable buildings. With more incentive, developers will hopefully start to understand that building sustainably doesn’t have to be more expensive and additional upfront expenses, if there are any, actually save on running costs in the future.
Back to Roots
Discussing sustainable architecture with group8 and VGBC, it becomes clear that they are not advocating expensive water recycling plants and extensive solar panel systems.
“Vietnam is not there yet,” says Der Hagopian, “so there is no point pushing these things until they can be properly implemented”. Instead, their simple design techniques are remarkably reminiscent of both French and Vietnamese historic architecture from the region.
“When the French first moved into Hanoi they didn’t understand the climate and as a result, their buildings were unlivable,” says cultural guide Roman Szlam. “Yet they learnt to adapt and if you look at the buildings from 1910 onwards you will see they have adopted a style influenced by traditional Vietnamese architecture.”
This involves extensive ventilation to encourage air-flow, with peaked roofs and small windows to allow warm air to rise and escape. Awnings are built over the windows and living space is focused on the center of the room rather than the outside walls. “The traditional Vietnamese home is one of the best examples of sustainable architecture out there,” adds Szlam. “Well-ventilated, using recycled materials and facing away from the sun, they offer simple designs perfectly adapted to the local environment .”
Looking back at plans for the new construction on Trang Thi it is clear that group8 have adopted these principals. While the final product looks nothing like a French colonial villa or a traditional Vietnamese house, the philosophy is the same. The design includes an outside layer of steel and glass that protects the internal rooms from heat and noise while allowing for air-flow and natural light. In the centre of the building is a large ‘chimney’, which encourages ventilation between all the floors, keeping the air moving and allowing hot air to escape. Gardens will be installed which will not only freshen the air and contribute to the city’s greenery, but also make the building a nicer place to be. Sustainable design is holistic design, and the happiness of the building’s inhabitants is always important.
On paper this building looks like any other — four walls, a roof, and windows. But if this design spreads it could represent a move towards a new Hanoi, a city of buildings that work with the surrounding area and create spaces that are beneficial for the environment and the residents.