Global Perspectives

Hong Kong - a city of constant change

Two images taken of most cities’ skylines 20 years apart will reflect change. Sometimes drastic change. Skyscrapers bloom, new bridges connect us and new highways weave their way through the landscape.

If you take two images of Hong Kong 10 years apart, the scale of change will be truly astonishing.

Today we will look at Hong Kong as an example of a booming megaproject industry. By exploring the increasingly delicate balance between rapid construction and sustainability in construction, we can understand the environmental dilemma at the heart of the city of constant change and what project organisations can do to address it.

The scale of the Hong Kong infrastructure

After a steady increase of large infrastructure construction in the early 20th century, Hong Kong’s infrastructure has boomed since the 1970s. Hong Kong has been dubbed “the world’s capital of tall buildings” with over 300 buildings surpassing 490 feet and more people living above the 15th floor than anywhere else on earth.

On an island 110 times smaller than New York, with a population of only 1.4 million fewer citizens, the need for residential and business infrastructure in Hong Kong is self-evident. Alongside this, numerous transport links and airports are required to keep up with bustling city life.

Such vast amounts of large-scale infrastructure within a relatively small area presents numerous challenges. Innovation in construction methods, complex bim strategies and high levels of construction productivity are vital. Perhaps the most pressing challenge, however, is undertaking these complex processes within the framework of sustainable construction methods.

Hong Kong has been dubbed “the world’s capital of tall buildings” with over 300 buildings surpassing 490 feet and more people living above the 15th floor of a building than anywhere else on earth.

Sustainability

As Hong Kong’s skyline sprung to life in the late 1990s, environmental sustainability became a pressing issue on the global governance agenda. This presented a unique challenge for the region. Due to the fact that 60% of Hong Kong’s land was deemed inviable for infrastructure, construction has become heavily focussed on building upwards. Skyscrapers quickly dominated the urban landscape and brought with them signficant challenges to emerging sustainability goals.

Skyscrapers are notoriously difficult to keep eco-friendly. Air conditioning alone represents a unique challenge to sustainable infrastructure. A report conducted by the International Energy Agency showed that demand for air conditioning has tripled since 1990. By 2019 these devices were responsible for almost 8.5% of total final electricity consumption in the world. Skyscrapers in particular become very hot, very quickly. The dual impact of large amounts of glass and fewer openable windows creates a greenhouse-like environment.

Thus, the world’s capital of tall buildings is constantly faced with the greenhouse effect produced by the solar radiation. An increased demand for air conditioning is a given. Hong Kong’s skyscrapers alone consume around 90% of its electricity and account for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental challenge posed by this kind of construction is evident. So, what has been done to address this so far?

A Climate Catch 22

Hong Kong’s government has attempted to address the unique challenges posed by its density of extremely large buildings. In 2018, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the Lantau Tomorrow Vision. The plan outlined the government’s aim to push forward extensive reclamation efforts in the Northern Territories at the cost of HK$500 billion. Some groups have estimated costs are likely to reach HK$1 trillion or more for the proposed1,700-hectare project.

Land reclamation, the process of creating new land by filling in existing bodies of water, has historically been the most popular approach to urban development in Hong Kong. 70sq km of land has been reclaimed in Hong Kong since 1877, making room for much of the current habitable space we see today. The proponents of this approach tout it as the solution to two of Hong Kong key infrastructure challenges:

  1. Extreme population density (Hong Kong is the fourth-most densely populated jurisdiction in the world according to the UN)

  2. The detrimental environmental impact of a city dominated by high-rise infrastructure.

However, environmental groups and researchers have voiced opposition to the government’s reclamation plans. They have argued that the strategy will result in habitat loss, increased air pollution and a rise in urban areas’ temperatures. Therefore, a kind of Catch-22 situation has emerged in addressing Hong Kong’s environmental challenges. While the historically popular strategy of land reclamation might alleviate population density and address the particular problems of reliance on high-rise infrastructure, this approach could itself produce new environmental challenges.

Are there any other routes towards an eco-friendly Hong Kong?

A data-driven solution

Outside of the government’s reclamation plans, many project organisations are seeking alternative solutions to ensure environmentally friendly construction and operation. It appears that new technologies are taking centre stage in Hong Kong’s eco-friendly infrastructure movement. At Foresight Works, we are passionate about the potential of artificial intelligence to drive infrastructure closer towards meeting global sustainability goals.

The International Commerce Centre (ICC), one of Hong Kong’s most iconic buildings, exemplifies the ways that cutting-edge technology is being utilised to ensure eco-friendly, large-scale construction. At 118 storeys, the ICC building is the tallest building in Hong Kong. It also ranks in the top 3% of green buildings around the globe.

This has been achieved through Internet of Things (IoT) technology being embedded throughout its structure. A complex network of sensors, many of them wireless, spans almost every facility. Edward Tsui, Managing Director of Intelligent Technologies (the company managing the ICC’s IoT data systems) claims that “big data [is] collected through a mobile digital system for energy efficiency optimisation in the building…We can see the energy performance across every zone in the building and optimise the system to perform better”.

Even air conditioning has been accounted for with this technology. 70% of the ICC’s total energy consumption comes from air conditioning. Through constant data collection, temperature levels throughout the building are monitored along with pollutant levels and the amount of cooling energy being used. This technology has saved 15 million kWh of energy since 2012, a reduction of 10,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.

The decisions taken by the operators of the ICC building are indicative of a broader movement in Hong Kong to make its 80,000 high-rise buildings more energy efficient. At Foresight Works, we are passionate about the potential for cutting-edge technology to revolutionise the way we approach eco-friendly construction. By utilising artificial intelligence and IoT technologies, project organisations can build and operate in a more sustainable way than ever before.

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Author:

Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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