Scaling Up: From Green Buildings to Green Cities

John Bilmon, chief designer of the Beijing Olympics Watercube, addresses the conference in San Francisco on May 1, 2009. (Amanda Huffman/Asia Society Northern California)

SAN FRANCISCO, May 1, 2009 - Building green cities can empower local communities, save money, and is not as difficult as skeptics think. This was the key message shared by over 30 policymakers, business professionals, and political leaders at Scaling Up: From Green Buildings to Green Cities in the US and China, an Asia Society conference held at PG&E's San Francisco headquarters on May 1 that drew over 400 attendees.

Keynoting the event were Dr. Amory Lovins, Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute; John Bilmon, Managing Director of PTW Architects and chief designer of Beijing’s Water Cube; and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Dr. Lovins focused his remarks on efficiency. “Energy efficiency technology is the low-hanging fruit that has fallen off the tree and is now piling up around our ankles,” he began. At $0.01 per kilowatt hour, efficiency is by far the cheapest answer to our energy woes, particularly compared to the cost of building more coal or nuclear power plants.

Lovins advocated the widespread adoption of his innovative “Integrated Design” concept in buildings and energy systems. “Chinese cooking is famous for using everything,” he explained. “Why don’t we do the same with our energy design?” Lovins also pushed for introducing progressive building incentives by paying architects and designers for energy saved over the lifetime of a building.

PTW's John Bilmon made the case for sustainable buildings with a case study of the Water Cube. One of the Cube's many innovative features, he explained, was a bubble-like structure designed to absorb or reflect thermal radiation depending on the air temperature. “This saves more energy than installing PV (solar),” Bilmon said.

Slideshow: From Green Buildings to Green Cities

Moving beyond the case study, Bilmon also considered the immense challenges and opportunities in China and made a pitch for large-scale collaboration and scaling up—the rallying point for the conference as a whole. “It is not possible for one person, but rather requires teams working together, to really effect sustainable development on a large scale .... And this era represents a coming of age for China as an increased number of people have now been exposed and plugged into the process of deciding what their buildings and cities look like. They can have a say.”

Mayor Newsom further underscored the importance of cooperation, especially between San Francisco and Shanghai. In 2008, he said, San Francisco opened its first-ever foreign office in Shanghai, “because we wanted to establish this (cooperation) consciousness in China more firmly .... San Francisco is a gateway city. It’s natural that the dialogue between our respective countries allows us to meet in this state and certainly this city. And we look forward to developing formidable partnerships and working together on the challenge that we all recognize needs to be addressed.”

Reported by Paul Joy, Asia Society Northern California