Is Going Green Expensive?


Text : Matthias Gelber

The readers might remember some months ago I was asking about where is the money … and that in the future I will be looking for examples of where is the money in going green in our economy and in particular in green buildings. It is dangerous if the perception in the market place builds up that green is equal to expensive.

We actually need to look as well at overall value but often the value angle is more complex than the crude cost angle. And people like to focus on what is it that they pay for here and now, particularly in our short term focused economy.

If consumers think green is equal to expensive, then they will shy away from buying green buildings. If developers get that message from the market place, they will shy away as well from building green buildings.

So do we have examples where it works out for both developers and buyers?

I was told there is one that is already three years old and maybe there are loads more, but I was interested to look closer at this building as it is a high-rise rather than just a simple bungalow.

I decided to make my way up to Butterworth and find this “hidden treasure” that is not known to the public as nobody is advertising it as a green building. And to be fair, it would not really qualify for green building certification as its green features focus on one area, but in my view the single most important aspect.

When turning up at the Vista Bay Condo in Butterworth, Penang it looks like any other high-rise in Malaysia. The condo was constructed in 2007 and 2008 and got its OC end of 2008. People moved in during 2009 and the number of units is 136 in total. Quite a sizeable location and people have been living there for more than two years, which enables a realistic assessment of the success of the
“Green Technology”.

The unit is huge, with a great view over the bay towards Penang Island. However, the port and industrial areas look less glamorous then if you directly overlook the beach at Batu Ferringhi in comparison. But you cannot compare as prices are obviously hugely different for location.

The pleasant aspect of walking through the unit was it felt comfortable in the absence of air cond. This was early afternoon during a day that the sun had been shining on the building and partially into the windows on the sun facing side.

I felt comfortable even in the absence of fans. This is a huge difference. Considering that the main domestic electricity consumption derives from air cond, this could make a huge impact if we would have this happening in many other condos in Malaysia. Most important I think is the evening and night time temperature and air cond use as most people are spending the day out or in the office.

I wanted to speak to actual residents and ask them how they liked living in the condo. I asked one family how much is their monthly electricity bill?  The answer was RM70 and that includes the use of two large fridges. That is very low compared to Malaysian standard. I was told the condo they lived in is very cool, cooler than their condo on Penang Island. They don’t need air conditioning! Bulls eye! They just verified what I felt when walking in the empty unit! But why is this? Well, here is a condo that has the green feature of insulated walls, but the developer did not use it for marketing purposes.

Later I asked Charles Yii, the person who supplied the insulated concrete blocks why the developer did not advertise this fact. There seems to be a reluctance to market it as it is seen as a new technology. Maybe some other place had issues with the application, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in this condo.

Charles pointed out the blocks also have very good noise insulation properties and his special production technology avoids cracks, efflorescence and algae on the walls. So who is currently buying his blocks? The answer is hotels due to the noise insulation and heat reduction and birds nest manufacturers who benefit massively from the reduction of electricity bills.

When digging further about the commercial aspects of these lightweight blocks, two other key commercial benefits emerged:

  1. Even though the individual block is more expensive than the comparable cement brick, the total cost of laying is slightly cheaper. See table above.
  2. Due to the reduced weight of the overall building the developer was able to save an estimated RM800,000 in cost on the structure. Walls are not load-bearing, that is why it is okay to make them lightweight by using aerated bricks. Therefore you need less steel bars and cement for the structure with the same level of safety margin. And those figures even reflect the time before some of the price hikes in steel and concrete.

So how does this work? The air in the lightweight concrete blocks insulates and prevents the hot and radiating sunlight to heat up the whole wall. Additionally the heat does not get stored in the wall and is released at night.

Maybe the lack of uptake in the market place is due to some providers of this technology not having had sufficient experience with it or did not provide enough service to the client. This example and the product convinced me. When you see it, feel it and hear it from the unbiased end user, then it is convincing. I hope we can see more of it.

A simple change of building materials gives you wall and insulation in one without extra costs. Instead you save money on structure and laying. The owner and tenant benefit too – less electricity and less money to pay. Every kilo watt hour of electricity needs to be produced at a power plant where CO2 is being generated when the coal or gas is being burned. The environment and your children benefit as well.

Simple steps can make a big difference. Here is some green money for the taking and I wonder whether Malaysia would still want or need to make plans for nuclear power plants if all condos in Malaysia would take such simple money and “planet saving” steps.