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Hong Kong’s Outdated Building Codes

A very tall order

Hong Kong needs a comprehensive review of its outdated building codes, which stifle the kind of creative architecture seen elsewhere, including on the mainland

Olga Wong – SCMP – Updated on Jan 12, 2009

The heated debate about huge developments undermining the city’s air quality seems to have cooled down with the government’s recent efforts to reduce the density of a few controversial developments. The Development Bureau’s proposal to limit building heights and promote more-sustainable designs last month further raised public expectations for a better living environment.

While things seem on the right track, the city’s veteran architects still have worries and reservations, given the constraints they face in designing innovative and sustainable buildings in Hong Kong. They have called for an overhaul of building regulations and a master plan for the city.

Architects have dubbed Hong Kong’s residential buildings “birthday cakes” because of their look – a cluster of high-rises sitting atop a huge podium structure, resembling a birthday cake with candles on top. They say that Hong Kong, which claims to be a “world city”, has surprisingly few innovative designs.

“A pyramid-shaped building or buildings of any irregular shape could never appear in Hong Kong if the building regulations remain unchanged,” said architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee, whose “Door” design was picked for the new government headquarters at Tamar.

He was referring to a pyramid-shaped building proposed for an office and hotel development in Paris. The building, named Le Project Triangle and to be completed in 2014, caught the eyes of the world not only for its stunning structure but also its green features.

It was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the firm that designed the National “Birds Nest” Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. They said the landmark will cast no shadows on adjacent buildings, while wind and solar power will be used to enhance energy efficiency.

Here in Hong Kong, rigid building laws limit creativity. “Architects have to play by the rules,” Mr Yim said. One constraint, he said, is the rule on site coverage – how much area a building can cover on the development site.

For example, the base of all buildings has to be larger than the structure’s upper part – to a specific proportion. Yet, buildings on the mainland, and in other countries, can be designed with a smaller base, thus allowing for overhangs.

Mr Yim said the rule could stop developers “stealing” the ground space underneath the overhangs for commercial use. “This is perhaps a reason. I am not really sure about the rationale behind such an inflexible rule,” he said.

“In some cases, the law allows 100 per cent site coverage for the bottom part of a building. Under such circumstances, we [architects] might commit the ultimate sin of not maximising the floor area if we do not build a large podium.”

When not tied down by inflexible building laws, Hong Kong architects can create innovative designs – and have done so elsewhere, including on the mainland. One example is the 17 Miles East Coast complex, in east Shenzhen. The apartments form a cascading structure to make the development more compatible with the hilly landscape.

Another rule in Hong Kong that leads to many dull, similar buildings is the exemption for green designs – such as balconies that can provide shade – from floor-area calculations. The rule was supposed to be an incentive for developers to incorporate more environmental features. Since it took effect in 2001, residential blocks with standard balconies have become common. The balconies are almost all the same size and style because, first, they cannot be enclosed, and second, their maximum permissible floor area is 4 per cent of the flat’s size, or 5 square metres, whichever is less.

“Bay windows are also confined to a height not exceeding 1.5 metres. This is to ensure the space will not become part of the living area,” said Ronald Lu Yuen-cheung, the immediate past president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects.

Exemptions are also granted to car parks of residential developments within a train station’s catchment area, to encourage drivers to park and take trains. The problem is that no one can really tell whether a building with these features is really environmentally friendly.

And without a limit on the maximum gross floor area of each development site, the impact of adding green features and car parks can lead to even larger developments, which block views and air flows. In some cases, according to the Development Bureau, total floor areas have risen by between 50 per cent and 110 per cent as a result of the car park exemption.

The Development Bureau – in an apparent catching up with changing social aspirations – announced late last year significant reductions in the scale of several controversial projects, including the “Mega Tower” in Wan Chai, the Staunton Street redevelopment project in Sheung Wan and two residential developments to be built at Nam Cheong and Yuen Long MTR stations.

The bureau has also imposed height restrictions on new developments in each district and promised to review the green-features exemption policy, with proposals to cap the exemption at 20 per cent to 35 per cent of the total gross floor area, excluding “bonus areas” and car parks.

Developers might also have to comply with environmental requirements to ensure the development as a whole contributes to improving the neighbourhood, for example, by setting back the development to widen pedestrian areas, allowing adequate gaps between buildings to prevent the “wall effect” and providing green areas covering 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the development. The public will be consulted in the next few months.

“We seem to be heading in the right direction. But we are just focusing on bits and pieces. We need a framework, a master plan, to lead the way,” Mr Yim said.

The average living space per person in Hong Kong is just 12 square metres, he said, compared with a Shenzhen resident’s 19.7 square metres. “We owe it to the community to improve their living standards and give the average person a slightly larger apartment, meaning the building bulk will need to grow,” he said, “So, building tall is actually a solution to our problems. It enables our city to remain compact and dense, and to function.”

Tall buildings actually allow more open ground space. But recent action by the Planning Department to strictly limit building height will not help. “Tall buildings, without intruding into ridge lines, should be tolerable because they moderate the skyline,” said Mr Yim. Under government proposals, new developments in commercial areas of East Tsim Sha Tsui should not exceed 60 metres in height, while residential buildings and cultural facilities in the West Kowloon arts hub are limited to 50 metres and 70 metres, respectively, much lower than the International Commerce Centre and luxurious residential high-rises behind the hub.

Hong Kong will need an updated master plan – with a comprehensive review of building regulations – to achieve a proper balance in population density and quality living.

Anna Kwong Sum-yee, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, said a master plan would give direction in urban design and solve conflicting views commonly seen among the buildings, planning and lands departments. “Sometimes, an architect has to submit three different plans for a project just because these three departments have different interpretations on building-height measurements,” she said. “There are constant reviews of the regulations but they are not fundamental changes.”

The building regulations were adopted from Britain in 1956, and were mainly used to improve public health and safety in tenement districts. Lawmaker and former professor of architecture Patrick Lau Sau-shing said about 300 amendments have been made to the Buildings Ordinance over the past 50 years. “The regulations used to serve residential developments of seven storeys high. What we have now are more than 40 storeys. How can an archaic ordinance allow quality designs?” Dr Lau said. “It definitely needs a thorough review.”

The review should consider relaxing the site-coverage restriction to allow more innovative designs, Mr Yim said, adding that only features that improve the environment should be exempt from floor-area calculation. On the mainland, only underground car parks are exempt. Governments in Guangzhou and Australia exempt half a balcony’s size to allow more flexible and diverse designs, instead of limiting the size of an exempted balcony. “Balconies lower a flat’s temperature by shading it from sunlight. Perhaps we should consider exempting those facing west only?” Mr Yim said.

Raymond Chan Yuk-ming, chairman of the public and social affairs committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors, suggested varying the exempted balcony’s size with the flat’s size.

“The law is unclear on whether a flat can have a larger balcony or two balconies. Few developers are willing to test it out,” he said.

Unlike overseas, where land premiums account for about 20 per cent of the total construction cost, the situation in Hong Kong is different. “Here, gross floor area is public money,” Mr Lu said.

Recently, British philosopher Alain de Botton and author of The Architecture of Happiness predicted a rethink of the definition of wealth, because of the economic crisis. In a commentary for the news magazine Monocle, he said people would now question whether buildings should ever have been about making money. “Wise minds will stress that the quality of our houses, streets and cities is ultimately part of the mental health industry – and should not be seen as commodities without public responsibility,” he said.

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