Thursday, February 12, 2009

Linked Hybrid

As Steven Holl writes, the new 160,000 square meter Linked Hybrid (LH) in Beijing “aims to counter the current urban developments in China by creating a new twenty-first century porous urban space, inviting and open to the public from every side.” As I discovered on my recent tour of the place, while the project may not necessarily reach Holl’s lofty vision, it is nonetheless a step in the right direction of vibrant triple bottom line communities in China. Hopefully it can serve as a good example for other developers and architects to follow.

Holl's inspiration for the Linked Hybrid: The Dance (II) by Henri Matisse

Triple bottom line communities
Triple bottom line expands the idea of profitability from the current paradigm, a simple focus on financial profitability, to a new, more inclusive look at financial, social, and environmental profitability. Ideally, the increased social and environmental profitability enhances the financial bottom line in the long-term, too. Triple bottom line communities then take this three pronged focus and apply it to the built environment. Instead of just considering economics and simple payback period, how can the development benefit the community, the environment and still give the developer a good financial return? The LH in many ways makes a good first step in this direction.

Environmentally efficient
While the LH doesn’t necessarily benefit the environment, it is much “less bad” than other communities going up around Beijing. The Linked Hybrid is aiming for LEED for Neighborhood Development Gold certification.

The key green feature for the LH is a massive geothermal heat exchanger system. The system relies on 100m deep wells (660 of them in total) to use the relatively constant temperature of the deep earth to keep the building warm in winter and cool during the summer. According to Steven Holl’s Hideki Hirahara, the lead architect for the project, the geothermal system will provide 78-80% of the buildings heating and cooling needs in a carbon-free way. Of course, the building also features an extremely well-insulated building envelope and a displacement ventilation system to reduce overall heating and cooling needs.

The LH also saves significant water resources through a graywater recycling system. The system takes water from non-toliet household uses (dishwashing, showers, sinks, etc), then centrally purifies this water and uses it to flush the toilets or irrigate the grounds. Holl’s Hirahara estimates this system saves 41% of fresh water usage.

Other green design strategies include local and rapidly renewable materials (bamboo, locally-sourced aluminum, stonework, etc), smart building controls and occupancy sensors. The site itself is also important. Architectural Record claims the site was a brownfield that used to be a factory, although I haven’t seen this claim anywhere else. Regardless, the location is tightly in the city center and is fairly well connected to transit.

Modern Group
Modern Group, the developer of the LH, ostensibly did pretty well financially. Tough as with most real estate groups, Modern is privately held and will certainly never reveal their financial results on LH. But sales look good. Despite the slowing market, 7 of the 8 LH towers are completely sold out and are starting to be occupied. Most of these spaces went for 20,000 yuan per square meter ($275 per sf) when they were first offered in 2006, about average for Beijing luxury residential prices at the time according to CB Richard Ellis (PDF). Amazingly, the last few apartments (with great views, I must admit) are now going for 45,000 yuan per square meter, or nearly $600 a square foot.

Forbes Asia also had an interesting piece on Zhang Lei, the head of Modern Group, in it’s 2007 China’s “richest list” (Zhang was listed at #276). Zhang and the Modern Group have seized on green as their core brand and expect to roll it out to other properties.

A new type of community in China
In my view, LH’s most important contribution to China’s architecture is its openness. In my writing on this blog, I often focus on the environmental or financial but ignore the social aspects of real estate and development. The social aspects of the LH cannot be ignored.

In stark contrast to most gated, single-entrance communities in China, LH has no gates: it is open to all from multiples sides. Public green spaces like the courtyard and rooftops encourage community and spontaneous interaction. Even the sky links will be open to the public and encourage building residents to explore the space beyond their own apartment. This openness also pushes back against the increasingly privatized lifes of Beijingers. As the car proliferates, city residents have less and less interaction with each other; they step into their cars in their gated communities and step out at their offices in the CDB and never interact with their fellow citizens. The openness encouraged by the LH is by no means a cure for all the ills of modernization and industrialization, but at least helps humanize its edges.

The LH also encourages a freedom of movement that is foreign to Beijing. The few public spaces in Beijing are large, monolithic, almost empty structures: Tiananmen Square or the Central Business District for example. Although one can freely walk around Tiananmen, there is no life there. No one lives there, no one works there. It’s merely an occasional gathering place. The courtyard of the LH, by contrast, feels full of life: residents coming and going, shops filling and emptying.

LH is by no means perfect: the community lacks low-income housing and the socioeconomic diversity that often accompanies it. And the life-like feel probably would have been enhanced by some office space. But LH pushes back against many of the worst architectural impulses of China and encourages openness and creativity.

Steven Holl in China
Steven Holl seems to have made a name for himself in China: he is also designing green buildings in Shenzhen and Chengdu that emphasize the same triple bottom line values as the Linked Hybrid. Hopefully his iconic works can continue to push the real estate market toward longer-term thinking and balanced economic, social, and environmental development.


Scott Moore said...

Thanks for this, Geoff. I attended a lecture a few months back entitled "Parceled Cities," which described the physically and psychologically enclosed morphology of Chinese cities. I think you're right that LH is an admirable attempt to break out of that unfortunate mold.

I have two suggestions for pursuing this issue further (and I do think that, given the scale of urbanization in China, it's an important one). First, Sanlitun Village strikes me as another model of open, democratic (if a little maze-like) space in Beijing, and I was wondering if that was in any way intentional. Second, are there any public parks in Beijing that don't have walls around them? I can't think of one, and that really bothers me. Nothing stands for democratic space like the public park.

James said...

Do you know of anything written about the living experience of this development, Linked Hybrid. I'm interested to learn about how people are reacting to these developments. Maybe this one is more high end, or is it middle class?