News: “I am not a Tree Hugging Engineer,” says GEM Olympic Stadium Engineer

Sep 12, 2017


From an Olympic-standard stadium in Mongolia to a Hainan wellness centre, eco-conscious engineer Armelle Le Bihan has harnessed natural resources to elevate projects across Asia.

Armelle Le Bihan may be able to reel off climate change statistics as easily as most of us recite the alphabet. But the Bangkok-based engineer is a far cry from clichéd images of a dreadlocked, patchouli-oil-scented eco warrior.

“Green building is not a tree hugger’s trend,” she says as she outlines her practical vision for a more environmentally aware real estate sector. “Not only do such building practices respond positively to environmental issues, they also make business sense.”

Having started her company Green Building Consulting and Engineering just two and a half years ago, she’s already carved out a stellar reputation for herself.

Projects across the region have benefited from her expertise and she has already been rewarded with prestigious industry gongs. Her latest commission is also one of her most ambitious: the construction of a state-of-the-art stadium in Ulaanbaatar, the pollution-ridden capital of Mongolia.

While travelling around Asia to preach the gospel of green engineering can be a challenge, Le Bihan is passionate about what she does. “It’s all about community,” she says.

How would you best describe green buildings?

To put it simply, green buildings use fewer resources. They are also designed to foster a positive impact on the environment and enhance comfort, wellbeing and health. This is really important when we consider that the average person spends 90 percent of their time indoors.

Green buildings generally have 14 percent lower operational costs, 30 percent higher occupant satisfaction and typically have 7 percent increased asset value compared to non-green buildings. This is amazing when you consider they only cost 1-2 percent more to build.

green engineer wixstatic

Why is it so important for real estate developers to start going green?

Buildings are responsible for 40 percent of the energy we use and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. These are not renewable resources, so they are directly responsible for climate change. In very dense areas such as Bangkok where the temperature is already high, buildings create an urban heat island effect – they increase the temperature even further.

This is largely due to the thermal effects of concrete which traps heat from the sun and can raise the mercury by as much as 4-5 °C. If we build green, we have a direct solution to mitigate climate change. If we don’t, it’s going to get increasingly worse. Those who will pay the highest price for climate change are often the ones who have played the least part in the use of fossil fuels.

What can be done to incentivise and encourage both developers and homeowners to act now?

Doing good by the planet is great, but when there is a financial incentive it increases the willingness of those involved. If a developer is building a residential project, the tenants benefit from significantly lower utility costs.

You can’t underestimate the marketing power that comes from being able to tell prospective investors they can save up to 14 percent on operational costs, 50 percent on energy and 40 percent on water. Units in a green building typically sell for and can be rented at 30 percent higher as compared to a conventional building.

A study conducted by Jones Lang LaSalle found that 60 percent of commercial real estate buyers are now willing to pay more for green buildings, because they understand that building green directly links to employee productivity and reduced sick leave. It’s also been seen that schools display higher test results and hospital patients recover faster in green buildings.

All these benefits come about because we’re creating a healthier environment inside – the air is cleaner, there are less pollutants and particles, and we’re careful about the kinds of paints, sealants and filters used. There’s also better natural light, which incalculable studies have cited as a solution to depression.

Do you think attitudes towards green buildings vary across Asia?

Asia is making great efforts in terms of green buildings and sustainability as a whole, but there is a lot of disparity between the countries.

Singapore is considered as a green model but it also wastes an incredible amount of energy. China now has the second highest number of green buildings in the world after the US because pollution is such a big problem.

In Thailand the number of certified green buildings has more than doubled annually since 2007, so it’s really promising, but there’s still a lot to do. Thai project developers typically want to see return on investment within about two years – but generally they will see their returns before seven.

My stadium project in Mongolia was interesting in that there are absolutely no green building codes, however people are incredibly open to it because of their extreme weather. They understand how important it is to regulate the climate indoors.

green engineer mygola

Tell more about the GEM Olympic Stadium in Ulaanbaatar

I’ve been working alongside Archetype Mongolia. We’ve finished the conceptual stage, which means that we know how it’s going to look and the green features it will have.

Mongolia has this extraordinary blue sky year-round, so there’s huge solar potential especially for passive heating and energy generation. We orientated the building and its shape so that it could capture most of the passive heat in the winter. By using big south-facing windows, you can heat spaces very easily, and by using triple glazing to keep the warmth in, the heat can’t be wasted.

We’ve also orientated the building in a way to protect it from very cold winds – so it’s out of the way of the strong wind corridors.

Construction in Mongolia is complicated, because during the winter everything is frozen, (temperatures drop to -30 °C) so they can only build for six months of the year. This means everything has to be planned very carefully.

When it’s finished it will be one of the first green Olympic stadiums in the world, which is hugely exciting for me personally.

How do you see green development evolving in Asia over the coming decade?

Emerging countries in Asia have a unique opportunity to start building green now while their major population centres are still growing fast. If they do this now they will truly be cities of the future.
Currently Europe is quite a long way ahead of Asia in terms of green development.

This is partly because building codes are aligned with green standards, but also because people have simply realized it’s a better way to build. Attitudes in Asia are changing fast, and I’m confident that developers will increasingly take this into account.

Pictures sourced from Wixstatic and Mygola. This story originally appeared in Issue No. 141 of PropertyGuru Property Report Magazine.

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Shaiful Safar
Real Estate Negotiator
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True Vest Property Consultants Sdn. Bhd.
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