Meet the Expert: Charles Gallavardin on sustainable architecture in HCMC

Today, the demand for more sustainable design in HCMC is steadily getting off the ground. Charles Gallavardin of T3 Architecture Asia sat down with Citypassguide.com to give his perspective on green buildings in Vietnam. Charles and his wife started T3 Architecture in France in 2007, specialising in green architecture. When Charles arrived in Vietnam in 2011 to begin T3 Architecture Asia, the demand for green building was low, although interest was growing. We spoke with Charles to determine what changes were taking place to catalyse this newfound interest.

What is the definition of a green building for you?

It’s a building well integrated into the place it’s set up at. It should take the landscape into consideration - the shape of the building is quite important, to be protected from the sun and allow for natural ventilation. The idea is to avoid direct light in a hot tropical climate; that’s why we design overhangs or balconies, to take the facade away from the sun, so you keep your main walls in the shadows.

Secondly, you have to take care of the roof, and make sure there is a double ventilated roof to keep the air flow and make the top floor always cool. Then, ideally, you try to use green building materials, sourced not too far from where you are.

Why does Saigon need such type of construction?

Saigon is one of the more polluted cities in Asia now. There is a huge issue concerning air pollution. The demand of energy is getting higher than what can be produced. What we can see for many years is that Vietnam is mainly doing a “copy-paste” of buildings they saw in Western countries with full glass facades but they didn’t realise that the climate is totally different and that they have to create their own style to make their building more appropriate to the climate, to save energy, save costs and make the building more comfortable.

Do you think one of the main challenges to building green buildings in Vietnam has to do with people’s perception?

Yes. I think when you discuss this with most Vietnamese, of course they want more parks and more green areas. But in reality, in urban development in Vietnam, this is still considered a quantity issue. Which means they try to plant vegetation to increase the number of green area per square meter per inhabitant, but without having in mind that it’s better to have many small parks than having long green areas along the highway. It is the same story with green buildings: a green roof doesnæt make your building green.

 

Do you think one of the main concerns for people who don’t understand green buildings too well is the fear of additional costs?

I don’t think so, because finally we can do green buildings quite cheap, depending on the material you use. But the green principles are very basic and you can find it everywhere in the traditional architecture of Vietnam. Traditionally you have your long and narrow plot, with the shop facing the street, the house on the backside and a courtyard in the middle. The air ventilation is efficient and you have natural light in your house and your shop. The house is far from the street so it’s far from the noise. For 20-30 years, Vietnamese have lost their knowledge of how to create a green house, but recently some young Vietnamese architecture firms take traditional building materials and traditional Vietnamese architecture and incorporate it in a more modern sense to make the house more green.

So green houses are one issue, but can you tell us about the problem of green urban areas? Is this something that can happen in Vietnam?

Yes, it could. But what we can see in the development in Vietnam, it’s always private investors who wield the city, and their model is a Singaporean one, but with a lower budget and less knowledge. There are really few alternatives for high-rise buildings and private houses. So when you have a private house, the plot is usually very small, and you have very few green areas. And for high-rises, you need to build these by large streets if you follow regulations, so then you have very narrow green areas.

One solution would be to make the city very dense, with apartment blocks lower with some streets more narrow, but keeping some spaces open for parks and public gardens, like we have in Europe.

Is the government aware and sensitive about the need to do something about that?

Yes, they are. There are many discussions about this. But if you’re a private investor and you finance infrastructure, the government cannot complain too much about what you do. You try to optimize your plot as much as possible.

Is it possible to bring more awareness to private investors by showing them the financial reward in doing so?

Yes. In America and Europe, the government pushes green building by giving a loan or some advantage. The government in Vietnam doesn’t have a lot of money, so they’ve let the private investors do the development. But private investors’ awareness is going up because they see people want more green spaces, nice areas around their apartments, so it’s starting to change.

Is it feasible to build a green house or building using only locally sourced material?

Yes, it’s possible. There are many materials available; less than Western countries or Singapore, but enough to build something green. The prices are the time.

What about reusing old material. Is that something that happens in Vietnam?

Yes, a bit. For example, many architects reuse wooden shutters for part of the facade to use as ventilation. But not so much, since the quality of the construction is not so good and when you destroy a house there’s not much you can use.

Some years ago I met with an architect and he told me something that surprised me. He said that Vietnam is one of the best countries in the world for recycling. When a house is being dismantled, the Vietnamese will often take every brick and every cable, to try and reuse it for some other purpose. Is this true?

This is partially true. They reuse material by placing it on natural soil to make it not porous anymore, and then they pour cement over it to make a concrete slab. But then you have the problem that you don’t have enough natural soil then to absorb the water during rainy season, and it makes flooding a very important issue in the near future.

Energy consumption is growing, meaning the price has to go up, which means it makes sense to have more energy efficient practices and buildings, correct?

Yes, this happens in every city. When energy prices go up, green houses and buildings become more and more normal. Of course, for Vietnam, electricity cost is very low, even compared to the standard of life. One issue, even though it’s never easy for government to say that they have to increase electricity costs, especially for poor people, it’s a real way to make developers and private investors more concerned about energy savings.

In 10 years from now, what do you think the state of green buildings will be in Vietnam?

Green construction has been developing more and more, first in hospitality projects; you have international guests, so five or six years ago in the private sector and even residential projects, Vietnamese started to be more concerned about energy and cost savings, and the quality of the environment. Thanks to Vietnamese architects and small agencies, we can do something more.

Almost none of the existing high-rises in Ho Chi Minh City are really environmentally friendly. If the price of energy rises, most of these building will have to be rebuilt or adapt to the new demands. And you provide this service?

Yes, full renovation to adapt an existing building and make it less costly in terms of energy, and most important of all we make it more comfortable for people!

How big of a project is it for someone who wants to make their home more green?

Usually, you have to touch up the facade and main structure, so it’s a bit costly, but you don’t have to demolish all. It can be from some very simple like adding shutters, to touching up the roof at VND 3 million per sq m, up to VND 10 million per sq m to redo something very properly and almost reconstruct the house.

Is the wiring in Vietnam efficient?

In terms of fire hazards and electric shock, no. 

And LEDs?

There is a huge market for LEDs. They are replacing halogens with LEDs everywhere, more and more in residential projects. But before thinking about advanced technology and costly equipment - which is important also - the first thing is to try and hire a good designer when you are creating a building. And if the design is well done you are sure to have very low consumption. And of course you put some LEDs and solar panels. One of the problems in Vietnam and in developing countries in general is people don’t think of the basics. Once you do this, then you can think of the high-tech equipment and energy efficiency.

Updated: March 20, 2017

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