China Power

Taiwan’s Magic Green School

With the Taipei 101 building eclipsed as the world’s tallest, can Taiwan instead create some of the world’s greenest?

By Benjamin Fox & John D’Angola for

Developed nations have traditionally displayed their industrial might in part by erecting grandiose skyscrapers. But with Dubai’s Burj Khalifa standing a half-mile high and Saudi Arabia’s plans for a skyscraper double its height, it’s hard not to think about the limits, both physically and logically, of such a contest. 

Now, though, landmark sustainable buildings are increasingly emerging as new benchmarks that can be used to measure a nation’s technological prowess.  Examples of these innovative low-carbon and energy efficient structures include NASA’s Sustainability Base in California and the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China.  And, in keeping with this shift, Taiwan has re-distinguished itself by creating one of the world’s greenest buildings.

Inaugurated on January 12 this year, the Y. S. Sun Green Building Research Center is Taiwan’s first zero-carbon, energy-saving building.  But in contrast to its moniker, ‘The Magic School of Green Technology,’ there’s nothing fantastical about the concept of zero-carbon or carbon negative buildings. The technologies and design principles utilized in Taiwan’s greenest building (including solar panels, natural ventilation, and rainwater recycling) are hardly revolutionary. In fact, several larger projects in Taiwan that rely upon more complex green technology are currently being constructed (such as the space age Taiwan Tower in Taichung).  However, the Magic School is an interesting example because of its exclusive reliance on private sector funding within a policy climate increasingly focused on green buildings and sustainable development.

Embedded within The Magic School is the hope that its design principles can eventually be scaled to Taiwan’s metropolitan centres.  Taiwan is the world’s second most densely populated state (after Bangladesh) and 78 percent of the island’s residents live in cities.  Commensurate with its high level of wealth and development, Taiwan is also one of the world’s largest overall and per capita contributors to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In order to simultaneously reduce its carbon footprint and invest in the low-carbon and clean technology industries, the Taiwanese government has recently prioritized a path of sustainable urban development. The legislature has called for the creation of 50 low-carbon pilot communities (two for every city and county in Taiwan) by 2012. These communities are to serve as a predecessor to larger initiatives; Taiwan will have four low-carbon cities and two low-carbon islands by 2014, and four low carbon regions by 2021.

Taiwan’s focus on low-carbon urban development represents a growing awareness of green buildings in Taiwan. In 1998, Taiwan created its own green building evaluation tool, the equivalent of LEED in the United States. Dubbed EEWH (ecology, energy saving, waste reduction, and health), the official green building label has been applied to over 200 buildings in , and over a thousand have received certification. 

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In 2004, Taiwan also established a system for labelling green building construction materials. As of 2007, over 100 materials received labelling, and 5 percent of all materials used for exterior finishing on Taiwan’s new buildings must be green.  While this might appear to be a trifling amount, the annual value of green building materials in Taiwan already exceeds US$100 million. Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has also predicted that the total industry value of green buildings will reach $2 billion per year by 2015. Recognizing the strategic importance of this trend, the government passed a plan in 2010 to invest an additional $100 million in green buildings. This is in addition to a $592 million investment in renovations for buildings older than 20 years aimed at improving quality of life and environmental friendliness.

Given the context of increased government focus on sustainable buildings, its lack of financial support for the Magic School is surprising.  While the aforementioned Sustainability Base and Pearl River Tower are the results of state-led initiatives, the Magic School is a fulfilment of purely private philanthropy. Bruce Cheng, Chairman of Delta Electronics, personally donated half of the $7 million construction budget.  Another 30 Taiwanese individuals donated $700,000 in green building materials, while the university’s privately funded Research and Development Fund covered the remaining costs. The end result – from carpets made of corn to building-integrated photovoltaic panels – is entirely a product of private sector initiative.

When asked why the Taiwanese government played no role in the Magic School’s development, National Cheng Kung University Prof. Hsien-Te Lin described partnering with the government as ‘being bound by the hands and feet.’ Lin, who designed and managed the building with Architect Chao-Yung Shi, explained that government cooperation in creative green building projects is extremely difficult under current ordinances. Compounding the issue of bureaucratic inefficiency, government support for medium-scale green building projects is affected by electricity pricing and focus on scale.

Taiwan boasts some of the lowest electricity prices in the developed world, and the Taiwanese government heavily subsidizes electricity costs to placate voters. This represents a fundamental misdirection of government funds and Taiwan’s most significant barrier to low-carbon and energy efficient buildings. Additionally, the Taiwanese government prioritizes large-scale projects that enhance Taiwan’s global visibility. Iconic structures like the Kaohsiung World Games Stadium and the Taipei 101, as well as forthcoming projects such as Taichung’s Metropolitan Opera House and Taiwan Tower, are meant to showcase the nation’s technological capabilities.

The Magic School of Green Technology is a symbol of the sort of positive corporate involvement the world needs. Despite the Taiwanese government’s recognition of green buildings as a national priority, inefficiencies in its legislation and investment persist. In the case of the Magic School, Taiwan’s private sector succeeded in picking up the slack and facilitating change where government efforts failed.  In countries around the globe, government investment in green buildings will only take urban sustainability so far. 

It might frequently be the case that well-intentioned public investments are poorly equipped for fostering innovative, smaller-scale projects. Private enterprise must therefore contribute its share of investment to usher in the next generation of green buildings and sustainable cities.