If you are a Shanghai apartment-dweller, you may observe one of life's bigger ironies right outside your front door. While many apartment buildings are conscientiously lit by motion-activated lights that require you to stamp your feet to turn them on, most apartments are bereft of insulation or any other energy-saving features. As a result, air conditioning (kongtiao) units have to be cranked up to heat rooms, racking up enormous electricity bills, or you just have to wear your parka to bed.
Luckily, at least one man has come up with a solution to those problems. Austrian architect Genco Berk is on a mission to save his clients from experiencing another dreadful Shanghai winter huddling in bed with an overcoat or feeling the skin of their lips crack from the drying "yet necessary" heat of the kongtiao.
"When I first came, my kongtiao was always on, and my bill ended up well over RMB 1,000," says Berk. "It hurts me to know that in a few years, people won't be able to pay their energy bills anymore. Today, you sit in a cold home, a concrete shell. You see people sneezing and catching colds. There's another bill for that people not going to work, and medical costs."
Berk's mission is particularly timely because the government announced plans to improve energy efficiency in buildings nationwide in its eleventh Five-Year Plan last March. For example, planners hope to renovate 25 percent of all residential and public buildings in major cities by 2010, as well as 15 percent of the buildings in medium-sized cities and 10 percent of those in small cities. The whole job will be completed by 2020. New buildings in six major cities will be required to consume 35 percent less energy than the equivalent level in the 1980s. These plans come with good reason: The energy used to heat a square meter of housing in China is double or triple that required in a developed country.
To bring his plan to fruition, Berk found a client whose home was afflicted by typical Shanghai apartment problems. It was a 175 square meter bachelor's pad in a high-rise building on Jianguo Lu built sometime in the late 90s; the apartment was spacious, but in need of sprucing up. Inside, it was too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer; the layout of the apartment was strange, and noise seeped in from outside. Berk set out to transform the apartment into a quiet, energy-efficient sanctuary that would keep heating bills down, its occupants warm and the noise out. Oh, and it wouldn't look half bad either.
First, he insulated the main exterior walls "but from inside, instead of outside, as it is usually done in other countries" because most Shanghai apartment buildings do not come with exterior wall insulation. Berk says this is a major cause of coldness indoors, because the cold leeches in from the exterior walls and ceilings constantly.
So Berk added an extra layer to the walls using plywood, sandwiching a pocket of air between the interior and exterior walls to keep out the cold and street noise. He also added double-glazed windows that, when closed, would seal out drafts and noise.
Then Berk threw out the kongtiaos. Although such a move would render most apartments unlivable, Berk replaced them with gas-powered radiators. The radiators were strategically tucked under ledges or unobtrusively installed along walls.
"No one really knows what the radiators are [the first time they see them] because they don't look like radiators at all," he says.
But the radiator system was not without its challenges. Berk discovered that Shanghai apartments rarely come with chimneys, so he had to install the boiler for the radiators in the kitchen close to a window to let the emissions out.
In energy-efficiency parlance, the radiator system was an active energy-saving solution, while the insulated walls were passive. By combining both approaches, Berk maximized the apartment's energy efficiency.
Finally, Berk augmented the apartment's strange layout. He created a sliding space-divider between the entrance and the living room to block out noise from the shared corridor outside while ventilating the living room. The sliding divider solution gave the room privacy without sacrificing the sense of space.
Additionally, Berk overhauled the apartment's interior design, installing new fixtures, selecting new furniture, installing new kitchen cabinets and even upgrading the bathroom and toilet.
In the end, though, even the most energy-efficient and beautiful apartment would be useless if its occupant didn't like it. Berks' client, Pong Yen, a 30-year-old Los Angeles native, however, couldn't have been happier with the end-result. "I had some relatives from the States staying with me and they were really excited by the look of the apartment; it's something simple and functional, but I really like it," he says.