If you’re a regular Inhabitat reader, you’re probably already familiar with LEED, BREEAM, Passivhaus and even LBC, but there’s another green building certification program that you should know about – particularly if you’re interested in sustainable architecture in Asia. The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of Singapore launched the Green Mark certification system in 2005 as a way to incentivize energy efficiency and cut dependence on foreign resources, but the program has since traveled outside of national borders and has been adopted by other Asian countries as an established standard for sustainable building. We recently met with the BCA’s CEO, Dr. John Keung, during the 2013 International Green Building Conference  to pick his brain about what distinguishes Green Mark from other green certification systems, what Singapore is doing to promote eco-conscious design and behaviors through education and how the program is making its “mark” on Asia. Read on to learn more about Green Mark and see Dr. Keung’s thoughts.

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INHABITAT: For our readers who aren’t familiar with Green Mark, can you give us a little overview?

DR. KEUNG: As a whole, Green Mark is a green building certification system very similar to LEED in the US or BREEAM in the UK. I suppose the key difference is that we place a lot more emphasis on energy efficiency in our certification system. As an example, for LEED, energy efficiency probably accounts for a quarter or 25% of the entire scoring system while in Green Mark, it is 50% or more. The reason as a whole is very simple, as I mentioned the other day – because [Singapore does not] have any natural resources in terms of oil or natural gas, or power generation. We import all our energy from our neighboring countries. So, the less we consume, the better off we are. So, for energy security reasons, we do emphasize a lot more on energy efficiency. That’s why we want our green building, our Green Mark team, to help us achieve this objective – to cut down the need for energy: to light up, to cool down our buildings. That is one key difference.

The other key difference of Green Mark compared to LEED is that we emphasize a lot on verification – meaning we really want the building to be designed green, built green, and operate green. So, we do the verification process to make sure that whatever is happening on the ground is really in accordance with the design. What you promise to do, you deliver in your project.

INHABITAT: This is a program that’s being run by the government, so it’s a little bit different from other certifications. Is there a third party – someone else who’s coming in to survey and make sure that everything is legitimate?

DR. KEUNG: Well, I suppose we see ourselves as an impartial, objective regulator, because the building is not ours. We actually function like a third party to certify this green building. We are not the consultant, we are not the developer, we are not the land owner, so we are effectively a regulator. Ever since 2008, all new buildings in Singapore have to meet a minimum standard of Green Mark Certification. So effectively, this becomes a part of the building code. That’s how we see ourselves, as an objective third party, to verify, and certify a building that is green. We are not a commercial entity. We have no commercial interest in any of these buildings.

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INHABITAT: What are the different certification levels in Green Mark?

DR. KEUNG: We have four levels. The lowest level is what we call the certified level. That’s the minimum. Then we have the second level, which is a Gold level, then Gold Plus. You can see that we don’t like silver (laughs). And then of course, the highest level is Platinum. But, for everyone of each level- as far as energy efficiency is concerned – there is a minimum mandatory requirement. A Platinum-level project must be 30-35% more energy efficient than one that just complies with Gold Plus and the same applies to Gold Plus and Gold. For example in a Platinum building, if you cannot achieve 35% more energy efficiency than a co-compliant building, you can’t get a Platinum certification even if you do very well in many other areas.

INHABITAT: Singapore is impressive in that 21% of the building stock in the country has achieved Green Mark certification. Is that correct?

DR. KEUNG: As of today? Yes, we are at 21%. One in five.

INHABITAT: That’s very impressive. So, what advise do you have for other cities looking to achieve this level of certification?

DR. KEUNG: I suppose for most cities it’s probably not too difficult to legislate new buildings to be green. I think the more difficult problem is really to get existing buildings to go green, because they are the bulk of your stock. It’s really very important to find the right levers to really interest the building owners to come forward and green their existing buildings. Of course legislation is one way, but if there are other incentives to really get them interested in greening the building, it may be more effective. So, that’s why you know in Singapore we have a very strong incentive in terms of funding support – upgrading schemes, metro-fitting schemes for existing buildings. That is one way.

But I think the other, probably more important area is that cities need to look at how to raise awareness among the public, because not everyone is aware that a green building can eventually give you a lot of benefit in terms of cost savings. For example, you cut down electricity consumption. That is important, but not many people know. And the other part of raising awareness is really know about the public – people who work in the building or live in the building.

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INHABITAT: Have you found that Green Mark has helped the local economy in any way?

DR. KEUNG: Tough question. It’s hard to measure but the entire economy has been helped probably in terms of energy saving. We know of existing buildings going green like hospitals. They save half a million to $800,000 in terms of electricity consumption every year. So, these are very visible impacts on the economy. But another way is that we do export quite a number of green building schemes overseas. And many of our consultants, they do work on Green Mark projects, or green building projects. Even if they don’t use the Green Mark certification, they have the expertise, they have the knowledge, to do the design. And I think in the industry, many of them realize that going forward that Singapore consultants want to be competitive against the other international consultants. So, that’s why we are seeing a lot of take up in our courses, in our training scheme for green building design and so on. We plan to train 20,000 green-collar workers by 2020. Today, I think, five, six thousand have already trained in various programs.

INHABITAT: So, it’s a certification like becoming a LEED AP?

DR. KEUNG: Similar. We call it Green Mark manager, Green Mark professionals. But these are more for working professionals. In the BCA Academy, we have a whole suite of green courses. Master’s degrees all the way down to bachelors degrees, specialist diplomas, diplomas and certificates. So, it covers not just the professionals, but also professional supervisors. And it’s not just for green building design. It’s also for maintenance and operation of green building because we believe that no matter how good the design, if you don’t know how to operate and run your building, you’re not going to get the full benefit. So, that’s why we place a significant number of people in maintenance operation of green buildings. Actually we have a Master’s degree course, just on that with the University College in London. It is a joint program between BCA Academy and UCL. Very well subscribed.

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INHABITAT: How much more does it typically cost a developer to build towards green mark certification and do you have any standard numbers about how much one can save?

DR. KEUNG: In terms of cost premium – some additional cost. If you are looking at the basic, lowest level, the cost can be zero. Zero to one, two percent, that kind of number. But of course we want to go for higher levels of certification. The Platinum level, for example. It would probably cost you more – a two, four or six percent premium. But if you look at pay back period, over two to six years, you get everything back. Then the rest is net benefit. We probably can share with you some other additional information.

INHABITAT: With those numbers, it makes a lot of sense to try to achieve Green Mark. Is that one way that you market it?

DR. KEUNG: That’s why we publicize this kind of business case, quite regularly. Basically we share this knowledge with the industry building owner, developer and so on. These are additional incentives for them to go green and get as high a rating as possible.

INHABITAT: In terms of the end user, do you see a demand for people willing to pay a premium to live in a green building?

DR. KEUNG: We’ve done some surveys before on whether people are prepared to pay a premium on green. Some of them do. Probably not the majority, but then they are all very keen to find out – as an homeowner for example – if my air conditioning system is the most energy efficient, how much do I save every year? So we also monitor these kinds of changes and we publicize the information. You see that when show that to people- they definitely want to reap those kinds of benefits.

+ Green Mark