Public and Private Entrepreneurship Join to Build Zero Energy Housing in Seoul

EZ HOUSE buildings

Beginning in November 2017, some residents in Seoul have moved into a zero energy residential complex called “EZ HOUSE.” Built in Nowon District, this is the first zero energy building (ZEB) residential complex in South Korea that is at the scale of a small village. A zero energy building is commonly defined as one that produces enough renewable energy to meet its own energy consumption requirements and uses all cost-effective efficiency measures to reduce energy usage. In the US, buildings consume 38 percent of total energy. In South Korea, buildings tend to account for 19 to 20 percent (pdf) of energy consumption, which surpasses even the transportation sector. Tackling energy consumption in buildings will create significant long-term benefits such as lower environmental impacts, lower operating and maintenance costs, improved resiliency to power outages, and improved energy security. Nowon EZ HOUSE goes beyond that of a simple ZEB development. And it provides us with a clear case that you need two to tango, requiring both public entrepreneurship and the drive of the private sector to be conceived and built.

The story goes back to 2012, when Professor Myuongju Lee at Myongji University’s College of Architecture visited a vacant tract of land in Nowon District guided by the District Head Sunghwan Kim. Kim asked Lee at the site if she could transform the land into a zero energy residential area. This moment was the beginning of both an opportunity and a challenge. At the time, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MoLIT) had introduced the concept of zero energy buildings into the policy arena; however, not many municipal governments wanted to take the risk of rolling out the first project. Despite this, the Nowon District government and Myongji University embarked on constructing three apartment buildings with zero energy heating systems with the support of the Seoul Metropolitan government. Their budget of US $4.5 million, though, could only cover one-sixth of the total resources they needed.

Private Sector Drive, Perseverance and Creativity

In June 2013, the ministry opened a call for proposals for “Zero Energy Residential Complex Model Development and Complex Establishment R&D Project.” The project was both an R&D and a “demonstration” project, with residents actively living in the complex. It was awarded to the consortium led by Myongji University, Nowon District government, Seoul Metropolitan government, KCC E&C (a construction company), and SH Urban Research Institute in September 2013; however, it took two years for construction to begin. Seoul city government demanded far more requirements in contract evaluation and took extra time because EZ HOUSE was not only the first zero energy residential complex but the first apartment managed and leased by a district government. The private sector, led by Professor Lee’s team, took ownership of going through the bumpy road of navigating through two layers of complicated administrative processes throughout the multiple phases of contract evaluations, resubmitting cost items, redoing the energy simulations, receiving approvals from two different committees and two different laws, and other similar obstacles.

Dozens of new technologies have been applied in every part of the buildings, about 15 of which were the first to be used in the country. The team first built a single-unit zero energy house (a mockup house) to test its performance over a year with residents living in it. Various high-efficiency materials, technologies, systems, and their interactions were monitored and refined here to be applied in the final construction of the complex. EZ HOUSE is expected to achieve well over its zero energy goal — modeling data and results show that it will actually end up producing surplus energy annually — by connecting heating, cooling, and hot water conduits through a geothermal system. We may eventually see residential buildings become power plants in the city. Tilt-and-turn windows and doors prevent both energy and heat losses. The air quality inside is maintained to the level of a nearby woods; centralized and integrated pipes, heat exchangers, a high-efficiency heat recovery ventilation system, and other technologies make this possible. Automated outside blinds go up when the wind blows speeds higher than their threshold to prevent against damage. The residential complex generates more than 407,503 kWh/year of electricity and 229,278 kWh/year of heat. Surplus electricity is transmitted to utilities through a micro-grid system. 

The total construction fee amounted to US$ 27.4 million (KRW 31.43 billion) of which 1.7 percent was spent to source materials not produced in the country. Now the project is drawing the attention of domestic players to develop new product line-ups, creating a ripple effect in the construction industry and market.

Public Entrepreneurship as Innovation Catalyst

While various regulatory measures were critical to enabling this project, what EZ HOUSE shows is that policies, regulations, or systems alone do not bring breakthrough ideas and plans to life. Public sector innovation is a continuous process of testing, refinement, reiteration, adoption, and replication that requires a sustained entrepreneurial spirit. MoLIT has mandated green building for all new public buildings by 2020, all the other types of new buildings by 2025, and all existing buildings by 2030. All data and results from EZ HOUSE will be shared with the public, and the MoLIT will strengthen and refine energy efficiency standards for residential buildings based on the outcomes. The ministry will also prepare zero energy residential building design guidelines based on the findings and share them with the private sector to support the industry and stimulate the market. Until 2020, it will be a process of experimenting, finding, and optimizing the best possible models. Once the market takes over after this initial stage, the ministry expects the cost of green construction to lower to the level of 10 percent higher than traditional construction costs. Currently, it is 20 to 30 percent higher in South Korea. There are groups who oppose the green building regulations due to cost implications or required changes in their business-as-usual practices; however, the government is undertaking an extensive consultation process. “We are trying to listen to and include as diverse views as possible together with industry experts, institutions, and different groups,” says director of Building Policy, Choong-hwan Ahn at MoLIT. “Green buildings are not only a part of a long-term national policy response to climate change but also a way to increase building durability and citizens’ safety, and at the same time, reduce citizens’ living cost. Given the holistic benefits, the policy direction towards green building is to be continued.”

We will see how the entrepreneurial spirit from both the public and the private sectors leads to major change in the city as well as in other parts of the country. Nowon EZ HOUSE is only the beginning.

(All photos courtesy of Dr. Eung-Shin Lee, a resident researcher at EZ HOUSE)

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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