Sustainability in Korean Architecture

Julianna Davies, from mbaonline (, recently contacted with the desire to contribute and write an article for our site. Her website contains many resources guiding readers to what MBA programs are teaching in terms of financial, social and environmental sustainability. Here, she discusses  sustainability in South Korean architecture under a different light than the one of an architect. We thank her greatly for her much valued opinions and perspective, since they are great additions to We hope to work again with her in the near future.

Sustainability in Korean Architecture

“Green construction”, and the green economy in general, has gained tremendous traction amongst many industries around the world, all the while catching the eye of many investors. Even the business world  has been overlooking the high costs and seeing investments instead. While some businesses are pushing schools to teach sustainability in their masters of business administration and undergraduate programs, others are taking it upon themselves to implement sustainable practices. That said, some countries and industries have admittedly embraced the movement with more gusto than others.

South Korea was one of the first nations to realize the importance of environmentally friendly buildings, and South Korean schools were quick to begin studying up and publishing on this subject. Soon, businesses in South Korea began popping up, especially in the architecture industry. Supported in part by government aid and bolstered by a rigorous certification process, sustainable building practices in Korea are growing by leaps and bounds.

South Korea’s interest in sustainable construction—usually defined as the creation of buildings that are environmentally friendly, use energy efficiently, and cut back on the wasteful use of resources—became an official government concern in 1998. Since that time, the government has launched a series of research projects and studies to evaluate how the country could be a better steward of the resources it has.

A big part of the country’s challenge lies in its pattern of energy consumption. South Korea has long been known as a top innovator in technology. However, the prolific use of smart devices and appliances tends to consume a lot of electricity. Skylines that burn brightly around the clock are not exactly models of efficiency, either; particularly as most newer buildings have not been constructed with conservation in mind. In 2010, South Korea placed second in a survey of Asia’s most intensive energy users.

“Many new buildings are savagely over-designed, wasting capital and upkeep costs,” Simon Thomas, the president of United World College Southeast Asia, told Power Industry News in 2011. “If you rationalize your design and spend on green technology, the savings are going to be immense,” he said.

Things look to be changing in Korea, and for the better. The country is on track to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emission level by 2020, and sustainable building practices are a major part of that vision. The government is supporting eco-friendly design in a number of ways. First, the nation has set out a construction ordinance that sets out minimum standards that all new buildings, whether industrial or residential, must meet. Then, it awards varying levels of certification based on total efficiency. Better certifications can lead to tax breaks and other financial incentives.

“The construction ordinance empowers the Ministers of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and of Environment to jointly implement a green building certification system for the purposes of realizing sustainable development, and promoting the construction of natural resource frugal, nature friendly buildings,”  Sung Woo Shin, a professor in the Department of Architectural Engineering at Hanyang University, wrote in an academic paper. “This certification system assesses a building’s rates of ventilation, exterior heat loss, solar heat absorption, heat loss index, and interior heat absorption,” among other things, he explained.

Builders must only meet the minimum energy efficiency standards. Most of the time, passive construction designs are sufficient. Passive designs are those that make use of natural resources like sunlight and breezes, and seek to use spaces in an inherently efficient manner. High ceilings can help keep buildings cool, for instance, and natural insulation packed within walls can help reduce the need for heating in winter. Strategically-placed windows can also cut down on the need for artificial light during daytime hours.

Many construction firms are going the extra mile and making use of more active sustainability measures, as well. These include solar panels, geothermal energy, and either hydroelectric or wind turbine power sources. These can be expensive, however, and can be difficult to integrate into more traditional Korean buildings. As such, many of the architects hoping to integrate more active sustainability measures are taking a more radical turn, creating buildings in a very modern, almost futuristic style.

South Korea’s National Institute for Environmental Research is a prime example. The Institute’s headquarters building, which was completely renovated in 2011, employs both active and passive sustainability measures within a sleek, streamlined appearance.  The structure is visually interesting, nevertheless distinctively Korean, and has achieved certified carbon zero standing. This means that the building generates enough of its own energy to offset the energy that it uses. “We believe this carbon zero building will play a symbolic role for the country’s low carbon and green growth policy to raise public awareness of reducing greenhouse gases,” NIER said shortly after the renovations were unveiled.

Not all new construction in south Korea is as extreme as the NIER headquarters. Builders across the country are embracing more sustainable construction practices across the board. By focusing on efficiency as well as style and cutting-edge design, South Korean architects are helping make their country an emerging leader in architectural efficiency and conservation.

Julianna Davies,




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