SUZHOU, CHINA — My intention had been to scratch out a little post to this blog every day while traveling in China, but the time here is precious. As a result, I’ve (selfishly) decided to try and take good notes and photos, and share the highlights at stopping points along the way. It’s Sunday morning and at least an hour before my good friend, Mr. GQ Zhao, and Mr. Pang Zhangzi of the China Building Waterproofing Magazine (CBW) pick Micki and me up for a day of talking and touring around Suzhou.
These gentlemen are understandably proud of their home city. The day before yesterday, Mr. Pang, and CBW editor-in-chief, Ms. Ding Chunua, took us for a tour of old and new Suzhou, including a tour of the new Suzhou Museum, designed by famed Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei. This stop was on my wish list as I find Mr. Pei’s story very intriguing. Pei grew up in his family’s home located in the Lion’s Garden adjacent to the site of the Suzhou Museum. He moved to the US in the 1930’s where he studied architecture at MIT and Harvard.
The day before was spent at the office of the China Building Materials Academy Suzhou Waterproof Research Institute (the Institute) and the CBW. The Institute has a varied mission that includes: designing and selling lines for the manufacture of modified asphalt roofing; overseeing the testing of roofing and waterproofing materials for use all over China; and other waterproofing-related construction consulting and inspection services. These services are offered all over China and the MB lines are sold worldwide, most notably in the Middle East.
It’s always been difficult to understand exactly how the construction industry works, including the roofing and waterproofing sectors. This is, after all, a communist country and the state owns and controls much of the industry. So when I sit down to talk roofing with a group of editors at CBW and engineers and leaders from the Institute, language is not the only barrier to reaching an understanding with each other. We speak a different language of construction and business that makes it even more difficult to understand each other’s situation. There are, however, a wide variety of interests, including partnerships with foreign manufacturers at play in construction.
Despite of the several barriers to understanding, we entered some interesting discussions with Mr. Zhao and Ms. Ding acting as the primary translators. (See photos and coverage of the meeting in the Institute’s digital publication here.)
The Chinese are intensely interested in what is going on in the roofing industry in the U.S. I was interested in learning how they were doing in terms of their economy and the recently-announced 13th Five-Year Plan.
Sitting at a table with a dozen of their industry professionals was a bit daunting. I had to explain to them (more than once) that I while I am very proud to act as a temporary ambassador for the roofing industry in America, I am not an expert, only an observer.
Going in reverse, my question about the 13th Five-Year Plan did not capture much interest on the other side of the table. They shared that this is a very high-level plan and is still somewhat of a work-in-progress. Part of the plan has to do with improving the environment, which has been an emerging topic for the construction industry in China for some time. The new Plan seems to support this.
They were all interested in learning more about how we are doing with the deployment of garden roofing and all things “green.” I shared with them that the cool roof movement continues to be strong and that the use of growing amounts of high-thermal insulation continues to be part of all low-slope roofing systems. The building standards in China do not typically require much by way of roof insulation. The deck of choice is concrete and many buildings do not have a membrane roof, but are rather waterproofed by way of a coating and elastomeric sealants in the joints and penetrations. They consider anything less than concrete decks “cheap,” while we would consider simply coating a concrete deck as a waterproofing course likewise.
This led to a question from one of the engineers who is responsible for growing the use of TPO’s in China. He wanted to know why it is so popular in the U.S. and how he can encourage greater use of this membrane (and PVC’s) in China. I told him I thought ours is a completely different building system and the specification to simply put TPO on what they presently do may not work. If, however, they were to change the building system to the lighter weight corrugated deck with high-thermal insulation, it would quickly become one of the logical choices along with EPDM and MB.
Can you imagine how difficult his job is … to move a building industry in a new direction such as this? If it were my job to change building designers in the U.S. to move to concrete roof decks, I think I would toss in the towel today. With the focus on green in China, I think there may be a silver lining for my new friend’s task of moving to better membrane roofing on low-slope decks. It is, like the rest of the Plan, going to take a good deal of time and effort.
Asphalt shingles are another example of the Chinese perception that we use cheap construction materials. They favor tile or metal on their steep-sloped buildings. Asphalt shingles are manufactured in China but their use is found only on modular/pre-fab buildings or buildings that require lightweight roof coverings. For years the product has been improved, but the perception of asphalt shingles as cheap is still alive and well here.
I explained that the manufacturing process for asphalt shingles has improved greatly along with the quality. The fact that asphalt shingles can be manufactured in many colors and styles is of great benefit in the U.S. market where these are in great demand. I also explained that the use of metal tile and shingles is growing in the U.S. despite of the higher initial cost (vs. asphalt). I added that we have many markets (Florida, Arizona, California, for example) where tile roofs are very popular and represent a very significant percentage of the steep-slope roofing market.
For their part, the Institute sees two things as having changed the most since my last visit here in 2009: the quality of waterproofing materials (driven by the demands of the builders and building owners) and the drive toward more environmentally-friendly construction. The pace of construction is seen as robust and remaining so in the future.
Speaking of, “since the last time I was here”, the skyline has been transformed. The area around Jinji Lake is unrecognizable. Two subway lines have been completed and another is under construction. I wonder how sustainable this kind of growth can be, and the Chinese must wonder the same thing. The “two-child” rule and focus on the environment seem to point the country in the direction of addressing this issue. It seems, too, that the voices of the Chinese people are being heard and attended to by their government, which is always a good thing to see.
I don’t want to make any political judgements here, many in the U.S. believe the Chinese operate under a political system that is not good for its people. However, when you have the opportunity to visit and begin to know a people, you begin to feel a bit differently about them. As you would any individual, one on one, one at a time.