Developing healthy buildings in Jakarta, one step at a time

Wendy Haryanto
Executive Director, Jakarta Property Institute
Opinion – published in Construction + Asia mag

Jakarta’s housing development and management practices are far from healthy. We often hear in the media about disputes between developers and tenants over building management and the plight of evicted slum residents who are forced to live in vertical housing for the first time. These issues are evidence of unhealthy development and management that centre around dense, vertical buildings. The lesson is clear: being healthy is not just the physical edifice of buildings but, it is also a matter of designing and managing these units properly for the residents.

So what constitutes a healthy building? I find that the Triple Bottom Line approach – often used as a guide to achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability – provides a good framework for judging building health. Firstly, it must be socially sensitive toward its residents and their respective communities; secondly, financially sensible for all stakeholders; thirdly, have the feasibility to implement green practices.
Here is where I think Jakarta is lacking with regard to those aspects.


Vertical, Dense Buildings in Jakarta

As of 2015, Jakarta’s housing backlog numbered upwards of 1.2 million units. Our progress has been slow, and we are not building fast enough to keep pace with the growth in population, economy and labour force. In 2018 alone, Jakarta’s labour force grew by an astounding 186,000. Though there is no quick-fix to such a complex issue, JPI believes that the inevitable solution is building vertically. Such is the enormity of demand for housing, and pressure that come with living in dense, vertical environments that it makes this the perfect time to discuss healthy development and management in that sector, for if we don’t, Jakarta will suffer the consequences for decades to come, like cancer that insidiously eats up our bodies.


Healthy Means Socially Sensitive

Healthy buildings have the planning foresight necessary to create safe, sanitary and socially vibrant communities. Here are two methods for encouraging such an environment: firstly, investing in design that considers people’s needs; secondly, maintaining basic upkeep of assets.

These issues occur across all types of vertical developments, but are particularly pronounced in government-subsidised public housing. This is a segment that needs profound care and attention. Many residents of government-subsidised housing have never lived in vertical housing before. We often hear about public housing facilities that were seemingly adequate, at least at first, but were designed without consideration of residents’ economic and social vitality.

Healthy design starts with selecting a reasonable location for its residents. Many of the recent government-subsidised developments intended to accommodate evicted residents from the city’s slum areas are built on the outer edges of Jakarta, such as Rorotan and Marunda, far away from jobs. Access to public transit is often sparse or worse, an afterthought. This only exacerbates the problem for the lower-income residents who spend disproportionately large portions of their income on transportation costs and time on commuting. Allowing lower-income occupants access to a greater range of economic opportunities should be of the utmost priority. To do that, we must be able to afford them good locations where they can walk or conveniently take a short public transit ride. Uprooted from their neighbourhoods and away jobs, they are then presented with high rent and utility costs in their new dwellings. Many small mom-and-pops merchants who move together with them are relegated to an even worse situation as they lose their businesses and income earning customers.

The buildings are often modelled after what white collar professionals look for in an apartment: a place to sleep. These government-built buildings fail to replicate or adequately replace what the previous informal settlements offer: a place for business, socialisation and community. The result is a broken social fabric. Hastily constructed housing provisions in remote locations rarely possess comfortable, safe pedestrian facilities within and around the compounds.

Public housing developments are frequently managed poorly leading to crime and squalor. When the JPI team visited Rusun Muara Baru, the residents shared their qualms. There was a distinct lack of security and sanitation. They even noted that many motorbikes around the area were often stolen. The complex was clearly exposed to thieves and other nefarious characters. In other developments, we learn that there is no clean running water from the taps and reliable electricity. Residents resort to buying water from water trucks and installing power generators. They pump water to their unit through hoses that dangle outside the building. For the government, fulfilling housing targets is a more immediate concern than the social needs of the residents. They are the forgotten population, often abandoned in unhealthy situations. These people deserve to be provided with healthy buildings to live in and be treated with dignity.


Healthy Means Financially Sound

Healthy buildings ensure that consumers pay a fair price for their unit and benefit from value appreciation. Two ways of achieving this: firstly, simplify the building permit application process; secondly, hire professional building managers.

It is no secret that attaining a building permit is an onerous process. This lengthy procedure drives up uncertainty and costs. What may be less apparent is that private developers do not actually end up shouldering this burden—it is passed on to consumers. Any additional construction costs are reflected in the price that buyers or tenants pay. It is thus obvious: streamlining permit application processes benefits everyone.

Based on JPI’s research and interview with practitioners, it takes an estimated three years to complete all of the procedures required for a building permit for buildings above eight floors. This applies to apartment buildings. Such bureaucracy has a price. From my experience, developers will often set aside up to 30 percent of their construction budgets to account for “uncertainty”, of which a significant portion is attributed to permit applications. Cutting down on this process is low-hanging fruit; it is one aspect of uncertainty that the government can mitigate.

Simple steps towards efficiency can save countless people time, money and headaches. Processing time can be cut down by omitting redundancy, outdated regulation and viable substitutes for code standards that are unnecessarily stringent for developers to meet. For example, even when adhering to the city’s Master Plan (Rencana Detil Tata Ruang), law abiding developers are still required to submit studies which are expensive and time consuming. These studies, meant to justify that the infrastructure capacity can support the planned development, should not even be required in the first place for they are the basis of the Master Plan in question. The situation is akin to having to show your birth certificate, identification card, Kartu Keluarga, passport application form, proof of citizenship along with the already issued passport to the airport staff before they let you pass the immigration.

We hope that with a proper audit and restructuring of the current procedure applicants can obtain business certainty. If we can cut down the process time from three years to six months, consumers need not be burdened by the associated costs and enjoy a fair, healthy price. Less delays means the city can grow more robustly.

A healthy building also means that it appreciates in value for their owners. This requires proper management, a sectorial practice that is often lacking in Jakarta’s apartment buildings. Far too often, especially in middle-income and low-income private apartments whose residents are more price sensitive, un-professional building managers are hired to save money. They end up cutting corners on security, cleaning, and maintenance. We sometimes hear cases of funds being embezzled; untrained building managers who are unable to respond to emergency situations and thus compromising the safety of occupants.
Data from leading property management firms clearly shows that the value – a measurement of health – of professionally managed buildings appreciate in time. There are international property companies in Jakarta who specialise in this field and can provide references. As more of Jakarta population eventually live in vertical housing, I hope that one day Jakarta can learn from best practices, then adopt and come up with tailored standard operating practices and governance. It is up to tenants and owners alike to invest in qualified managers. Otherwise, the health of their building and value of their asset are sure to diminish.


Healthy Means Feasibly Implementing Green Practices

Healthy buildings cannot exclusively benefit residents, for being good stewards of the environment must be a city-wide priority. Here are two ways to accomplish this: firstly, properly incentivise green investments; secondly, use data to set appropriate environmental standards.

Apartment buildings do not exist in a vacuum. Their environmental impact has profound effects on Jakarta’s millions of residents. As of now, Jakarta does little to incentivise investment in green buildings. Constructing a green building (or retrofitting an existing one) is a massive financial investment which could result in up to 25% higher construction costs for developers. To those few who invest, I applaud their concern for the environment and willingness to cough up that much upfront for long-term benefits.

The current certification system in Jakarta requires an annual fee. Unfortunately, this certification does not translate into business and the bottom line, and thus I question its sustainability. As part of operational cost saving, building managers are already finding creative ways to continually save utility anyway. Furthermore, the environmental aspect of the building is not usually a decision factor for prospective tenants.

Yet as a city we all benefit from green buildings. So what can the city do to encourage more developers to invest in green buildings, to measure the benefits over longer time horizons? I hope the government understands that it has a pivotal role to play. We can learn from other cities. Some municipal governments provide tax breaks, cash rebates, subsidies to retrofit and even plot ratio awards. By offering these benefits, developers will have a very real economic incentive to invest in green, healthy structures.

We also need to re-examine our baseline measurements. I spearheaded a pilot certification project from Australia in the hope of adopting it in Jakarta. Five buildings in Jakarta participated. As the team was gathering preliminary data, we discovered that these five buildings use vastly different definitions of basic measurements such as floor areas and mechanical and electrical standards. The inconsistent input data posed a challenge in making a meaningful analysis. In our health, we use standard blood tests which can be interpreted anywhere in the world to make a proper diagnosis. The same goes with buildings: unless we have standard baseline measurements and reliable data, we will never know how to diagnose and make city-wide improvements.

There is however one simple initiative the government can do now. When building, developers are mandated to fulfil its green area ratio (KDH) which requires them to allocate a certain percentage of their plot of land to green space. KDH could range from 20% to a whopping 40%. The idea of the green surface is to absorb water and recharge the ground water deep in the aquifer. A wonderful idea in theory, but a green surface does not necessarily absorb water. Infiltration wells do more of an effective job in achieving that goal. I am a big proponent of having more green in the city and buildings. But must the green be on the ground? Where land is limited, rooftop and vertical gardens are just as desirable. The current regulation is so inflexible that developers cannot substitute surface green with rooftop or vertical gardens. A little more green in the sky can surely be healthier than none at all.


Closing Remarks

Easing Jakarta’s housing backlog entails building the city upwards. In light of this, we ought to start the discourse about healthy vertically dense buildings more intensely. A healthy building is clearly not just about its bodily structure. Putting people and communities at the centre of our measurement of health is of paramount importance. Buildings therefore must be socially sensitive, particularly in government-subsidised public housing. Healthy buildings must also be financially sensible. I have argued that by cutting down on the permit process will result in consumers not having to burden the costs associated with business uncertainty. Financially sensible also entails ensuring value appreciation by putting in place professional building management teams. And lastly, as a city we must start thinking of how to incentivise developers to invest in green, environmentally friendly buildings. The issues highlighted seemly point the need of government intervention and regulations. However, I contend that it is our citizenry responsibility to be informed and engaged in dialogue with all stakeholders to bring about the policy change we desire for a better Jakarta.



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