China has set itself the goal of transforming half of its rural population of 700 million people into productive, comfortable members of urban conglomerations in the next three decades. Thus far, the process has moved along with a great deal of work for civil and mechanical engineers and the construction industry, but very little role for architects in the generically styled concrete and brick urban buildings. Award-winning architect at the University of Hong Kong John Lin and his associates believe that this process of urbanization also calls for a flexible approach to house design in rural areas.

Funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust with support from the Shaanxi Women’s Federation and The University of Hong Kong, Lin's recently completed project looks at the role of the stereotypic village house and attempts to propose a prototype which reaches toward contemporary living styles while respecting the functionality and traditions of the past.

The project won the prestigious Architectural Review House award for 2012.

Shijia Village in Shaanxi Province is the location of Lin's award-winning project house (Image: John Lin)

Shijia Village is a small town which is part of Shaanxi Province in northern China. All the houses in Shijia Village are originally of mud brick construction and occupy parcels of the same configuration: 10 m x 30 m (about 3200 sq. ft., or a fourteenth of an acre).

Plat map of Shijia Village, showing the project house on the outskirts of the town (Image: John Lin)

However, the houses have slowly been melding with new materials as well as new ideas about how houses might best serve their occupants in the constantly evolving rural regions of China. Apart from the identically defined parcel boundary, no two houses are alike. Lin’s team began by documenting architectural features that appeared in the village, and by interviewing various families in the village to compile a portrait of the modern Chinese village house: a portrait not only of building types but of a lifestyle in transition.

View into the project house through a transparent roof showing the layout and flow of the living spaces (Image: John Lin)

In the past, houses were primarily built by the citizens of the village – those to whom the house would belong, who were assisted by others when larger tasks presented themselves – the Chinese version of a barn-raising. As the houses transform from mud brick to concrete and tile, however, a new village occupation has become necessary – the village contractor.

A view of the house's living room, with windows showing the washing courtyard to the left, and the garden courtyard to the right (Photo: John Lin)

Most able-bodied villagers have left to work in cities, at least seasonally. As a result, construction, repair, and maintenance of the village requires the hiring of outside labor and purchase of materials – a dramatic change from the days of collective self-construction.

The concept of a rural lifestyle had as its basis economic self-reliance, rather as was the case in the certain eras in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Now, the gathering inability to make buildings using only the self-resources of the village is a symptom of a larger shift from economic self-reliance into a system of dependency – trade and good relationships substituting for self-sufficiency.

Rural life in China is centered around the domestic courtyard, where much of daily life takes place. Most of a village’s open space is within the walls of the houses, which tends to turn most social customs and rituals inward. The courtyards of a house are designed to be supportive of the activities taking place in the nearest rooms, setting up a relationship that is visual and functional. Basically, the house is designed around the courtyards.

Functional drawing of the water, biogas, sewage, and heating systems (Image: John Lin)

Among the primary goals of the design project was to slow the increasing dependency of the villagers on outside goods and services. The roof, for example, provides a source of excess water in the rainy season that is collected and stored in the underground cistern of the house to be available during the long, dry summers. It also provides space for drying food, simplifies the process of laundry during the year, and the steps to the roof provide courtyard seating. The courtyards near the back of the house are for raising pigs and goats, which feed an underground biogas system for cooking and heating water. The vented smoke and hot gases from the stove pass through the kang (heated bed) before being exhausted through the chimney.

Cross-section through the house, showing building techniques and storage (Image: John Lin)

Mr Lin did not avoid the use of new materials and building methods when they can make a positive difference. The roof on the project house is held aloft by concrete columns, but the walls are primarily made of non-load-bearing mud bricks, which are a traditional means of insulation against extremes of heat and cold, just as is adobe in the American Southwest and in the mountains of Lesotho in Africa.

Unlike those structures, however, the main load-bearing supports being concrete satisfies reasonable criteria for earthquake resistance – an important matter in a country where a third of a million people have died in earthquakes in the past 50 years. In 1556, the deadliest earthquake of all time, killing over 800,000 people, occurred in Shaanxi Province – the location of the project house. The outside wall of the house is wrapped in a screen of bricks, not only to protect the mud walls, but also to shade windows and apertures.

The history of many countries teaches that the process of rural development favors the destruction and abandonment of the traditional in favor of the new, often at a rate that makes the rural population uneasy and insecure. The Shijia Village Houses reflect an attempt to bridge between the two extremes and preserve the intelligence and experience embedded in the use of local materials and techniques.

If you believe in the value of diversity, then this goal is important – to keep much of the traditional while designing new traditions establishing a future that supports, rather than uses, its human passengers. Perhaps swine-fueled biogas heating and cooking is a step in the right direction.

Source: John Lin,

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