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Evolution of the vernacular Chinese house, by John Lin / The University of Hong Kong

External perspectiveThe decline of regionally specific vernacular architecture in the provinces of China, and its replacement with generic forms of construction in concrete, brick and tile is now recognised as a cultural loss to the country. This process is also creating great environmental concern as the new forms of building are energy thirsty and have a far higher environmental impact than the traditional house forms.

In response to this, a team led by John Lin from the University of Hong Kong has been looking at ways that vernacular archetypes might be evolved to meet the requirements of modern living, yet maintain the low environmental impact, and closeness to nature that has characterized the vernacular houses of China for thousands of years.

This study project is located in Shijia Village in the northern province of Shaanxi. The students involved interviewed village families and documented what the modern rural house had become, including who lived there, how the spaces were used and other details such as how the house had been built and who had built it. Where once houses were self-built, they were now done by a specialist village contractor as much of the young local labour force that might have built a traditional house, had gone to work in the cities - a process emblematic of the larger shift in the Chinese economy.

In architectural terms, it was concluded that the traditional house was defined by the courtyard and other outdoor spaces associated with it. The courtyards and outdoor spaces therefore became the critical element in the contemporary reinterpretation of the house and was also central in minimising the environmental impact of the house, as is further explained in the environmental systems diagram illustrated here.

The structure of the house mixes traditional with modern techniques. A concrete column and roof structure uses traditional mud brick infill that acts as insulation, whilst the entire house is wrapped in a brick screen that protects the mud brick,walls and shades windows and glazing.

The project was funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust with support from the Shaanxi Women’s Federation and The University of Hong Kong. Participants include: Huang Zhiyun, Kwan Kwok Ying, Maggie Ma, Jane Zhang, Qian Kun, Katja Lam and Li Bin.

Gratitude to arqua.

Internal courtyard

Internal room.

Outdoor terracing.

Detail of wall and stairs.

Detail of another lightwell.

An internal room.

Lication of province.

Site plan.

Building plan.

3d model.

Environmental systems.

Animated perspective section.

Component analysis.Typological analysis.


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