Renovation toolbox: Strategies for adapting vernacular architecture in rural China

Principal Investigator: John C. Lin
Co-Investigator: Sony Devabhaktuni
Project Funding: GRF


For hundreds of years, innovation in the architecture of housing happened without architects. Drawing upon the availability of materials and adapting to changing social structures, what has come to be understood as vernacular architecture evolved with the transformation of livelihoods through indigenous knowledge about the built environment.

In rural China, as a result of a dramatic shift to an economy based primarily on migrant labour, the rural is no longer recognizable and has given rise to an urgent problem. In many Chinese villages, a building boom, coupled with a lack of regulation, has led to densities more often found in urban areas. Without planning policies or codes, the informal densification of rural villages has created an unprecedented problem. On one hand, vernacular dwellings are no longer suitable for residents who demand the conveniences of modern life. Uncertainty in rural policy and the expansion of the family (on limited plots of land) has also generated unique demands on vernacular housing, rendering it unviable. At the same time, the prevailing house building model proposes a generic system comprised of a concrete frame and brick infill whose main advantage is speed and cheapness of construction. These units can be built by unskilled labour with ceramic tile used to finish over poor quality construction. This method is so efficient that it is used for all kinds of buildings — from houses, to schools and hospitals — rendering these different functions indistinguishable. The tendency is for villagers to abandon their ancestral dwellings for cheaper alternatives,  schewing a rich vernacular tradition.

This proposal addresses the tendency toward vernacular obsolescence in rural China by looking at those vernacular dwellings that have been informally adapted and transformed by villagers themselves. Through this documentation — a close reading of how villagers transform their homes — we hope to compile an understanding of how renovation might expand the possibilities and long term viability of vernacular dwellings. In our preliminary research, we discovered intelligent and surprising solutions conceived by villagers. Often these changes were environmentally sustainable and contained spatial nuances related to deep rooted social structures of their respective region. A systematic documentation of these cases will produce a design manual, or toolbox, containing strategies for adaptation, while also providing architectural evidence for the social, economic and cultural imperatives motivating transformations of the rural environment, thus making it possible to assemble a comprehensive design program for contemporary rural dwelling.

Border Ecologies

Principal Investigator: Joshua BOLCHOVER (PI), Peter HASDELL (Co-PI)
Funding body: GRF


Hong Kong’s border with Shenzhen is incrementally dissolving. By 2047, 50 years after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong the border will no longer exist. This also will mean the dissolution of the economic and political zones of the “One Country Two Systems” policy; significantly the Special Administration Region of Hong Kong and the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. As part of the re-integration process serious considerations need to be made concerning the potential impact this will have on the urban development of both sides of the border as well as the larger impact this may have on the entire Pearl River Delta region.

As part of this re-integration in 2011 the Hong Kong Government will redraw the boundary of the Frontier Closed Area allowing almost 2,000 hectares of land to be openly accessible to the public as well as being available for potential development. The Frontier Closed Area was created in 1951 as a buffer zone to control migration and crime from the mainland. Since then the land has remained untouched by urban development – very little has changed in over fifty years. This is in stark contrast to the rapid urbanization that has taken place directly adjacent to this area in Shenzhen which has seen the city develop from a fishing village with a population of 200,000 in 1982 to over 11 million today. The Frontier Closed Area, as well as being a testament to what Shenzhen used to be like, contains a rich landscape of eco-systems, (including the RAMSAR site), fish farms, fresh water streams, primary forests as well as historic villages and abandoned military posts.


The research project has 3 main aims:

  1. To understand the border region as part of a larger urban ecology existing between the cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. To examine specific processes of urbanization that have occurred within the zone and to understand the forces that will play a role in determining the future of the border area.
  2. To propose an urban strategy for the Frontier Closed Area that engages with the specific relationships that exist across the border to make a proposal that is mutually beneficial to both Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
  3. To position Hong Kong’s unique border condition within a larger frame of academic discourse on border studies.


The development of an urban strategy that will be shared with Department of Urban Planning and Design.


  • Joshua Bolchover and Peter Hasdell, Border Ecologies: Hong Kong’s Mainland Frontier, Birkhauser 2016.
  • Joshua Bolchover, “Border Stories: Opening Hong Kong’s Frontier Territory”, in Open Cities: The New Post-Industrial World Order, ACSA International Conference, June 21-23, 2014.
  • Joshua Bolchover and Peter Hasdell, Metabolic Urbanism: City as Process in Global Visions: Risks and Opportunities for the Urban Planet, Adriana Gonzales Brun, Boon Liang Low, Jürgen Rosemann, Johannes Widodo eds., CASA (Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture), National University of Singapore, 2011 (ISBN 978-981-08-8159-7).
  • Joshua Bolchover and Peter Hasdell, “Opening the Frontier Closed Area: A Mutual Benefit Zone” in The New Urban Question: Urbanism beyond Neo-Liberalism, eds. Jurgen Rosemann, Lei Qu, Diego Sepulveda, International Forum on Urbanism, Rotterdam, 2009. (ISBN 978-90-78658-09-2).

Anticipated Impact

To influence how urban planning is conducted in the FCA. To impact the discourse of micro-borders within the contemporary city.

Mulan Primary School and Educational Landscape Design

Principal Investigator: John LIN (Co-PI), Joshua BOLCHOVER (Co-PI), Dorothy TANG (Co-PI)
Funding body: Donation from Power of Love Charity and Luk Him Sau Charitable Trust


Highways and high speed rail links proliferate across China enabling the vast movement of goods, labourers and raw materials to sites of production and consumption. Although connecting many isolated areas initiating urbanisation and investment opportunities, in some instances the impact of infrastructure can have detrimental local effects: farmland is bisected; villages divided; and the environment can become degraded.

In Mulan Village, the construction of the high speed rail created a huge incision into the landscape and a repository of unstable earth at the back of an existing primary school. This school was designated for expansion and the objective was to design an educational landscape involving the creation of a new school block, a toilet and a playground.

The strategy is to organise the site as a series of sequential open spaces for play and study. The loose earth was re-contoured and a toilet and reed-bed filtration system inserted to retain the slope, wrapping the basketball court and creating pocket discovery gardens. The roof of the new school is a continuous ribbon that rises from the ground as a series of steps forming a new public space and outdoor classroom. The steps are punctuated with small micro-courtyards that continue into the library.

As the urbanisation of Huaiji begins to expand and encroach on the village, through the provision of these common, shared areas, the school can become a community focal point and active site for discussions, meetings, study, play or relaxation.


The design objectives were to apply a new strategic approach to the problem of school expansion. A phasing and design strategy involved integration of existing spaces and adding value to existing infrastructure.


The school is functioning well. Positive feedback has been received from the education bureau, local government, school principals, and students.


  • Commendation, “ Mulan Primary School”, AR Schools Award 2015, Architectural Review, International.
  • Joshua Bolchover and John Lin. “ Mulan Primary School” in Eastern Promises: Contemporary Architecture and Spatial Practices edited by Christophe Thun-Hohenstein, Andreas Fogarasi, Christian Teckert, Hatje Cantz, Germany, 2013, pp. 266-269. [ISBN 978-3775736701].
  • Joshua Bolchover and John Lin. “Strategies for Rural-urban Architecture”, Resources Urbaines Latentes Metis Presses vueDensembleEssais, 2016

Anticipated Impact

We hope that the project will influence the design of other educational facilities in China and abroad.

Incremental Urbanism: Ulaanbaatar`s Ger Settlements

Principal Investigator: Joshua BOLCHOVER
Funding body: GRF


Mongolia is facing a critical moment in its urban evolution. The economic reforms following Soviet withdrawal in 1990 coupled with the discovery of vast reserves of coal, gold, andcopper led to massive rural migration to the capital city: Ulaanbataar.
Predicted GDP growth rates of 17% in 2011 and the promise of development projects lead nomadic herdsman to sell their livestock and move to the city in search of a better life.

The population of the city doubled since 1989 and city’s territory expanded from 130km2 to 4700 km2. The extremely cold winter (zud) in 2010 that killed many livestock sealed thefate of many, leaving them little choice other than to move to the city. The nomads settle on any available land, occupying residual inner areas, slopes and the periphery of the city. When migrants arrive they erect a traditional felt tent – a ger – andsurround the plot with a wooden fence. The extent and rapidity of their growth has meant that the provision of the most basic services of urban life has not been viable: water isfetched from kiosks; pit latrines are dug on site; and garbage goes uncollected. Coal smog hovers throughout the city during the winter as ger residents burn fuel to stay warm. As this population has no prior experience living amongst others – there is no word for “community” in Mongolian – or in situ, in one home on a single plot of land, other problems ensue such as solid waste disposal and a consideration of shared public space. Compounding these issues is widespread unemployment, alcoholism and health problems.

Unlike other informal settlements in developing countries, these districts are not illegal as each new migrant, as a Mongolian national, has the right to land ownership. However, they are still stigmatized as problem areas – effectively slums – that are seen as a hindrance to Ulaanbaatar’s evolution into a “modern” capital.


This project seeks to understand the spatial characteristics of this unique rural-urban fringe as a unique example of informal settlements. Through the research, the aim is to develop innovative architectural prototypes that can contribute to the integration of the Ger districts into a viable urban construct. Through this methodology the aim is to create an alternative urban model of development for “slum” areas, other than wholesale demolition.


Two strategies have emerged: the insertion of prototypes that address civic needs such as waste collection; and the modification of the ger itself. Through devising designs that can allow residents to improve the basic unit of living this can improve their everyday lives and also contribute to the transformation of the urban fabric.


  • Joshua Bolchover (2016) Settling the Nomads, Architectural Design: Designing the Rural, June, p20-27.
  • Joshua Bolchover and John Lin, (Rural Urban Framework) Settling the Nomads, Reporting from the Front, Venice Biennale 2016.

Anticipated Impact

The work will be tested as built prototypes and their performance will be recorded. If successful the impact will be to fundamentally alter the urban condition in these informal settlements.


INCREMENTAL URBANISM: Ulaanbaatar’s Ger Settlements

Incremental Urbanism Executive Summary.pdf
Executive Summary.pdf

For thousands of years, Mongolians have been living in gers – portable structures made of timber, felt and canvas. It is a perfect dwelling for the nomads. Yet, when this specific type of dwelling forms the basic unit of inhabitation for Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, it has led to unsustainable urban development, resulting in sprawling districts that lack basic urban infrastructure and contribute to toxic levels of air pollution in the city from coal burning stoves.

Incremental Urbanism Final Report (PDF 70MB)
Final Report.pdf (70MB)

The report positions the Ger districts of Ulaanbaatar as a unique example of an informal, yet legal, settlement. It documents their spatial characteristics and mechanisms of growth and the impact of this urbanisation process.

Based on this research, the creation of an incremental urban strategy for the Ger districts through the implementation of a series of architectural prototypes, sets out an alternative model for how these districts can be upgraded. As a more agile, bottom-up solution, it could offer much needed sustainable development solutions for the fringe districts of the city. As the ger district phenomenon is not just specific to Ulaanbaatar, but exists in every urban area of Mongolia, it could have widespread ramifications for the entire country.

Border Ecologies Hong Kong’s Mainland Frontier


Hong Kong’s border with Shenzhen is dissolving. By 2047, the border will likely not exist. Integration with the Mainland will remove distinctions created by the “One Country Two Systems” policy. The uncertainty surrounding what will happen has created anxiety relating to law, identity, freedom of speech, and voting rights. Caught in this debate is the Frontier Closed Area, a 1951 undeveloped buffer zone of estuaries, fish farms, forests, villages and military posts. In contrast, Shenzhen, has exploded into a metropolis of 15 million plus.

The book explores this unique border ecology. Design strategies inserted within this ecology promote alternate forms of development. The example widens the discourse on borders to raise critical issues that impact the contemporary city.

The rural is not what it used to be. No longer simply a site for agricultural production for the city, the relationship between the rural and urban has become much more complex. Established categories such as rural /urban and village/city no longer hold true. Rural and urban conditions have become increasingly blurred, so how can we identify and distinguish their specific characteristics? Where is the rural, and what role does it play in an urbanised world? In developing countries the countryside is a volatile and contradictory landscape: legally designated rural areas look like dense slums; factories intersect fields and farmers no longer farm. In contrast, in developed regions, the rural has become a highly controlled landscape of production and consumption: industrialised agriculture coexists with leisure landscapes for tourism, retirement and recreation. This issue of AD investigates how architects and researchers are critically engaging with the rural as an experimental field of exploration.

Contributors: Neil Brenner, Christiane Lange, Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, Sandra Parvu, Cole Roskam, Grahame Shane, Deane Simpson, and Milica Topalovic and Bas Princen

Architects: Anders Abraham, Joshua Bolchover and John Lin (Rural Urban Framework), Ambra Fabi and Giovanni Piovene (Piovenefabi), Rainer Hehl, Stephan Petermann (OMA), Huang Sheng Yuan (FieldOffice), and Sandeep Virmani (Hunnarshala)

Contextualizing, Materializing, and Practicing the Rural in China


China’s economic transformation has triggered an unparalleled rate of construction that includes the creation of iconic architecture and the massive production of generic buildings. Consequently, vast swathes of rural fabric are being erased. As urbanization brings about a radical shift away from an essentially rural based society, the way people earn money, where they live, how they socialize, and the once simple relationship between land and its people are fundamentally changing.

Homecomingaddresses the issue of rural development in China today and the role the architect has to play in this shifting context. It questions the definition of “rural” and “urban” in Chinese society and the larger issue of architectural identity. The book discusses how the rural–and its embedded significance in China’s political history–is a site for furthering contemporary architectural discourse.

Homecomingbrings together historians, architects, theoreticians, curators, and writers with diverse backgrounds and experiences. They provide perspectives, narratives, examples, and prototypes to debate the role that the rural has to play in China’s future. In many respects, they form a critique against the overwhelming trends that saturate architecture and building in China today.

With contributions from Joshua Bolchover, Yung Ho Chang, Frank Dikötter, Juan Du, Huang ShengYuan, Hsieh Ying-chun, Hua Li, Liu Jiakun, John Lin, Meng Yan, Cole Roskam, Philip Tinari, Tong Ming, Robin Visser, Wang Weijen, Zhang Ke, and Zhu Tao.

Available for Purchase Here

Rural Urban Framework
Transforming the Chinese Countryside

rural urban framework

In 2005 the Chinese government announced its plan to urbanize half of its rural population by 2030 – a staggering 350 million citizens. At the same time, Joshua Bolchover and John Lin set up Rural Urban Framework (RUF), a research and design collaborative based at the University of Hong Kong. Their work aims to refocus attention on the Chinese countryside rather than the city.

Just 30 years ago the majority of China was rural. Since then, rapid industrialization and economic growth has completely restructured the relationship between the rural and the urban and has led to a growing income gap, a decline in agricultural production, and a rural exodus. This book brings these issues to light by looking at various villages in different states of transformation. It presents a rural cross-section of a territory in flux, together with design approaches that challenge the generic construction taking place across vast swathes of the Chinese landscape.

RUF’s design projects offer alternate models and strategies for these rural villages to prioritize public space, community programs, and the environment. While the attention of the world is on the megalopolis in China, the authors argue that the evolution of the rural is critical to the country’s future.

Available for Purchase Here

Rural Urban Lab


Rural Urban Lab is dedicated to investigating the processes of rural to urban transformation. The Lab is a platform for both design and research, supporting writing, exhibitions and the design and construction of buildings.   Through a multi-disciplinary approach, the Lab collaborates with engineers, landscape architects, academics, charities and local governments. Projects include schools, community centers, hospitals, village houses, bridges, and incremental planning strategies. Building on almost ten years of active engagement in such work, the Lab has developed a unique approach to creating links between social, economic and political processes and the physical transformation of rural towns and villages. Much of its work operates as Rural Urban Framework – an award-winning collaboration between Joshua Bolchover and John Lin.


House for All Seasons

With an emphasis on the traditional rammed house typology, House for All Seasons Project combines modern design and rural traditional living. Providing a showcase for villagers and visitors, this project has the potential to change the preconception of the traditional Chinese courtyard house. The project promotes the use of sustainable alternatives to building materials by utilizing rammed earth, bio-gas, rainwater storage and reed bed cleansing systems.

House for All Seasons is the winner of the AR House Award 2012. The project began as an experiential learning workshop at The University of Hong Kong led by Assistant Professor John Lin, and funded by the Luke Him Sau Charitable Trust.

Tongjiang Primary School

This Rural Urban Framework project responded to the prevalence of demolition in rural areas of China, by proposing a strategy for recycling old buildings into a new primary school in Tongjiang County. The project brief required replacing an existing school building with a new building with an expanded program. The project reused materials from demolished older buildings, and rubble was reused as a growing medium and insulation on the proposed green roof of the new school building. In addition, traditional ‘green’ bricks no longer manufactured were collected from demolition sites of old houses in this historic region, and were reused and reassembled as a large screen wall and ground paving for the school.