Renovation toolbox: Strategies for adapting vernacular architecture in rural China

Research Centre: Rural Urban Lab
Active Dates: September 2017 - ongoing

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.

Tulou housing in Fujian Province. Photo: Rural Urban Lab