As Found Houses

In rural China, an informal wave of building jump-started by economic and social transformations over the past 40 years has rendered some villages unrecognizable. The resulting building boom, taking place in a context with very few regulations, has created densities more often found in urban areas. At the same time, the sudden availability of new materials and industrial methods of construction have enabled some remarkable hybrid experiments where rural self-builders adapt, modify, graft, cleave, and wrap traditional building types. Unconstrained by notions of good taste or formal considerations, these unexpected and innovative solutions are reflections on some of the most pertinent issues of contemporary dwelling, whether building sustainably or negotiating tradition.

As Found Houses argues that the manifold evolution of the vernacular is part of the everyday practice of the villagers’ lives. The book documents surprising design decisions in the domestic architecture of rural China and is a resource for thinking about new ways of living together.

From Rural to Urban

Tulou are large, introverted earthen buildings of the Hakka culture in Southern China that have emerged hundreds of years ago. Extended families built thick earthen walls for collective defense, while maintaining a shared open space for farming activities in the center. In the traditional tulou individual families live in a vertical section of rooms which are wrapping the collective courtyard space and are accessed through shared balconies. Having emerged as a form of communal dwelling, the tulou’s center has housed other functions over time: religious activites, marketplaces or schools. A proto-urban condition where the collective spaces were not only used privately but as public institutions in an increasingly developing region.

As a form of collective housing, tulou no longer correspond with contemporary desires for dwelling. Across Fujian Province, remaining spaces outside of, and inbetween, these large earthen buildings are quickly filling with a dense fabric of individual houses. As a result, the abandoned tulou would often preserve the only available open spaces in what nowadays are densely populated territories behind their protective walls. We are witnessing the tulou’s transformation from an urban building in the rural to a rural building in a newly surrounding urban context. The few remaining residents have often radically transformed or expanded their tulou. For example, by directly plugging in a modern house from the outside of the old house’s wall, or by rebuilding their tulou section by section in brick and concrete – each family with individual style and layout but retaining the collective courtyard in their middle. These adaptations are not only physical in nature but transform the notion of collectivity within the tulou. At the same time, they prove the tulou’s flexibility for programmatic, structural and spatial transformation.

Both the changing relationship between rural/urban and individual/collective ask to radically rethink the tulou. Within this transformed social and urban context we would like to propose a programmatic mutation and rethink the abandoned tulou as a public building. We explore how to renovate existing buildings for this programmatic change, exchange ideas with local communities and government and see how negotiating with reality grounds our ideas for prototypes of public buildings developed in the first semester. On three distinct sites the old house for collective living will be transformed into a new house for collective experience. As public institutions, could these abandoned structures become once again centers for a new form of collectivity?

In The Universe of Small

Thesis Abstract

“For our house is our corner of the world… our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty.”

Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard 1958

‘In the Universe of Small’ seeks to reconsider the overtly utilitarian and automatic thinking of multi-residential design. Specifically, it responds to a new housing typology emerging in Hong Kong where apartments are approximately the size of a standard carpark space. Despite its physical constraint, they continue to act as miniature houses, containing a private bathroom, kitchen, living and outdoor area. The thesis questions this current practice of repetitive individualisation and aspires to liberate architecture from the functional stacking of units. Three canonical houses are chosen and then interpreted through writing, iterative drawings and physical models. This methodology allows for a theoretical ground to produce a cross dialogue between the chosen projects and the micro domestic condition of today. While discovering architectural strategies for unravelling the universe of the small, the project simultaneously evaluates the challenge for a new notion of unit in the city.

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.

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.


Project title: Pinch/Sweep/Warp

Project team:
Olivier Ottevaere and John Lin, The University of Hong Kong

The PINCH, SWEEP and WARP is a series of projects that embody a unique intersection of contemporary design tools and construction in a rural vernacular context. By bringing together two parallel developments that are often thought of as independent and unrelated, the work emphasizes the validity of digital design in remote corners of the developing world.

Over the past 3 years, these earthquake reconstruction projects in Yunnan Province, China were built by students of architecture. Located in a remote mountainous landscape of peaks and valleys, each project was designed with a strategy of maximizing the use and experience of the landscape via structural wooden trusses and decked, ruled surfaces. The results are 3 small scale social programs: a library, a play area and marketplace. These projects engage the reconstruction processes led by the government, filling in the gap between infrastructure and house reconstruction. They instead focus on addressing community needs. The projects are the result of on-going collaboration with a local timber workshop, developing techniques for adapting complex geometries to simple traditional techniques.

Ultimately the project is an independent exploration of the intersection between teaching and research, experimentation and onsite construction, complex geometry and local craftsmanship. Both multifaceted and site specific, PINCH, SWEEP, WARP is a project that is both prototypical and site specific architectural response.


The Pinch, Sweep and Warp are widely published and exhibited projects. They have been included in the exhibition “Uneven Growth” at the MOMA in NYC, published in the Phaidon “World Atlas Architecture”, Detail, Domus, Architectural Review, Architectural Digest, Lotus, They have become part of the canonical body of works for architecture projects in the categories of small scale, in developing regions and using digital methods of design.

Finalist, Building of the Year 2016, Public Architecture Category, The ‘Warp’, Rest Area and Roadside Market. ArchDaily.

Runner-up Culture Award, The ‘Pinch’, Community Center and Library. Architectural Review, London.

Merit Award (2nd place) International Category, The ‘Pinch, Sweep, Warp’, Canadian Wood Council, Ottawa.

Winner, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, Small Project of the Year, World Architecture Festival WAF, International

Shortlisted, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, Wood Excellence Prize, World Architecture Festival WAF, International

Winner, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, Best Experimental Project Category, WA Chinese Architecture Award, World Architecture Magazine International

Best of the Best, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, A&D (Architecture and Design) Trophy Awards, International

Winner, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, Best Institutional, A&D (Architecture and Design) Trophy Awards, International

Silver Award, “The Pinch: Library and Community Center”, Design For Asia Awards, International



The Pinch

The PINCH, a project by Faculty of Architecture staff members Mr John Lin and Mr Olivier Ottevaere won the “Best of the Best” award at the A&D Trophy Awards 2014 and the prestigious “Small Project of the Year 2014″ award at the World Architecture Festival which is an annual festival and awards competition dedicated to celebrating and sharing architectural excellence from across the globe. The project was funded by The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Knowledge Exchange Fund in 2011/12.

As part of the government-led reconstruction work following the 2012 Yunnan earthquake in China, the team collaborated with a local timber factory and built a community library in a village damaged by the earthquake. The library and the surrounding plaza offer public space for villagers to meet and children to read and play.

The PINCH is a library and community center in Shuanghe Village, Yunnan Province, China. Owing to the earthquake, majority of village houses were destroyed, leaving the residents living in tents for up to one year. After the earthquake the government has sponsored new concrete and brick houses and a large central plaza. During the first site visit, the houses remained incomplete and the plaza was a large empty site.

The University decided to sponsor the design and implementation of a new library building. Located in the new but empty public plaza, it would serve to activate the community and provide a physical memorial for the event. The site of the library is against a 4 meter high retaining wall. The design spans across this level difference and acts as a bridge between the rebuilt village and the new memorial plaza. Emphasizing its location in a remote mountain valley, the design responds visually to the space of the valley, offering stunning views across a dramatic double curved roof. The structure itself rises to a peak, a monument to the earthquake and rebuilding effort.

As a Knowledge Exchange Project, the construction involves collaboration with a local timber manufacturing factory. The process resulted in the development of a surprisingly diverse form through simple means. A series of trusses is anchored between the upper road level and lower plaza level. The form of each truss changes to create both a gradual incline (to bring people down) and then a sharp upward pitch (to elevate the roof). The trusses were covered in an aluminum waterproofing layer and timber decking. On the interior, the trusses extend downward to support a floating bookshelf. Simple traditional school benches are used as chairs. The polycarbonate doors can open to create a completely open space extending out to the plaza Rather than submitting to the abandonment of wood construction (as with the houses after the earthquake), the project reasserts the ability to build contemporary timber structures in remote areas of China.

Design: Olivier Ottevaere and John Lin, HKU
Construction: Kunming Dianmuju Shangmao Company
Funding: Supported by the Knowledge Exchange Impact Award, HKU
Project Team: Crystal Kwan (Project Manager), Ashley Hinchcliffe, Connie Cheng, Johnny Cullinan, Jacky Huang, Joyce Ip, Yvonne Xu Meng
Date: September 2012 – April 2014
Size: 80 sqm
Cost: 130,000 rmb
Unit Cost: 1600 rmb/sqm