Create a Nice Home with Eco-Design

Animation: “A Letter Home”—A Young Sichuan Farmer Working in the City Has Doubts
About Modern Building Practice and Reflects on Life in the Rural Area

Apart from being a dwelling place, a house is also where we make a warm home and to a large extent affects our well being. Architectural styles vary in different places since buildings are often expressions of the unique culture and life habits of a place. However, as developing countries chase blindly after modernisation, the diverse culture of housing has given way to similar-looking modern concrete buildings. In rural areas of contemporary China, local construction styles have been abandoned and replaced by cement, steel bars and red bricks. Apart from the loss of regional culture and traditional skills, modern concrete buildings fall short of principles of environmental conservation in many ways. We are therefore paying a huge cost when we replace traditional houses with these modern buildings.   

Modern buildings undoubtedly have certain advantages. They are structurally durable and strong, can be built very fast, and the standardised design satisfies the need of high density housing. However, there are also disadvantages which are difficult to overcome. Moreover, modern housing may not be compatible with rural life. Below is a brief explanation.

(1)   High energy consumption

The construction of modern buildings and transportation of raw materials consume a huge amount of natural resources and energy. According to relevant statistics, the construction industry of mainland China account for 15% of the resources used by the whole nation. Moreover, energy consumed in the production of building materials and in the construction process accounts for 25% of the total volume of energy consumption of the country. The transportation of building materials again consumes energy and is environmentally unfriendly.

(2)   High Ecological Cost

The production of building materials for modern-style cement housing results in severe ecological damage. For example, cement production is a highly polluting industry, affecting water sources, soil and, especially, the air. The manufacture of solid red bricks often requires the destruction of arable land, and sand mining also destroys the ecology of rivers. The construction process generally produces large amounts of construction waste and pollutes the environment.

(3)   Health Hazards

Chemicals used in modern building construction may pose threats to the health of the inhabitants. Formaldehyde is usually used in adhesives in interior decorations and in furniture made of synthetic materials. Breathing in formaldehyde may cause symptoms such as coughing and irritation of the nasal mucous membranes. It can also cause severe symptoms such as rhinitis and pneumonia. Building materials such as marble and granite emit excessive amounts of radon which sticks to one’s body surface and can cause cancer when it is breathed in.

(4)   Heavy Economic Burden for Farmers

Most Chinese farmers earn a meagre income. However, they may need to spend most of their earnings from their hard labour on construction materials if they choose to build modern-style cement housing. This is another heavy price paid for modern building.

(5)   Disappearance of character of local construction methods

The cave houses in Shanbei, the stone towers of Tibetans, the earthen houses in Yongding, the bamboo houses of the Dai nationality in Yunnan and the rectangular courtyards of Beijing, which are built with earth, wood, bricks and tiles, were all built to suit the local conditions and they have a variety of forms and shape. Urbanisation and industrialisation have brought a proliferation of similar-looking modern buildings and have led to the decline of the diverse culture of rural construction and the loss of traditional skills while the landscape of rural areas in China is becoming homogenous.

(6)   Low Self-Esteem of Local Communities

When the cultural value of traditional buildings of a community is played down and modern buildings from the city keep being built instead, sooner or later the people will lose belief in the community and in the wisdom of their ancestors.

(7)   Corollary infrastructures are not compatible

When modern buildings with their corollary infrastructures (such as flush toilets) are introduced to rural areas, sanitary conditions are improved but new problems arise. For example, some rural areas do not have a sewerage system and there is a problem of drainage. In such areas, human waste is usually used as night soil for farming. Also, while flush toilets are being introduced, there are often no sewerage treatment facilities for human waste, leading to new sanitary problems.

For the above reasons, PCD has collaborated with partner organisations to help Sichuan rural villagers reflect on modern-style buildings and encourage them to construct “eco-houses” in the rehabilitation programmes of the post-Wenchuan mega earthquake period (2008-12). As part of the process, a resource kit was produced on rural areas, cities and eco-houses which bear the following benefits.

(1)   Ecological benefits

Eco-houses reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, and therefore reduce pollution. Local recyclable and renewable materials found in the rural area such as wood and bamboo are used, and energy consumption due to transportation of building materials is reduced. There are many means by which an eco-house keeps warm and insulated. Having a buffer zone or warmth preservation doors/windows prevents the temperature outside affecting that inside of the house. This reduces the consumption of energy by air-conditioning. Eco-houses often use ventilation structures, such as alcoves and patios to keep the air fresh and temperature right so there is less need of air-conditioning.

When an eco-house needs to be renovated, pulled down or rebuilt, the building materials, which are biodegradable, can be recycled. This helps to reduce environmental pollution and depletion of resources.

(2)   Health benefits

Compared with modern buildings, eco-houses do not use a lot of chemical materials (such as formaldehyde, benzene and its derivatives) which are hazardous to the health of human beings. On the other hand, traditional buildings generally fulfill ecological functions but there is still a need for improvements in quality of air, lighting, soundproofing, microclimate and sanitary facilities. One may live comfortably in an eco-house while gaining these benefits.

(3)   Economic benefits

Two main characteristics of eco-houses are the use of local materials and collaboration among villagers in the construction process. Using local resources saves expenses on purchasing building materials from other places and also saves on labour for transporting these building materials. Collaboration helps to build a sense of belonging to one’s family and community. 

(4)   Cultural value

Architectural style and knowledge are important vehicles of community culture. Thus the architectural design should take consideration of local traditions but at the same time can also adapt to new lifestyles and new production modes. New ideas of ecology, health and development can therefore be embodied during the process. In other words, it is a form of development in heritage conservation. Since traditional construction methods are conserved, eco-housing retains the unique style and features of local villages.

Eco-housing therefore represents a kind of sustainable construction skill that combines what is good in traditional architectural style with modern ideas of environmental resource conservation. It allows rural villagers to build a nice home and to have a healthy, comfortable life instead of chasing after modern trends in building expensive houses that consume a lot of energy while posing health hazards.

In recent years, individuals in mainland China have tried to promote eco-housing. An example is Mr Ren Weizhong who is a consultant for PCD. Originating in Anji County of Zhejiang Province, he was a former staff member of the Department of Port and Navigation Management. He started to take an interest in environmental protection in the early 1990s. In 2005, he built several eco-houses in Anji County by using earth and wood. He was even honoured with prizes in architecture and environmental protection in mainland China for his contribution in promoting eco-housing. (Click here to download the PPT file and see examples of eco-houses – information provided by Mr Ren Weizhong)

In the future, PCD will continue to explore the possibility of motivating China’s rural villagers to build eco-houses.