Sometimes brand new and modern is not the best answer. That was the lesson learned last year in northeast Yunnan, when a team of architects unveiled an innovative earthquake-proof home built almost entirely out of clay. Now, using grant money from a national relief fund, more of these spacious and award-winning houses are being built in a region that desperately needs them.
The first home of this kind came about through the combined efforts of two architects, Wan Li (萬麗) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Chi Xin'an (迟辛安) of Kunming University of Science and Technology. After visiting the town of Guangming (光明村) — which was devastated by a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in 2014 — the designers decided using locally available materials to build new homes was the best course of action.
Guangming is small, remote and poor, tucked up in the mountains of Ludian County (鲁甸县) 250 kilometers northeast of provincial capital Kunming. Trucking in pre-fabricated structures, as well as training locals how to properly work with them, would have been a costly and time-consuming process. Instead, Chi and Wan chose to repurpose the rubble left behind by the earthquake.
Using ancient rammed earth techniques and combining straw and sand, the architects created a two-story home reinforced with steel reportedly able to resist a magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The dwelling resembles many of the old mud-brick homes still standing across Yunnan. However, its modest facade belies an interior featuring very modern touches.
These embellishments feature an open floor plan designed to maximize natural sunlight during the day. A two-story glass entryway gives way to a split-level design incorporating locally sourced wood accents throughout, including vaulted ceilings in each room. A skylight also runs the entire length of the house, lending it a bright and airy feel.
By repurposing rubble once slated for a landfill, the architects say they cut initially projected construction costs by at least 40 percent. In addition, because the walls are made of thick bricks and natural materials, no insulation is necessary. This makes the homes easier and more cost-effective to heat during the region's chilly, windy winter months.
The design won the top annual prize for home design from the prestigious Architectural Review in June. The award was given in part as recognition of Wan and Chi addressing economic, practical and sustainability concerns. Tony Fretton, who sat on the committee tasked with selecting a winer from 250 entrants, explained the Guangming house selection, saying:
The importance of [the] research behind the anti-seismic house is undeniable, but what is equally striking is the spatial quality and materiality of the house. It is a complete piece of architecture reflecting a deep understanding of local society.
Four more of the houses are in various stages of construction in Guangming, with more to come soon. Additionally, the Chinese government is considering how to incorporate the homebuilding techniques into its national and regional disaster reconstruction policies. The next step, it appears, is funding projects to build the homes in places prone to earthquakes, before they hit.
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