Student architects teach villagers how to build safer homes in China's northwest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 March, 2015, 6:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 March, 2015, 10:08pm

Architecture student Li Qiangqiang left the comfort of his classroom to live the harsh life of a villager in Gansu province last summer. It was a shock for the 25-year-old Wuhan native, but he enjoyed the experience of teaching villagers how to build safer and cheaper homes.

Macha village, a rural community of 20,000, suffers with poor living and education standards, he says, and is prone to drought and earthquakes.

"It was my first time living in northwest China and, being from the south, I was shocked by the difference."

Li travelled to Macha to teach and supervise 10 locals who were building a village centre using modern rammed-earth technology. The aim was to pass on the technique so that villagers could use it for their homes and teach others.

"Earth ramming is a traditional technique for building houses in rural China," says Li, a second-year master's student at Xian University of Architecture and Technology.

Rammed-earth buildings are typically made by compressing natural materials in a mould.

"But most builders use inadequate tools and have a poor understanding of the materials needed for a strong structure."

The Macha project - involving 40 mainland, Hong Kong and overseas students - was approved by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, which has been exploring ways to improve the strength of structures in areas vulnerable to earthquakes.

The ministry previously handed out subsidies to villagers, but found the funding to be ineffective if villagers did not have the necessary skills to improve their homes.

Professor Mu Jun, head of the university's architecture department and Li's teacher, suggested building the centre to promote the technology in the region. Li first travelled to Macha village with Mu in the summer of 2013 to help with site inspection and planning.

He returned last summer with more volunteers to begin construction, thanks to support from the Hong Kong-registered Bridge to China Charitable Foundation.

The earth-ramming method that Mu advocates involves a three-step approach. The first is working out the perfect ratio of soil, sand and stones as raw material for building walls. The materials are then gathered from the surrounding area, mixed and poured into I-, L- and T-shaped moulds. An air compressor compacts the mixture. When the mould is removed, a block of wall is made.

"The cost of building a conventional house made of earth is around 70,000 yuan [HK$88,200], but we have reduced it to 20,000 yuan with our method," Li says. The new method also raises buildings' earthquake resistance to meet construction standards.

The villagers have been eager to learn from the volunteers, Li says, and the aim is for them to pass on the skills to others.

"The villagers are the ones with experience and practical knowledge. We students just bring the theories in," Li says.

Rain Cheung King-shun, an environmental engineering student at the Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong who also took part in the project, adds: "The villagers were very warm and contented."

Cheung, who lived in the village for two weeks, says she slept in an empty classroom. "The shortage of water was very serious," she says. "Sometimes we had to travel for two hours to the closest town to buy water."

Cheung found the experience worthwhile. "I learned how to think from a different perspective, come up with solutions and make better plans," she says.

Bad weather halted construction in October, but work has since resumed. Both Li and Cheung are returning to see the completion of the 500-square-metre centre, which comprises a nursery for up to 80 children, a community library, shops, a clinic and a large open space for festivals. It is due to be completed this summer.

For more information, go to bridgetochina.org.hk