China’s “barefoot architects” are transforming rural villages

A man rides a bike through the empty village on May 2, 2019 in Tuanjiecun, China. Image: Getty.

China is urbanising at breakneck speed. Hundreds of millions of people have migrated from rural areas to cities in search of jobs or higher wages, even as the government commissions new buildings and infrastructure in less populated places, to try to even out development.

Many of the 900m people living in China’s rural villages have undoubtedly benefited from this huge transition, been lifted out of poverty and given better access to education and health care. But rapid development and massive migration away from these villages has also led to the loss of traditional architecture spanning back hundreds of years.

However, over the six years I have spent conducting research on such rural villages, I have seen an emerging wave of architects helping to regenerate these villages from within and preserve the heritage of their buildings for future generations.

Vanishing villagers

China’s housing ministry has made some efforts to preserve the nation’s agrarian architectural heritage. There have been five waves of official shortlists designating “China’s Traditional Villages” since 2012. As a result, 6,799 villages have been formally considered for conservation and tourism-led regeneration.

But there are some 2.5m more ordinary and underdeveloped rural villages where such heritage is being lost at an alarming rate. In some places, traditional buildings are built over to make way for expanding cities or accommodate tourists. In many others, the destruction is more gradual.

An abandoned building in Anhui province – a typical scene in non-listed rural villages. Image: Xiang Ren.

In the remote parts of rural China, villages are mostly inhabited by the elderly and pre-school children whose parents have left to seek work in towns and cities. As the traditional clan-based social structure of Chinese villages has dissolved, ancestral buildings are becoming dilapidated from lack of maintenance – if not abandoned altogether.

Prior to China’s rapid urbanisation, architecture once served to tie a village together. Constructed using local materials, traditional buildings expressed local characteristics, reflected local rituals and were cared for collectively by families and village communities. These forms, practices and values are absent in modern developments, which are produced at an industrial scale and designed for economic efficiency.

Rebuilding hopes

In recent years, though, a new wave of architects have been taking an ethical and culturally sensitive approach to preserving rural heritage and delivering a more humane and decent way of living in left-behind rural villages. Some are trained architects who practice professionally. Others are “barefoot architects” who draw their expertise from the longstanding building tradition of pre-modern China, which was dominated by carpenters, rather than architects.

Interior of the new-into-old building, with flexible timber structure to respond to the users’ changing needs. Image: Wei He/author provided.

One example can be found in Pingtian – an ordinary village supervised by Songyang County of Zhejiang province – where architect Wei He and his studio renovated an abandoned house into a youth hostel.

Working within the shell of the original building, which is made of a compacted soil material called “rammed earth”, Wei carefully inserted a new timber structure to create semi-private sleeping capsules, along with a lounge and reception area. The timber was sourced locally and is lightweight and can be taken down or reconfigured with relative ease.

Local labourers including several carpenters got involved in the process and helped site architects to resolve technical problems using local know-how. The renovation of the 270-square-metre hostel cost less than £100 per square metre and – since its launch in 2015 as part of the emerging bed and breakfast industry – the business has successfully brought both tourists and local people back to the village.

Old becomes new

Further north in Zhejiang province, not far from the city of Hangzhou, stands Jianshan, a village in Anji County. Here, Weizhong Ren creates new buildings for his village, consciously merging the roles of designer, builder and user. Since 2005, Ren has been creating rammed-earth buildings nicknamed “eco-lodges”, which preserve the local traditional layout and construction technique, while also sourcing materials locally and sustainably.

An ‘eco-lodge’ in Jianshan village, designed and built by the barefoot architect without any drawings, has become a popular destination to learn about building with earth. Image: Xiang Ren/author provided.

His idea is that the familiarity and comfort of the rammed-earth buildings typical of the area helps villagers feel like the new architecture is an extension of their heritage, rather than an imposition on it. Some other barefoot architects throughout rural China persist with timber and brick construction in locally familiar forms.


The conservation and regeneration of Chinese rural villages helps to sustain not only the built heritage, but also the connection between the community and its environment. Contemporary architects – whether professionally trained or not – face many technical challenges to regenerate decaying villages. But what really matters is preserving space for people’s memories and traditions, especially at a time when nearly two thirds of China’s 900 million rural residents are moving to the fast-expanding cities across the country.

The Conversation

Xiang Ren, Lecturer in Architecture, University of Sheffield.

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Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.