Rebuilding After Chinese Earthquake: Beautiful Bamboo Homes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

It has been a year since the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China that killed more than 70,000 people.

China’s strongest earthquake for more than half a century, with a magnitude of 8.0 (en.wikipedia.org), it devastated large parts of the province of Sichuan. More than 10 million people were made homeless, most of them poor and elderly villagers (cities were not badly damaged).

Getting Sichuan back to normal is critical for not only the province’s people, but for all of China. Sichuan is China’s rice bowl, growing more food than any other province. But despite the abundance of food, Sichuan remains poor and has seen its working age population move away for work. If it is to have a viable future then its communities need to get back to normal as fast as possible – and its farming economy back to full production.

The unprecedented media coverage of the disaster meant people across China saw the scenes of devastation and have since contributed large donations to help with the reconstruction. The Chinese government has pledged to spend US $151 billion on reconstruction projects.

Finding ways to re-house people after large disasters has become an urgent issue over the last five years. From the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina in the United States and multiple hurricane disasters in the Caribbean, restoring communities is critical for the health of the people and the economies they rely on. Experience has shown that temporary shelters have many drawbacks, being usually of poor quality for long-term habitation and a source of health problems.

The temporary shelters erected for the Sichuan homeless are unsuitable for long-term housing: the 12 square metre grey boxes – two sheets of aluminium sandwiching a polystyrene core for insulation – have no heating. The occupants roast inside in the summer and freeze in the winter. They are also located away from the main source of income: the farms.

The dilemma is how to build new, long-term houses that will not cost too much. Inflation has increased the costs of conventional building materials: bricks, cement and steel.

But the use of traditional building materials and home designs offers an alternative. By drawing on the abundant bamboo and wood in Sichuan and by building to traditional designs, cheaper but sturdy and beautiful homes can be built.

An average home now costs around 80,000 yuan (US $11,688). The Chinese government estimates the price is now 820 yuan per square meter for a new home: bamboo homes cost between 300 and 400 yuan per square meter. Government compensation is between 16,000 yuan (US $2,337) and 23,000 yuan (US $3,360) per family. The bamboo houses range in size from 75 to 200 square metres, and in cost from 22,500 yuan to 80,000 yuan for a very large home.

In Daping village, Pengzhou Town, original homes destroyed by the earthquake sit at the edge of a forested hill. Their frames are more or less intact, but the walls and roofs have collapsed. The new houses replacing them are large, two stories high and have solid grey clay tile roofs. The beauty of the designs stands out and sits in stark contrast to the temporary shelters and concrete buildings.

“There are 43 houses and two public buildings being rebuilt in this project,” says team member Hu Rong Rong of the Green Building Research Centre of Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology. “The design and the main building material are based on the ecological and sustainable habitat idea. The place (Sichuan) is rich in bamboo and wood. These natural materials are cheap and friendly to the environment. In some buildings we use light steel which can be also recycled.”

The new homes are built to earthquake resistance standards. Led by Professor LiuJiaping, a team of 15 people from the research centre and two from a design institute developed the home designs and supervised the training of local people. They were joined by 10 people from an NGO called Global Village of Beijing, who managed the project to completion.

“All the designs were discussed with the local people,” continues Hu. “We trained a local construction team, which means the local people would build their own houses by themselves. Both our research center and the local people were involved in developing the home design.

“To get the trust from the local people is a challenge in the project. We resolved it by showing our respect to the local people. Before we started our design we discussed with the local people many times to know what kind of house they like. We built the first house to make them believe us.”

Hu believes it is possible to replicate the homes across Sichuan.

“The design is suitable for other villages in Sichuan which have a similar climate and culture with this village. To rebuild sustainable houses after a disaster we should know well about the local life, environment and culture – try to find the useful technique which was used in their traditional houses and upgrade the traditional house to meet the need of their modern life.”

Others have not been as lucky as these villagers. In the village of Yuan Bao, Chen Jingzhong, 66, has had to build a makeshift shack: “They wanted to get us to build our own houses but they didn’t give us enough money,” Chen told the Telegraph Magazine. “All we could afford was this shack, which we built ourselves, with our own hands and without any help from anyone.”

Resources

  • Architecture for Humanity: By tapping a network of more than 40,000 professionals willing to lend time and expertise to help those who would not otherwise be able to afford their services, they bring design, construction and development services where they are most critically needed.
    Website: www.architectureforhumanity.org
  • Chinese Red Cross: The Red Cross Society of China is accepting donations for disaster reconstruction and is coordinating rebuilding efforts in Sichuan
    Website: http://www.redcross.org.cn/ywzd/
  • Gerd Niemoeller has developed flat pack, cardboard homes that can be deployed quickly after a disaster and can become permanent homes.
    Website: http://tinyurl.com/6t6jtf and the company
    Website: http://www.wall.de/en/home
  • Global Greenhouse Warming is a website that tracks extreme weather events around the world: drought, flooding, severe storms, severe winter, tropical cyclone, wildfires, and extreme heat waves.
    Website: www.global-greenhouse-warming.com
  • The Building and Social Housing Foundation: An independent research organization promoting sustainable development and innovation in housing through collaborative research and knowledge transfer.
    Website: www.bshf.org
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