Courtyard House Plug-in by People’s Architecture Office

November 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

The Design Hop initiative was launched as part of Beijing Design Week in an effort to engage designers in the complex issue of rejuvenating and preserving the deteriorating historic neighborhoods in Beijing. The Dashilar hutong, or courtyard neighborhood, is a once-thriving area that, like so many Beijing hutongs, had fallen into disrepair. Dashilar now serves as the main Design Hop epicenter, with dozens of designers finding new ways to breathe life into the area through experimental renovation. It’s here that People’s Architecture Office, the local design agency behind a number of elegant public and commercial projects in Beijing (check out this incredible tricycle house!), are planning to install their first Courtyard House Plug-in. The concept behind the Plug-in is beautifully simple: modular units that plug into existing historical structures, preserving them while offering safe, efficient living quarters – and more. The modules beautifully employ People’s Architecture Office signature problem-solving philosophies focused on rational, efficient design. Zoetica caught up with PAO co-founder, designer and architect, James Shen, to learn more about this innovative project.

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ZE What’s a Courtyard House Plug-in?

JS The Courtyard House Plug-in is a Pre-Fabricated Housing Module that integrates with old structures to bring them up to modern living standards. Because historic methods of construction lack energy efficiency and modern infrastructure, tearing down old structures and rebuilding them is usually thought of as the most cost-effective method of renovating. The Plug-in module offers an alternative. It is an additive process with the benefit of having minimal impact on the original structure and little excavation is required. Prefabrication means that the structures are produced in quantity, keeping the costs low and standards high.

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How accessible will these units be?

Prefabrication makes the units very affordable because it relies on the efficiency of mass-production and economies of scale, this is what China’s good at. Most of architecture today is still highly dependent on manual labor. Producing in quantity ensures quality and makes the integration of advances technologies and materials much more practical. Modularized components mean the units can be customized to fit a variety of uses, and durability can be guaranteed. We also dramatically reduce the time required for construction and installation, which can be handled by unskilled labor.

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What’s the units’ lifespan?

Concerning longevity, I would say it would be longer than the original structures the Plug-in units are installed in. The typical steel or concrete building in China will last up to 10 to 30 years before repairs are needed. The structure should be fine for about 50 years. Traditional wood structures can last around 100 years but the roof and walls have to be repaired or replaced every 5-6 years mostly because of weathering that leads to cracking and leaking. I would say our modules can last for 50-70 years with minimal maintenance.

Because the plug-in modules are factory-built and not hand-constructed on-site we can achieve a much higher quality of construction. Also these units will not be directly exposed to weathering as they are installed inside the original structures.

Durability also has to take into account future developments and how well buildings can adapt. The number of tenants may change, uses may change, and technologies may change. The plug-in modules are much more flexible than old structures as they are independent structures. And they are modular and can be altered for different uses and rearranged for different spatial configurations.

The real concern will be the upkeep of the old structures. But their demand will not be as high. We won’t be affecting them for example by adding insulation, attaching things to the structure, and integrating wiring and plumbing. It will be much easier to maintain.

Structures tend to degrade when they’re vacant and unkempt, so tenants who value these structures will help preserve them.

Are there plans to mass-produce the units and move toward real-world application? If so, who is the projected customer?

The Courtyard House Plug-in will be first launched as part of the Dashilar Pilot Project in the historic neighborhood of Dashilar located in the center of Beijing. This area is populated with courtyard houses of great historic value which are also dilapidated and offer dire living conditions. The residents are becoming more transient as the quality of the overall environment is declining.

The Courtyard House Plug-in will be used in courtyard houses that were once the home to up to a dozen families but are now left mostly vacant with only a couple of families remaining. Therefore, a key aspect of the project is to integrate renovated spaces with those that are still lived in by existing residents. The units will be installed inside existing structures therefore preserving the courtyard houses as they are. The renovated spaces also will not impact spaces in use but the new infrastructure and the yard area can be shared. Upgrading living conditions to modern standards will attract tenants that will bring new life into these neighborhoods. The modules will also be used for non-residential purposes to bring in a mixture of semi-public uses into the neighborhood.

Traditional buildings are not well-sealed and have poor insulation resulting in low energy efficiency. Also modern sewage and heating is lacking. The plug-in modules are built using energy-efficient technologies and infrastructural elements such as plumbing, floor heating, insulation, and wiring are integrated into the Plugin Units.

Currently we’re working on testing a beta version of the plug-in units beginning with one courtyard. This first one should be finished within a half year and will be a central feature in next year’s Beijing Design Week. If this proves to be successful, the plan is to produce them in quantity.

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Do you see this taking on new life outside of China? For instance in Europe, where historical buildings are protected to such an extent that no renovations are allowed, making for a shabby existence for their residents.

Perhaps the Plug-in modules could find use in Europe. But we think it is probably more relevant in developing economies lacking in infrastructure, but in real need of providing modern comforts in buildings which need to be preserved for their historic value. We’re already in discussions with people interested in using them in India.

In your opinion, what role will firms like yours play in the future of Beijing’s urban planning? Is the Chinese government moving away from the much-reviled razing of neighborhoods to make room for statement buildings?

We are hopeful that the Plug-in Courtyard House has a strong impact on promoting a sustainable approach to the revival of historic areas. Because of difficult problems such as sewage management and energy efficiency, historic areas are notoriously difficult to upgrade without tearing down everything. It’s a simplistic answer to a complex problem. Additionally, the costs for doing so are extremely high and often result in statement buildings that attract high-paying tenants. Our proposal requires far less capital, it can be done quickly, and we can attract tenants that value the historic neighborhood. Most importantly, new tenants will have to interact with locals because they’ll share the same space. It’s our hope that existing residents can also benefit if the new modules are occupied by businesses interested in employing their neighbors.

It’s all about economics for the government. If we can show that there are alternatives to the current model of development which are economically sustainable, then we can affect current ways of doing things. We believe we’re on the cutting edge of urban renewal having learned lessons from China and abroad.

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Will Beijing hutongs survive the 21st century?

It will be difficult, but we’re hopeful. It’s not enough to “preserve” a historic area. Preserving often means removing any life and sanitizing a place for tourists. There are plenty examples of the Disneyfication of historic areas for strictly commercial uses. The results of many “preservation” projects end up in new buildings made to look old and occupied by multinational retail chains. Only large businesses can afford the high rents necessary to justify such large-scale projects.

Urban development must keep in pace with economic development, freezing history is not realistic. But we believe there are better ways than what we currently see. What is worth preserving is the social activity of these neighborhoods. The liveliness of these places is tied to the human scale of the architecture and the socially oriented lifestyle of sharing the yard of a courtyard house. The spatial makeup and the mixture of people are what makes these places valuable. It’s not the look of the places but rather the people and their relationships that gives them value.

The Plug-in Courtyard offers a phased approach where we can test and improve the design one courtyard at a time, scaling up gradually. It is a guerrilla approach because we are inserting and adding rather than carpet bombing. Some would use the term “urban acupuncture” where you improve the health of a large area with localized interventions.

We can’t go back in time and reminisce a bygone era. But we can help link the historic past to today and provide ways of developing without so much destruction.

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What’s next for People’s Architecture Office?

We are working on developing a version of the Plug-in Module for rural China. Working with a team from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the project is a part of a Social Enterprise aimed at helping alleviate poverty in rural areas through sustainable tourism. The pilot project is located in Puxing in Sichuan. They are famous for their landscape filled with fruit trees and tea farms.

The Plug-in Modules will redefine the notion of the home-stay by providing high-end accommodations within an authentic rural environment. The modules in this case are parked next to historic houses occupied by farmers looking for supplemental income. The modules provide a comfortable living environment fitted with modern comforts including nice bedrooms and  bathrooms. Locals lease the units, with income from the rentals leading to eventual ownership. They also manage them, are responsible for upkeep, and provide meals for their visitors. Tourists are offered an authentic experience spending time with locals, eating home-cooked meals in the dining areas of the farmers’ homes, but spending the night in comfort.

The first module is planned to be built early next year.

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