In the age of urbanisation, the fundamental need for sustainable and affordable housing becomes ever more acute. In China’s third largest city, an innovative residential project was created based on an 800-year-old construction method.

The movement of people towards cities has accelerated in the past years, a trend which has become especially evident in China. According to experts, around three fourths of the Chinese population is expected to live in mega-urban centres by 2030, raising questions about future management trajectories.

With its potential in driving architectural and technological innovation, the building sector plays a significant role in advancing sustainable urban development. Given the complex and changing nature of building and construction development, the challenge lies in creating good-quality, affordable housing that satisfies the basic human need for shelter and security, while enabling healthy and sustainable communities to thrive.

Designed by architectural practice Urbanus between 2005 and 2008, the Tulou housing project was developed by the leading Chinese construction company Vanke Real Estate Co. Ltd. amidst Guangzhou’s high-rise buildings.

Synthesis of tradition and modernity

The Chinese architectural practice Urbanus (Beijing/Shenzhen) has pioneered a housing prototype that explores the concept of environmental and social sustainability in the urban realm. In the Southern Chinese city Guangzhou, it has created the Tulou housing project, a seven-storey, circular building based on traditional Chinese architecture, which offers 287 affordable living units as well as several communal areas to its 1,800 inhabitants.

The rural Tulou buildings of the Hakka, one of eight Han Chinese ethnic groups, functioned as a model for the urban communal housing project. Tulou means house made of earth. These traditional structures, made of rammed clay, sticky rice, eggs and brown sugar were erected in the Southern Chinese provinces Fujian and Guangdong from the 12th century onwards.

A Tulou village located in the Southern Chinese province Fujian.

With exterior walls that are up to three metres thick, they offer ideal thermal insulation and ensure a low carbon footprint. In addition, the circular floor plan withstands strong winds and earthquakes. Given their sophisticated characteristics, 46 out of more than 3000 Tulou buildings were recognised as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites in 2008.

Daily life inside an oval (left) and round (right) Tulou-building in Shuyang, where young and old have been living together for many generations.

Environmentally rather than socially sustainable

Urbanus has adapted the Tulou buildings’ ecological and communal characteristics to the context of today’s Chinese cities, fusing rural with urban dynamics. In terms of environmental sustainability, the project has lived up to its expectations: built of prefabricated fibre concrete, the airy exterior and the inner courtyard construction enable a natural ventilation system, which allows for a comfortable room temperature without the need for air conditioning.

On the left: Tulou housing resident Zhou Shan with friends in the apartment he has been renting for over a year and since repurposed as a bicycle workshop. On the right: 23-year-old Tulou housing resident and marketing student Lin Jianmei, on her way home from the local market.

However, not all project aspects of rural and urban symbiosis have come to fruition. Ten years after completion of the project, it becomes evident that the project’s communal focus has not prospered as expected. On a Sunday afternoon in April, the inner courtyard lies quiet while the common rooms stand empty. In front of the Tulou building, Lin Jianmei, a student living in one of the affordable housing units, observes: “From the outside, it looks as though the Tulou-inspired building is home to a large but closely-knit community, but in fact there is no sense of community here – just as in the neighbouring high-rise buildings surrounding the Tulou building.”

Zhou Shan, a leather goods manufacturer originally from Beijing, who spends his weekends in his repurposed bicycle workshop confirms this: “I come here often, but just as in the high-rise apartment I live in, I don’t know any of my neighbours.”

Scalability in the urban context

The Tulou housing project illustrates the need to rethink our traditional approaches to urban planning. However, it also reveals common problems that may emerge in the implementation processes of new and innovative building projects, especially with regards to efforts that aim to counteract urban anonymity with communal living and housing concepts.

Urbanus‘ vision of large-scale dissemination of the Tulou housing project in the urban context
© Urbanus Architecture & Design

In order to upscale and standardise sustainable projects such as the Tulou housing project, planning and building processes need to be geared towards the future tenants’ needs and desires and incorporate their perspectives of living. Working towards the inclusive participation of the tenant community in urban planning and building is the key to creating more liveable cities.