Old becomes new at the Post-Earthquake Reconstruction Demonstration Project of Guangming Village, a house that was named World Building of the Year at the 2017 World Architecture Festival (WAF).

The reconstruction project in China’s Yunnan province is the first of many earthquake-resistant prototypes being developed by architects and researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHKU) and Kunming University of Science and Technology (KUST).

“Around the world, millions of people live in seismic hazardous areas, and many lives have been lost, especially in developing countries of low living standards,” the CUHKU team presented at the 2017 WAF. 

“Our story is not a one-off story. It’s happening around the world.”


Citing UN statistics, the CUHKU team said over 100 million people around the world still live in traditional rammed earth structures. Image: World Architecture Festival.

In 2014, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck the remote Ludian County, claiming 617 lives and destroying over 200,000 homes. Approximately 80 percent of the damaged homes were mud houses.

Losing confidence in these traditional rammed earth buildings, the local villagers were eager to rebuild with brick and concrete. However, the prices of these materials rose rapidly in the months following the earthquake, and quickly became unaffordable. One Chinese report put the three-month increase in the cost of local red bricks to be about 20 percent.

Clean-up and rebuilding efforts were made even harder by the lack of local labour, and the county’s remote location.

Two months after the disaster, researchers from the university launched a Village Rebuilding Assistance Programme in Guangming Village. Their aim? To design safe, anti-seismic village houses at a low cost, but with enhanced and comfortable living environments.

Working to the motto, “high science, low technology”, the team implemented a new construction technique that predominantly reused the old, destroyed rammed earth materials.                                           

“Villagers had been living in their traditionally-built earth houses for hundreds of years. This is their tradition and their heritage, and we wished not to neglect or deviate from [that],” they said.

After consulting with local residents and listening to their concerns and needs, the team went to work. They ‘dissected’ the destroyed homes to identify their problems and weaknesses, and examined the composition of the earth in the area, optimising a mix that was stronger and more workable.

Next, they designed a simple, modular layout and system that would improve the structural integrity of the mud houses, as well as their spatial usefulness.


The house can withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Its pyramid-shaped, steel-reinforced roof is designed to remain self-supporting even if two walls collapse during a disaster.

Environmental sustainability was another focal point for the project team. As CUHKU pointed out in their WAF presentation, some villagers could not even afford electricity. On this end, they tested various ESD initiatives according to local climates and comfort ranges, while applying cost-performance analysis.


Caption: On-site tests of the house prototype showed that even on 30-35 degree Celsius days in summer, the indoor temperature is a comfortable 22 degrees. In winter, when temperatures are at -5 degrees Celsius, indoor temperatures stayed at 15 degrees.

Also important was knowledge transfer—vital so villagers could build their own houses, and would know what to do in the event of a future earthquake. Local residents can easily and quickly pick up the new construction technique, and have even been trained in analysing the composition of the earth so they know what to add—sand, clay or stone—to make the mix stronger.

Structurally safe, thermally comfortable, brightly lit—the CUHKU team has done more than just create a new building method. They also achieved one of their main goals—to “add to life”.

And this isn’t limited to Guangming Village either. The learnings and findings from the project have been shared with the local government, so they can regulate and formulate reconstruction strategies. The team has also fielded enquiries from countries like Nepal, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Colombia.

“Prototype 36 is ready,” the team concluded, pointing to its ongoing research efforts. “One done, 20 are now on site.

“100 million to go.”

Images by Chinese University of Hong Kong-Kunming University of Science and Technology, courtesy of Archdaily.

About the Sustainability Awards

The Sustainability Awards is Australia’s longest running and most prestigious awards program dedicated to acknowledging and celebrating excellence in sustainable design and architecture. Nominations received are shortlisted and then winners for each category are announced at a five-star Gala evening hosted this year at the Star, Sydney on 11 October 2018. The daytime event Sustainability Live is a CPD-endorsed education event where industry experts present a range of topics to educate, inform and ignite learning. Buy tickets