After disaster struck Sichuan on August 8, causing over 20 deaths and the evacuation of tens of thousands, the question has no doubt been hovering in people's minds: how can we help earthquake victims?
It turns out that architects from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in partnership with Kunming University of Science and Technology, have been working on that question as early as September 2014, shortly after a massive earthquake killed 617 and destroyed over 80,000 houses in northeast Yunnan. Faced with a lack of resources and labor in the area, the team nevertheless came up with a concrete answer.
Or rather, a non-concrete one. Rather than typical quake-resistant structures that mainly use bricks, steel and concrete, the architects opted to go with a traditional building material in the region: clay. By combining it with sand and straw, then compressing the mixture around a steel framework, they created their first 'earthquake-proof' house in 2015 in Guangming village, Yunnan. The structure, which can reportedly withstand 9.0 magnitude earthquakes, is now home to an elderly couple who lived in a tent for a year after their house was destroyed.
Their new and improved home was made using debris from the 2014 disaster – the clay was reclaimed from collapsed buildings, and the foundation made of rubble concrete. Besides being sturdier than most houses, the building materials also provide good insulation and reduced construction cost by 40 percent.
Those impressive results earned the architects a nod from Architectural Review: the site chose the 'Anti-seismic house in Guangming' as the best designed house in 2017.
Despite their current success, architects originally faced some opposition during construction. As team leader Edward Ng Yan-yung commented in an interview with SCMP, “The county chief thought it was ridiculous that we were still using clay to build houses. To them, they thought building with concrete or bricks was the symbol of modernity and progress. So he threw a brick at the house, but it broke and he was so shocked."
The team at work in Guangming
The idea caught on afterwards, and Guangming villagers have now raised four additional clay, quake-resistant houses. Meanwhile, the team of Hong Kong architects continues to plan and work on improvements for rural villages in Yunnan, Guangxi and Chongqing, such as a sustainable bridge made of bamboo.