The majority of the ancient courtyard houses that form Beijing’s narrow hutong alleyways are now rubble, demolished over the past decades to make way for new development. But a quick, inexpensive method to modernize the houses’ interiors is slowly gaining traction—and it could become a key to preserving not only these historic structures but also the culture that has developed around them over the centuries.
Up to one million Beijing residents still live in the approximately 30 percent of hutong houses that have escaped demolition. But for the most part, these old houses don’t have any electricity, plumbing, or bathrooms, according to Matthew Hu, a Beijing-based Chinese cultural preservation expert and the cofounder of the Courtyard Institute, which seeks to help protect the hutongs.
“These places have been left out of the development process, and they’re extremely difficult to upgrade,” says architect James Shen. “The residents have limited resources, so if they were to move out, they wouldn’t be able to afford to live anywhere else.”
Shen, an American expatriate, is the cofounder of the Beijing-based People’s Architecture Office (PAO) along with Chinese natives He Zhe and Zang Feng. The firm specializes in projects aimed at addressing Chinese social issues, and the team thinks they’ve found a good way to update the hutongs for modern needs.
Their solution: a lightweight, prefabricated panel with embedded electrical wiring, insulation, and plumbing that has been custom designed—in consultation with hutong residents—to fit snugly inside of the existing walls. Different “plug-in” panels are tailored for kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms; installation takes only one day, so the residents don’t need to move out during the upgrade. Each panel can be connected with a simple Allen wrench (a tool commonly used to assemble Ikea furniture). Residents also can choose to connect their graywater plumbing lines to a septic tank in the courtyard and install a composting toilet.
At “a few thousand US dollars per 200 square feet,” the installation is relatively affordable, Shen says—especially given the lack of alternatives. Over the last few years, PAO has installed 16 of these systems in courtyard houses, most of them in Beijing’s Dashilar neighborhood. The government funded the first few, and then the Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation (LSF), which invests in scalable social innovation projects, stepped in to sponsor more. Two families contributed money for their own houses to be upgraded.
“It’s a good signal for new change in China,” says LSF cofounder Jaff Shen. “The project has allowed local government, social investors, and designers to collaborate. This meets our foundation’s goals for inclusive development and the transformation of society.”
PAO’s inclusion of local residents in the design process is significant, says Hu. In a place where government and private developers tend to make building decisions fairly unilaterally, participation in the plug-in project helps give the hutong residents “a sense of ownership,” meaning “they will be more proactive in terms of how to solve the overall heritage preservation issue in Beijing,” Hu says. “We need more of these kinds of experiments, because right now people have doubts about how much they can participate.”
Some preservation purists—government officials, visitors, and academics mostly concerned with the old structures’ aesthetics, according to Shen—have criticized the project for erasing the hutongs’ unique culture in some ways, since the wall panels resemble those of any modern structure. Hu, who grew up in a courtyard house himself, understands the desire to preserve the old, but having talked with current hutong residents, he believes some change is necessary. “In many ways, the life in hutongs is not comfortable,” he says. “So the project is a very good interim solution. … It’s a compromise [in] the argument [over] whether we should preserve the old houses or provide people with the modern amenities.”
And Hu, James Shen, and Jaff Shen all point out that cultural preservation isn’t just about buildings—it’s about the people. “Unlike other cities, these historic neighborhoods are still occupied by people who have been there for generations—and that’s key to a lot of PAO’s ideas,” James Shen says. “For a place to really be a place, you need to ensure that there’s continuity in [its] development … and that means you don’t have these sudden shifts in population.” Shen and his colleagues hope their work can help ensure some degree of continuity for generations to come.