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...

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