Cave dwellers in China serve as a model for designing an eco-friendly life.

chinacave.jpg Traditional Chinese cave dwellings of Dang jia Shan village are examples of sustainable architecture with low environmental impact, reports Jiang Lu, of Earthwatch Institute, at a meeting of international designers.  Jiang Lu, Eastern Michigan University

Eco-friendly city planners searching for sustainable materials and technology should look to traditional communities such as cave villages for inspiration, says a researcher and former architect.

Jiang Lu, an assistant professor of interior design at Eastern Michigan University, has spent the last year studying cave dwellings in Shaanxi Province of China and noted the practical methods that power their sustainable existence. She recommends that would-be sustainable city planners in the West design dwellings based on local materials and culture, connecting architecture with daily life.

“Their life cycle is so simple, so pure. They don’t waste anything; they don’t have any impact on the environment,” she said. “That’s really impressive.”

The village where Lu and her team of research assistants and volunteers lived and worked is called Dang jia Shan, located in the mountainous heart of rural China. It is one of many cave villages—similar to those in which more than 20 million people are estimated to live in across China’s rocky northwest.

The initial focus of Lu’s study, as sponsored by conservation group Earthwatch, was to document folk traditions in Dang jia Shan, whose inhabitants are about to be relocated as part of a government-funded reforestation project.

But Lu, who worked as an architect and interior designer for 14 years in Beijing before relocating to the United States, became particularly fascinated with the interactions between the villagers and their surroundings.

“I didn’t really think about [the cave-dwelling lifestyle] in relation to sustainable design until, at the end of our project, we interviewed people and they’re so healthy,” Lu said. “Even when they’re over 70, they’re still as strong as young men.”

The villagers live in naturally formed caves, but build intricate facades in front, carved with symbolic decorations. They construct heat channels within their residences, and their cooking steam can be redirected so that it heats bathwater in the winter. The thermal mass of the mountain helps retain temperatures within: Although weather in central China can shift dramatically, the caves stay about 21° C (70° F) year round.

All materials for the cave dwellings are local, and the villagers work, cook and eat with iron tools and utensils that remain in families for generations. While the village owns a tractor, animals are typically employed for farming and transportation. Waste food and sewage are composted for fertilizer, and the villagers treat sickness with medicinal herbs and live mostly off of tofu and different kinds of bread.

Lu and her assistants were amazed by how integrated the villagers were with their environment.

“It was incredible,” she said. “I think that material things are not that important; they don’t mean everything. It’s tradition, and the dialogue between you and the environment, that is more important.”

Lu presented the results of her research on the cave dwelling society at the international conference of the Interior Design Educators Council on March 31st.

Originally published April 6, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM