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

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