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The Sunken Courtyard Dwellings

1 May 2007

This northern style traditional Chinese residences are commonly seen along the Yellow River in Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces where the soil is highly compact. Though built with yellow earth, they are green buildings. Very green.

A sunken courtyard dwelling in Shanyuan (陕塬), Henan Province

A typical sunken siheyuan would have a yard about 6 metres deep with an area size more than 100 sqms. Around this private open space, 10 or 12 or 14 rooms are dug off the central courtyard, each three metres high from floor to the top of the arched ceiling, eight to twelve metres deep from the front door to the back of the wall.

This traditional Yellow Earth style residence has a history of over 2000 years. It utilises the materials readily available nearby, occupies the least farmland and leaves minimum negative impact on the natural environment.

With ability to maintain a stable temperature during all seasons, being windproof, noiseproof and quake-resistant, it is an inspirational example of environmental sustainable residential housing design that has its core concept rooted in a culture that respects and reflects the world around it.

But things are rapidly changing.

Reportedly some officials at a village in Shaanxi province just want their homeland to look more like anyone else's homeland, so they tore down the sunken residences and began to build on-ground houses.

It has catches though. Firstly, the cash-poor villagers have to pay for the houses which comparing to the semi-cave dwellings are painfully expensive; not everyone can afford, and those who cannot have to take refugee at sheds in a orchard.

Then, on-ground houses have serious issues with the local climate conditions which is extremely windy and dry. A few months later, cracks have appeared in the walls.

Do some village officials really think their ancestors never knew there was such a thing called on-ground building so they had no choice but to stay in their sunken dwellings?

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