The shift from an agrarian society to an industrial society that has taken place in China over the past four decades has had two effects. Rapid urbanisation and expansion has led to an influx of rural migrants seeking employment in industrial centres. The consequences of this for Chinese cities have been the subject of considerable research and investment. Secondly, this shift has transformed Chinese rural villages. Environmental degradation, encroachment upon rural land, pollution of resources, the departure of adults to work in cities and modernisation have all placed new pressures on rural villages, and in turn on their housing. Vernacular houses in rural villages are rapidly disappearing, raising questions about the loss of material and cultural heritage, while their replacement or alteration poses questions of appropriateness and sustainability. This area has received much less attention and this thesis aims to address this lacunae.
In order to understand the future of rural housing in China, this thesis focuses on a representative case study type that has received much less scholarly attention than, for example, the Hakka walled village or the siheyuan courtyard house. The thesis studies the vernacular timber house in the rural area of Southeast Chongqing that, while referred to in China as Diaojiaolou, is less known than the more dramatically stilted versions of Diaojiaolou houses in Guizhou Province, Guangxi Province and Huanan Province that have a UNESCO World Heritage listing. It undertakes a thorough survey of Diaojiaolou houses built in the twentieth century in two remote and intact villages—Dazhai village and Tianjiagou village in Xiushan, Chongqing, China—as the grounds for investigating the viability of linking preservation and adaptation to sustainable objectives.
The research has two modes of data collection. Twenty-five Diaojiaolou houses were documented and analysed, which involved identifying and cataloguing their physical features and recent adaptations. Occupants’ living experiences and perception regarding the use and value of their houses was obtained through semi-structured interviews based on a questionnaire. Together, these data sources were mined to understand the condition and performance of the houses, as well as their significance in the life of the village and its residents.
The research contradicts prevailing arguments that vernacular architecture responds to local climate, geography and social norms through its long evolution, finding instead that the performance of Diaojiaolou houses fails to achieve thermal comfort. Moreover, these vernacular houses do not meet contemporary standards of fire and building safety, hygiene and sanitation. Nor do they respond to the changing demographic, which sees a fluctuating and aging population. Nevertheless, the houses have significant heritage value and potential for cultural tourism. In light of this research, preservation through controlled change is recommended to improve and retain the existing traditional houses. The thesis recommends that villages be kept as a living heritage, retaining authentic street and natural landscape, village traditions and local craftsmanship, and supporting strong participative communities. The morphological configuration of traditional spatial forms and living activities should be retained, while incorporating interventions that address the changing living needs of local residents.
The research provides an important opportunity to rethink the philosophy behind vernacular settlements and to enhance vernacular architecture and promote its role in the sociocultural and environmental sustainability imperatives of rural SECQ. The thesis offers some clues about how to sustain vernacular houses in other southwest parts of China. It demonstrates that sustaining existing vernacular houses is a feasible method for maintaining embodied social and cultural values as well as improving living environments to promote contemporary environmental sustainable development.