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Building and Environment 41 (2006) 687697


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An ecological assessment of the vernacular architecture and


of its embodied energy in Yunnan, China
Wang Renping, Cai Zhenyu
School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University, Shanghai, China
Received 1 November 2003; received in revised form 5 January 2005; accepted 25 February 2005

Abstract
This article engages ecological architectural concepts to evaluate the traditional dwellings of the Lancang River Valley, Yunnan
Province, China. By discovering the implied interpretation of nature and assessing the energy consumption of vernacular houses,
this research establishes certain advantages of vernacular building in light of a modern environmentally aware evaluation.
r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Vernacular dwellings; Interpretation of nature; Embodied energy; Ecological concept

1. Overview of existing challenges


Undeniably one of the most beautiful landscapes in
the world, the southwestern Chinese province of
Yunnan is visually stunning not only due to its
picturesque limestone mountains. Many small towns
and villages in Yunnan collectively contain some of the
best-preserved and aesthetically delightful traditional
architecture in all of China. This traditional architecture
integrates naturally into its setting, rather than being an
articial imposition upon it. It is due to a heartfelt desire
to both learn from these ancient buildings, and also to
consider ways of preserving them, that, during the fall of
2000 and spring of 2001, I participated in a broad
survey, of vernacular habitats in the Lancang River
Valley. This paper is largely based on my ndings during
this period. The Langchan River Valley covers almost
the entire western portion of Yunnan, nearly one-third
of the province.
While conducting my research, I was always touched
by the charm of this magnicent red land, Yunnan. This
homeland to 26 ethnic minorities possesses a fascinating

Corresponding author.

E-mail address: renping@gmail.com (W. Renping).


0360-1323/$ - see front matter r 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2005.02.023

geography, history and culture. But as an architect, it


was the vernacular architecture and traditional settlements, which impressed me the most. I gasped in
admirationbut also felt deeply saddened.
When old traditional buildings and villages are being
torn down one by one, architects, photographers and
artists pick up their tools hastily for capturing a portrait
of the doomed. However, what else can we do regarding
our heritage, one might ask, except record and preserve
an image? What else does our traditional architecture
possess, except aesthetic and cultural values? (Fig. 1)
Firstly, what are the environmental challenges confronting this area? Yunnan faces frequent natural
disasters: earthquakes, land-slides, ooding and so on.
According to the Water and Soil Protection Bureau of
Yunnan, since the 1950s, 31.3% of the topsoil of the
Lancang River Valley has been lost to erosion. Rates of
soil erosion are generally affected by four factors,
namely, topography, geology, rainfall pattern, and type
and degree of plant cover. But actually, unsustainable
agricultural practices and ruthless industrialization
combined with runaway and unregulated construction
have displaced all natural factors as the primary causes
of soil erosion and environmental degradation.
Despite the natural inevitability of frequent earthquakes, turbulent weather and massive rainfall, Yunnan

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Fig. 1. Yunnan, China Source: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/china_pol01.jpg.

has been a desirable area for human habitation and


produced a vernacular architectural tradition well
adapted, both functionally and aesthetically, to its
dramatic setting. However, the rapid development of
this area, especially since the 1980s, has been detrimental
to the traditions of the past and ignored their relevance
in meeting the challenges of the future. Not only overpopulation but over-exploitation of the natural resources has already run out the capital of our
descendants, while a great number of people are still
struggling at the edge of poverty.
Without underestimating the aesthetic, historical and
cultural values of traditional architecture, I feel that it is
today crucial to re-survey vernacular architecture in
light of up-to-date environmental and ecological concepts (Fig. 2).

2. The distribution and typology of ethnic vernacular


dwellings
The lay of the land of Yunnan inclines from northwest to southeast, the altitude decreasing from more
than 7600 to 76 m. This area is characterized by a
segmented topography. There can be a 10003500 m
difference in elevation between the valley oor and the
jutting mountain tops that surround it. Various climatic

Fig. 2. View of Lancang River.

zones affected by topography, altitudes and latitudes are


distributed according to season and location forging a
complex tri-dimensional climatic character. A veritable
jigsaw puzzle of microclimates, climatic zones change
from valley oor to the mountain summits and from the
sunny to the shady side of hills. A local ballad depicts
this as Four seasons within a mountain, a different
climate within 10 miles. The climatic character in this
one river valley area varies from northern tropic, subtropic, to southern temperate zones.

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The ecosystem of the Lancang River Valley shows a


prominent characteristic: diversity. The area is composed
of independent, self-enclosed microregions, due to the
special mountain geography and climate. This diversity
and independence has encouraged the development of
unique and varied ethnic cultures and dwellings. Overall,
the distribution of particular ethnic communities corresponds to the topographical character of the areas that
they have chosen for settlement. As a local ballad says
Miao people live at the top of hills, Yao people live in
wetland areas (where indigo grows), Yi people live on the
slopes, Dai and Zhuang people live at the edge of water,
Han and Hui people live on the at. (Figs. 36).
Tribal groups have, through their efforts over thousands
of years, created rich and colourful styles of vernacular
architecture, responding to local environments. These reect
an evolved response to geography, climate, distribution of
ethnic peoples, and vernacular architectural traditions.

689

Nevertheless, we can separate the traditional dwelling into


four broad categories: (1) courtyard house, (2) high stilt
house, (3) low stilt house, (4) log house. The distribution of
the four house types is shown in the map (Fig. 7).

Fig. 3. Flat land villages.

Fig. 4. Village in mountainous setting.

Fig. 5. Village on the slopes.

Fig. 6. Waterfront village.

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shapes and ornaments, only few of them have turned


their attention to the local peoples wisdom in the
interpretations of nature as expressed in their houses.
How do the vernacular dwellings respond to their
surroundings? And in which way do they express the
relationship of man and nature?
3.1. Courtyard house

Fig. 7. Distribution of the various types of houses.

Courtyard house with wall-enclosed courtyard, typical house of Han, Bai and Hui people, is the most widespread type and dispersed in the whole Lancang River
Basin. Its main area of distribution, however, is in subtropic monsoon plateau area. This area is characterized
by strong winds from the northwest in winter and
southwest in summer. High stilt house, the typical Dai
peoples house, is distributed in wet and hot weather
areas, such as Xishuanbanna and Simao, the southernmost part of the Lancang River Valley. This area is
composed of low-altitude atlands, slopes, wetlands and
river and lake banks. This is a low-wind area with a hot,
humid and rainy climate. Low stilt houses, typical of the
Wa, Laku, Bulang and Ani dwellings, are distributed in
the low mountainous areas of Simao and Lingchang,
located in southwestern part of the Valley. There are
many variations of this kind of house. Local people have
vivid names for them such as wooden palm house,
chicken net house and hanging wall house. Ignoring their unique picturesque shapes, what constitutes
their shared character is their low raised platform. Log
houses, typical of Pumi and Bai people of Eryuan, are
distributed in the upland area forming the northern part
of the Lancang River Basin. This is a mountainous area
of high altitude, cold weather, and frequent small
earthquakes.

The typical courtyard house is characteristic of the


Bai peoples dwellings in the scenic town of Dali. Dali,
on the shore of crystalline Erhai Lake and surrounded
by the green Cangshan Mountains, features neat dwellings with white walls and blue-tiled roofs. Dwelling
walls employ both stone and wood in their structure.
Locals say, Dali has three treasures: One is the
cobblestones to build walls that never collapsey.
Since ancient times, locals have used stones to build
houses. These courtyard dwellings have various oor
plan arrangements. Despite the differing layouts, the
prominent character of these dwellings is that they are
closed-in on four sides either with rooms or walls, with a
courtyard in the centre. This is a direct response to the
strongly windy weather.
On the back and side walls, the dwelling usually has
only few small windows. There are no overhang roofs on
the side and back walls, for the strong wind would
possibly lift the roofs away. Most of the main rooms are
set to face south. The southern wall of the main room
usually has wide windows and doors opening to the
courtyard, in order to receive southern sunshine and
warm breeze. The local people have truly created
sophisticated construction details to adapt to the local
weather: for instance, tiles cloth, a sheet of bamboo
weave, protects the tiles from falling down, and fei-huo
stone, special thin stones, are used to protect the
overhangs.
Suffering from frequent minor earthquakes, local
builders have developed a functional and exible
technique of timber structure. There are two main
techniques, namely, the wooden lock and the
enclosure lintel. The rabbets technique is used for
the connections, without any screws or nails, which
allows the wooden structure to resist the horizontal
forces from earthquake. The structure may incline but
will not collapse. Local carpenters have developed a
complex method of locking all the main connections of
beams and columns, small beams and joists. There are
three enclosure lintels on the top, middle and bottom
level of a house to improve the earthquake resistance
(Figs. 810).

3. The wisdom of interpretations of nature implicit in the


vernacular architecture

3.2. High stilt house

While most of the local architects and intellectuals


have been interested in the traditional building styles,

The traditional Dai stilt house simply and admirably


corresponds to the hot, wet, and rainy surroundings.

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Fig. 8. Courtyard houses.

Fig. 10. Three Lintels rabbet (right).

Fig. 9. Wood lock (left).

Typical Dai tilt houses are empty on the ground oor


for storing tools. The rst oor is arranged with living
room, bedrooms, balcony, kitchen, dining, or working

spaces. The roof sometimes has several layers and each


layer has a large overhang protecting interior space from
exposure to summer sunshine. In hot humid weather,
the airow is the main consideration in order to achieve
comfort. Natural ventilation is the main approach to
release excessive heat. The interior space of a traditional
Dai house is usually a completely open place. Wind can
blow through this open space easily. At the same time
the crevices in the oor, roof and walls enable hot air to
rise up and cool air to sink down, which creates a mild
and pleasing internal microclimate.
The roof of a Dai house is usually very steep, which
helps rain to drain away quickly. Dai people love to live
beside the water, despite the frequent natural occurrence

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of ooding in Xishuanbanna. High columns support the


whole house and elevate it above moisture and ood
water. Floors and walls are made of movable wooden
boards. People can easily take off some pieces of board,
when the force of the ood is getting too strong, and
then put them back after water levels have subsided.
3.3. Low stilt houses
Villages and houses of Wa people are mostly located
on the southwest slope to receive cooling wind from the
Indian ocean. Perhaps because of the similar hot, rainy
weather and ethnic culture, this low stilt house shares
some characteristics with the Tai house, for instance:
steep roof, open space, raised ground oor, which,
however, can be just several inches above the ground.
Distribution is mostly in the region inhabited by Wa
people in the Changyuan Awa Mountain, Ximen, and
Menlian districts, and regions inhabited by Bulang
people surrounding Bulang Mountain, a less-developed
area of Yunnan. Local peoples houses are quite simple,
humble and coarse. Some houses still utilize the most
primitive colligation, instead of the more advanced
rabbets technique.
As a Chinese proverb says there are orchids under
wormwood. This lower tilt house also has some
shinning points from an ecological point of view, despite
its primitiveness. First, its lifted oor minimizes the
structural damage to the site, protects the original
ecosystem on the earthen surface and potentially reduces
land slides. Second, local mountain resources are used in
building. Even the roof is made of a special kind of
grass. Moreover, local material and simple construction
endows it with a kind of purity and rustic beauty.
3.4. Log house
Due to the availability of wood in the northwestern
mountainous area, the traditional log houses are built
with timber frames for the walls, oors and roof. Walls
are composed of logs laid horizontally one on the top of
the other. The roof is made of wooden tiles, or local
slate. There are three environmental advantages:
(1) taking advantage of local wood and stone resources,
while reducing the energy involved in transportation;
(2) log walls provide good insulation in cold weather;
(3) they are solid and make for a good anti-seismic
structure.
The wisdom of interpreting nature in the traditional
dwellings discussed above involves a deep respect for the
surroundings, shaping the building form for the local
climate, and utilizing natural materials to obtain an
organic expression. Nowadays, we do not see many
traditional houses being built. Farmers, with a misconceived notion of progress, prefer a modern style
house instead of the traditional house of their fore-

fathers. So cubic houses made of concrete, which is


easily available, are now built everywhere, creating a
depressing monotonous human-made environment,
with little consideration for the natural settings. Ancient
wisdom seems to be largely ignored. We saw, in
Xishuanbanna, traditional high stilt houses being
replaced by the new cubic houses. When oods came,
a high cost was paid for this neglect of tradition.

4. Embodied energy of the vernacular houses


4.1. The necessity of applying an embodied energy
analysis
I read an article in a local architectural magazine in
which the author boldly declares the development of
new vernacular building should keep traditional architectural styles, but completely replace traditional materials with modern materials. Yet, traditional natural
materials, for instance, wood, bamboo, stone, raw earth,
psychologically speaking, are closer to the human heart.
And can one really achieve the same feeling and
aesthetic result when substituting modern materials? In
terms of ecology, traditional materials possess clear
advantages because of their local availability, low
environmental impact in their production, renewability
and even natural dissolution.
Energy and resources are critical issues in our modern
society. In environmental architectural studies, special
attention is paid to the energy consumption in cooling
and heating. But the initial energy that the creation
consumed of the buildings is often neglected. There is a
mere 101 difference between average summer and winter
mean temperatures in Lancang River Basin. Supplemental mechanical heating and cooling are not really
necessary if a house has a good passive design. So in
assessing energy consumption of a building in this area,
the assessment of the embodied energy consumption
should be the rst and most important task.
The General Energy Requirement (GER) includes all
the resources and energy, which were expended into a
building, from processing, transportation, up to the
completion of its construction. However, GER of a
building as embodied energy coefcient, it is hard to
achieve accuracy, due to its complexity. Transportation
energy consumption has a big range of variety,
depending on the situation, and does not constitute a
reliable or general gure. And though construction
energy consumption represents a valid gure, it is
relatively small, roughly 1015% of GER. So, in energy
comparative analysis, Processing Energy Requirement
(PER) is a more reliable and feasible factor for the
evaluation of the embodied energy of a building. PER is
the energy consumption involved in the exploitation and

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Table 1
Materials of main components

Roof layer and roof truss


Walls
Floor

Bai house

Dai house

New house

Ceramic tile, wood roof truss


Stone wall
Ceramic brick

Ceramic tiles, wood roof truss


Wooden wall
Wood

Concrete and steel


Brick wall
Concrete & steel

Fig. 11. High stilt houses.

processing of a building material. Energy coefcient is


calculated as Mg/kg.1
4.2. Energy density of typical housescase studies
As mentioned above, there are many types of
traditional houses. Their materials and constructions
are quite different. Even within each type, individual
houses vary widely in style. So, I have chosen the most
typical cases with reference to each kind. Due to the
complexity of the size, structure and construction of
various houses, I prefer to compare the main components of each building, instead of taking the house as a
whole. Data and material are collected from my
personal eldwork, on the basis of measuring the actual
buildings, interviewing local workmen, and reading
related literature. I have aimed at accuracy. Data and
conclusions are the result of personal quantitative
analysis.
A house is composed of three main components: roof,
wall, and oor. First, the weight of a component per
square meter is calculated according to the construction
of each member. Then, by multiplying the materials
weight and its energy coefcient (MJ/kg), we will get the
total energy per square meter, which is the density of
energy of the main components. This format and the
1

[1, pp. 6,7].

data of energy coefcient are mostly derived from the


method outlined in the book Architectural Material,
Energy and Environment: Towards Ecological Oriented
Development, by Dr. Bill Lawson and David Rudder,
Australia (2000).
Some houses, although they are unique in building
forms, share similar materials and construction, which
means that they would have similar embodied energy.
Specically, this is the case with high stilt and low stilt
houses. So, only three unique typical houses are chosen
as samples: (1) #226, Shangmo west village, Dali, a
typical Bai courtyard house; (2) # 58Manben village,
Xishuanbanna, a typical Dai high tilt house; (3) #82,
Shangmo village, Dali, a new concrete house (Table 1).
4.2.1. Case 1: Bai house #226, Shangmo Village, Dali
The design and construction of each house has to be
carefully examined, in order to calculate their energy
density. Plan and elevation of house is shown in Fig. 11,
construction is shown in Figs. 12 and 13.
Energy density of stone wall (MJ):
stone density: 2700 kg/m3;
weight of stone wall per square meter: 1  0.6
(thickness)  2700 1620 kg/m2;
energy coefcient of stone: 1 MJ/kg;2
2

[1, pp. 8,9].

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694

Fig. 12. Low stilt houses.

5000

7200

2200

Fig. 13. Log house.

Fig. 15. Roof and oor construction.


15900
3500

3800

3800

3500

660

600

6300

600

660

Fig. 14. Floor plan and elevation.

energy density of stone wall: 1620 


1.0 1620 MJ.
Energy density of roof of ceramic tiles:
weight of tile roof per square meter: 49 kg/m2;

energy coefcient of tiles: 2.5 MJ/kg;3


energy density of tile roof: 4.9  2.5 123 MJ.
Energy density of wooden oor (MJ):
energy density of wooden board (thickness:
30 mm) (MJ/m2):
weight of wooden board per-square meter:
1  0.03  500 15 kg/m2;
energy coefcient of wood: 3.5 MJ/kg;4
energy density of wooden board: 15 
3.5 52.2 MJ.
3
Energy coefcient of ceramic tile in China is not available. This
factor is referred to the factor in Australia, [1, pp. 166].
4
Energy coefcient of wood in China is referred to [1, pp. 8].

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Energy density of wooden beam (MJ):


beam log diameter: 100 mm, space between rows:
500 mm;
wood volume per square meter: pR2  2 3.14 
(0.1/2)2  2 0.0157 m3;
weight of wooden beam per square meter:
0.0157  500 7.85 kg/m2;
energy coefcient of wood: 3.5 MJ/kg (See footnote 4);

695

energy density of wooden beam: 7.85  3.5


27.475 MJ;
Total energy density of wooden oor: 52.2+
27.475 79.675 MJ (Figs. 1418).

BRICK HOUSE NORTH ELEVATION


DAI HOUSE SOUTH ELEVATION
0
0

1M

2M 3M

1M 2M 3M

N
PATIO

KITCHEN
CORRIDOR & GUEST AREA
+2500
DOWN

KITCHEN
BED ROOM 1

DINING & LIVING AREA


COURT YARD

BED ROOM 1

0.000

BED ROOM 2
BED ROOM 3

LIVING ROOM

0.000

DAI HOUSE MAIN FLOOR PLAN

Fig. 16. Case 2 plan and elevation.

BED ROOM 2

BRICK HOUSE FIRST FLOOR PLAN


Fig. 18. Case 3 plan and elevation.

Fig. 17. Construction detail of the main components of a Dai house.

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According to the format above, the tables of the


relevant data are as follows: Tables 24.

greater than those of the traditional Dai and Bai house.


The Dai house has the smallest energy density. This
indicates that traditional houses possess a signicant
advantage in terms of embodied energy consumption.
Traditional materials still possess an intrinsic vigor or
life force not present in highly processed modern
materials. Their attractiveness is especially apparent

4.3. Comparison of the studied cases (Table 5)


As we see in the table, energy densities of all the main
structural components of a new concrete house are

Table 2
Energy density of #226 Bai house
Components

Construction

Wall
Up oor

Stone(600 mm)
Wooden board
(30 mm)
Log beam
+100@500 mm
Ground oor Concrete (80 mm)
Roof
Wooden rafter
+80@220 mm
Ceramic tiles
a

Square (m)a

Volume (m3)

Density
(kg/m3)

Weight (kg)

Energy
coefcient
(MJ/kg)b

Energy density Total


(MJ/m)a
(MJ/m)a

1
1

0.06
0.03

2700
500

1620
15

1
3.5

1620
52.2

0.0157

500

7.85

3.5

27.48

1
1

0.08
0.0228

2400
500

192
11.418

2.3
3.5

441.6
39.96

2.5

123

49

49

1620
79.7

441.6
163.0

[1, pp. 8,9].


Energy coefcient of the materials are referred to [1, pp. 8,9].

Table 3
Case 2: Dai house #58 Manban Village, Xishuanbana
Components

Construction

Square (m)a

Volume (m3)

Density
(kg/m3)

Weight (kg)

Energy
coefcient
(MJ/kg)b

Wall

Wooden board
(20 mm)
Wooden board
(20 mm)
Log beam
+60@250
Wooden rafter +
60@360
Ceramic tiles

0.02

500

10

3.5

35

35

0.02

500

10

3.5

35

54.78

0.0113

500

5.652

3.5

19.78

0.0078

500

3.928

3.5

13.75

Floor

Roof

49

Energy density Total


(MJ/m)a
(MJ/m)a

49

2.5

123

136.75

[1, pp. 8,9].


Energy coefcient of the materials are referred to [1, pp. 8,9].

Table 4
Case3: New concrete house #82 Shangmoa
Components

Construction

Square (m)b

Volume (m3)

Density
(kg/m3)

Weight (kg)

Energy
coefcient
(MJ/kg)

Energy density Total


(MJ/m)b
(MJ/m)b

Wall
Floor
Roof

Brick 240  115  53


Concrete (80 mm)
Concrete (100 mm)
Steel net

1
1
1
1

0.24
0.08
0.1

1700
2400
2400

408
192
240
2.5

5
2.3
2.3
35

2040
441.6
552
87.5

Energy coefcient of the materials are referred to [1, pp. 8,9].


[1, pp. 8,9].

2040
441.6
639.5

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Table 5
Comparison of the studied cases

Wall
Floor
Roof
a

Energy density of Bai house (MJ/m)a

Energy density of Dai house (MJ/m)a

Energy density of new concrete house (MJ/m)a

1620
79.7
163.0

35
54.78
136.75

2040
441.6
639.5

[1, pp. 8,9].

when we consider Chinas increasing shortages of energy


and resources. The data above constitute a rational
ground for rejecting the claims that traditional materials
should be completely replaced. Although these data
form a rough estimation, it is hoped that this analysis will
give architects the general understanding of the embodied
energy and ecological value of our vernacular architectural heritage and will contribute to the search for a more
sustainable method of development.
Through re-assessing our traditional dwellings under
an ecological prism, we appreciate the wisdom embodied in the vernacular architecture in its relation
to nature and its distinct advantage in low energy
density. Unfortunately, those potentials remain unknown or neglected. Nowadays, ecological and environmental awareness in architectural design and planning
can not be just a slogan or fashionable term. It has a
real inuence on our living environment. It is not
enough to keep discussing architectural style, form,
and genre. Now we have to allow environment, energy
and resource to become genuine topics in the
architectural eld, for the sake of a more rational
relation to the natural environment in which we exist,
work and create.

Professor Constantine Georgiadis of McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, for his suggestions. My
husband Alex kindly edited my English usage.

References
[1] Lawson Bill, Rudder David [Australian]. Architectural material,
energy and environment: towards ecologically oriented development. Translated by Zhang, Mingshun, China Environmental
Science Press, 2000 .

Further reading
[2] Wang Renping. Sustainable development of traditional villages
and their architecture in the Lancang River Basin, Yunnan, China.
The Kunming University of Science and Technology; 2002.
[3] Jiang, Gaocheng, Culture of ethnic dwellings of Yunnan, 1997 .

[4] Economy plan Committee of


Plan
of
The
Lancang

Acknowledgements
Support from CanadaChina Scholars Exchange
Program is greatly appreciated. I would like to thank

Yunnan,
lower

China Territory
River
Basin
.