Constructive ideas from the East

China needs new homes - don't we all?

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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The continuing economic growth of China and India poses major challenges for the West, to which it is becoming increasingly sensitive. One challenge that is underestimated here, however, is how to build homes fast enough to accommodate the new mass migration from the Chinese countryside to the city and to the coast.

The migration from country to city is proving more permanent, in its effects, than in the past. To encourage the consolidation of agriculture, the regime in Beijing has changed Chinese law so that police can no longer force migrants to leave cities (1).

Environmentalists argue that the costs of bringing China’s population up to Western levels of electric power consumption, or of building motorways to connect up the coast with the interior, are just too great. Yet in the case of housing the Chinese masses, there seems little alternative but to build in volume. Everyone ought then to be interested in production methods and home designs that, while meeting China’s social and economic goals, do not also prove unnecessarily expensive in their use of materials and energy.

Given the volume of houses required in a country of China’s size, and given the factory technique now available in China, it’s likely that the most efficient and durable kind of new homes will one day be assembled as mass products under roofs, rather than constructed on site in mud, wind and rain. In terms of production processes, both wastage of materials and power requirements will be lower if homes are manufactured rather than erected. In terms of the final product, the performance of the homes – in thermal insulation, acoustics, ease of use, quality of finish and so on – would likely be superior.

In fact China’s need for millions of decent homes is only the lead case in a worldwide problem. By 2030, an additional three billion people – about 40 per cent of the global population – will need housing, according to a new UN report (2). Over the surface of the planet, the UN says, mankind needs to complete nearly 100,000 homes a day, every day for the next 25 years. Indeed, if anything, this is a major underestimate. Hundreds of millions of people who already have homes need better ones. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people displaced by natural disasters need something better than tents.

The developing world, and also Western countries, suffer from a shortage of proper housing for the masses. The question then becomes how much countries all over the world might want to manufacture houses as mass products on their own home turf, or how much they would be prepared to team up with countries like China to have housing sub-assemblies built abroad, and full-scale homes themselves assembled at home.

In principle, the cost advantages of a manufacturing centre such as China would argue in favour of a global division of labour, with housing components, sub-assemblies and finished products made and transported all over the planet. Already, two practising American architects mount a persuasive and pragmatic case for a world in which a 95-acre, 11-story Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, airlifts massive subassemblies of buildings to global destinations with the help of Airbus jets (3). However, environmentalists would then no doubt complain that, although the mass production of homes made for greener products, their mass transportation (by sea and road, as well) would bring serious environmental costs.

Too bad. International trade and booming ports are a fact of life in the modern world.

When next you see a bunch of – suitably oversize – containers on a ship in dock or a lorry surrounded by motorcycle outriders going up the motorway, imagine those containers each having fully functioning parts of a house in them, if not a complete apartment.

Yes, the design could be somewhat personalised to your tastes. But the main thing is that tomorrow’s international youth can, in fact, be properly housed – if only we think big.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and an associate of the Future Foundation. He is coauthor of Why Is Construction So Backward? (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), See his website.

(1) ‘This is really home’, Craig Simons, Newsweek, 8 August 2005

(2) Financing urban shelter: global report on human settlements 2005, United Nations, , 12 September 2005

(3) Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies Are Poised to Transform Building Construction, Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, McGraw-Hill, 2004

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Topics Politics


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