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iFHHs student project Zao House on display at UAAB in Pingshan

An exhibit of student project “Zao House” from the Tsinghua SIGS Institute for Future Human Habitat Studies (iFHHs) opened on January 9 at Dawan Ancestral Residence as part of the opening ceremony for the Pingshan subvenue “Dawan Unplugged” of the Ninth Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture (UABB). The project was advised by Professors Terrence Curry, Peter Russell, and Gao Yan, also one of main curators of “Dawan Unplugged.” The exhibition will run until March 3rd.

Photos by Zhou Li

The Master of Architecture students from the SIGS Institute for Future Human Habitat Studies (iFHHs) have answered the call for buildings that are more sustainable, economical, and easily constructed. The students of Design Studio 1, under the guidance of Professors Terrence Curry, Yan Gao, and Peter Russell, have diligently worked over the fall semester to design, manufacture, and construct extraordinary modular home prototypes.

A modular design is defined as a system divided into smaller units for flexibility and variety of use. Due to its high adaptability, low cost, and easy-to-construct nature, the concept is well-suited to solve modern architectural challenges such as historical site infills and disaster relief rebuilding.

In Design Studio 1, each professor guided a group of 5 to 6 students; each group took a different approach to modular design. Professor Curry’s group focused on a component-based system, where a set of standardized and interchangeable steel and timber components were designed to inter-relate, while Professor Gao’s group focused on timber joinery in a hybrid structure comprised of timber frames and concrete blocks. Lastly, Professor Russell’s group developed a parametric design inspired by the UK-based WikiHouse concept, which is a house composed of interlocked blocks made from plywood sheets.

Completed modular home at exhibition in Dawan Ancient Residence (Photos by Zhou Li)

The students had the rewarding experience of seeing the process of creating a building from start to finish. Students began with the conception of the design and brainstorming effective modular systems. It was an iterative process, where many ideas were proposed then adapted, with each new design based on improvements from the previous ones. The final designs were the result of a refined set of iterations. A midterm evaluation was held, where the teams’ progress was presented and critiques from fellow teachers and peers were offered. The evaluation was particularly helpful because a fresh pair of eyes was able to evaluate each teams’ design and raise questions and concerns that may not have been brought up before.

Following the final design of each home, the next hurdle was bringing the digital design to real life – this task is not as simple as sending the final drawings to the manufacturer and having them make everything for you. First, the design had to be adapted to the exhibition site. The original design brief called for each group to create a house of 6.1 m width, 12.2 m depth, and 2.44 m height. The exhibition site was limited in size and so the original designs had to be resized. Furthermore, the exhibit consists of a single house, divided into 3 equal sections: one for each group. This would be joined together to create 1 house with 3 different construction principles. Therefore, each group adapted a “slice” of their house to implement as their part of the exhibit.

Photo by Zhou Li

Digital design of 3 house “slices” at the exhibition

Following the design resizing, technical drawings and a detailed material list had to be submitted to the manufacturer, which required attention to detail and a practical mindset on the part of the students. The process improved their communication skills and ability to integrate feedback into the design through numerous back-and-forth exchanges with the manufacturer and continual fine-tuning of the design.

After the manufacturing process, the student created detailed and easy-to-understand instructions for the contractor about the construction of the house. Students considered the construction of the house from various aspects, including how to assemble and install the roof given restrictions on lifting machinery at the exhibition venue and how to drill in precise locations during each assemblage. The team came up with clever solutions that used human hands or simple tools like scaffolds and ladders and pre-designed pieces with accurate cutting and drilling locations. It was through this trial-and-error process that the team was able to complete the project successfully.

Building of the modular homes on site (Photos by Design Studio 1 student)

Lastly, in the weeks leading up to the exhibition, students created a 1:10 model of their final designs, exhibiting the components and materials used for their respective designs.

1:10 models displayed at the exhibition

The students were incredibly proud and satisfied with the experience and their final product, which was displayed at UAAB. Here are some of their reflections on the process:

Yin Jun

During this semester, we repeatedly experimented with various nodes and materials and finally built the project by hand. The hardships were difficult for newcomers to understand. I have learned a lot about architectural design and about teamwork, understanding and mutual progress. I thank my teammates and processors for giving me this precious opportunity to build a house, and I hope that the house that our team spent a semester building can add vitality to Pingshan District!

Zeng Tiancheng

Through this design course and the construction of this project, I made breakthroughs in my own design ability, and also learned about the use of various tools and CNC machining technology. I greatly improved my teamwork and communication abilities. I have deeply realized that communication and feedback with the outside entities, including factories, construction companies, and government departments, are also a crucial part of design work. Thank you for the opportunity brought by the course. In addition to theoretical knowledge, these practical experiences and participation in events like UABB are also valuable experiences this course has given us!

Teresa Han

I had the incredible honour of working with a well-rounded team to create a modular home for the exhibition. This project taught me teamwork and compromise, as well as working with tight deadlines. I found this entire project to be astoundingly reflective of the real world – from the design to the manufacturing to the construction, and I am still shocked that us students had the opportunity to be there every step of the way. This project has been so rewarding and it feels so special that we are part of Shenzhen Biennale history. The solutions that the students came up with are brilliant and I am very proud at the ingenuity and tenacity of this group!

The Zao House project truly demonstrates the power of “learning-by-building,” a key part of the curriculum at iFHHs. Congratulations to the students, advisors, educators, administrators, contractors, and UABB organizers that made it happen!

Design Studio 1 exhibition poster  

Introduction to UABB

The Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture was initiated by Shenzhen in 2005, with Hong Kong joining in 2007. UABB focuses on urbanism. Past Shenzhen Biennale’s were held at old industrial areas and urban villages, which has brought upgrading and vitality to those areas.

The 9th UABB’s major exhibition venue is located in Luohu District with several subvenues across Shenzhen, including Pingshan District. The subvenue in Pingshan with the theme  “Dawan Unplugged” uses the historic Dawan Ancestral Residence, one of the largest Hakka villages in China, as the exhibition site to propose sustainable and ecological development of cities, while narrating a story around the historical preservation of Hakka enclosures. The exhibition is composed of four interlaced narrative chapters, namely “Come Together”, “Wondrous Ingenuity”, “Humanism Felt” and “Open-Spirited Paradigm” and addresses the Dual Carbon agenda of the 9th UABB from different perspectives. New content will be added to the exhibition in the upcoming three months. The exhibition will be open until March 3. Visiting hours to Dawan Unplugged are Tuesday through Friday, 9:30-12:00, 14:00-17:20, and Saturday and Sunday, 9:30-17:30.

Design Studio 1 professors and advisors at the UABB’s opening ceremony


Source: iFHHs, Shenzhen Daily

Written by Teresa Han and Tiancheng Zeng

Photos by Li Zhou and Xinyi Zhang

Edited by Alena Shish & Yuan Yang