Page C1.2 . 10 December 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Yung Ho Chang's Split House


According to Chang, the 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) house is his take on the traditional Chinese courtyard dwelling — the very sort of home he lived in until the age of 13. "I never lived in any other house as long as that one," he recalls, "so there's something about this type of structure I understand, not only as an architect, but also as an inhabitant."

Unlike with the traditional model, Chang says he decided to bring the topography of the site into the courtyard by dividing the house into two separate wings, with the mountain itself providing a natural enclosure.

"When you see it from the outside, the house seems withdrawn, like any other courtyard house," Chang describes, "but inside, you realize that it in fact is totally open to nature."

The effect is that structure and scenery seem to envelope each other. The living, dining, kitchen, and sitting rooms on the ground floor look onto the tree-shaded courtyard through glass curtain walls, while large second-floor bedrooms with spacious open terraces offer views beyond. The stream that runs through the property flows directly under the house, meandering below the glass-floored foyer.

Walls of Earth

Tradition suggested both the typology of the house and Chang's choice of materials.

The outer walls are made of rammed earth, "an ancient building material still used in rural China," Chang explains. "This actually made hiring local construction crews more effective, since they are already familiar with it."

The house's interior is defined by exposed laminated wood beams, stone tile floors, and large glass windows.

To produce rammed-earth walls, clay-rich soil is poured into wooden molds, then pounded and compacted down, producing a finished product nearly as hard and durable as concrete, with the appearance of solid rock. Homes made with rammed earth stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and are virtually fireproof.

Chang chose rammed earth and wood for the project with an eye to the building's life cycle. "A nature park had been proposed at one time on the land where the Commune is located," he recalls. "If this idea were ever revisited some day in the future, the building's materials could be easily returned to the earth."

Additionally, since Split House is divided into two sections, Chang offers that occupants can choose to inhabit one and shutter the other, reducing heating, air conditioning, and other maintenance costs, and reducing the home's environmental impact.

According to Wei Wei Shannon, a New York-based Chinese architecture critic and founder of the nonprofit People's Architecture, Chang's use of rammed-earth wall construction has brought the technique into the world of contemporary architecture, when it had previously been considered an antiquated construction method.

By Chang's assessment, there is still a long way to go in the use of rammed earth and other sustainable building practices in his home country. "Hangzhou architect Wang Shu also uses rammed earth," Chang says. "But China has not yet found its own approach to pursue sustainability in practice. Some of the more typical measures, as seen in Europe, would drive up construction costs prohibitively."

Split Decision

At the time the Commune by the Great Wall was built, Chang was not known for residential architecture, although prior to Split House he had designed a home outside Beijing for Zhang Xin and Pan Shiyi, the wife-and-husband team behind SOHO China, which developed the Commune.

The developers' reaction to Split House was one of appreciation for the high-minded design, but with a sense that the house could have been more luxurious, according to Chang. "I guess I could have used Italian travertine, or other expensive embellishments," he says. "But for someone who grew up in and lives in a city, I think being so close to nature and near the Great Wall is luxury enough."

Split House and the other Commune villas were originally intended to be rented out to moneyed visitors from Beijing, but the project proved unprofitable. After the Commune was repurposed variously as a gated community, hotel, demonstration model, and "architectural museum," the Kempinsky hotel group took it over in 2005, adding 31 new villas — less impressive than the original ones — as well as a spa and four restaurants in a central clubhouse.

The Commune by the Great Wall is still open to visitors interested in studying the architecture of the original houses, which are now billed as "presidential villas."

As for the Split House concept, Chang envisions his design deployed in other hillside settings. "The house can be positioned as a single unit, parallel houses, or at a right angle, depending on the site's requirements," he says.

Split House's potential modularity allows for a variety of amorphous central courtyards — the influence of futuristic ideals on an ancient traditional form.

For Chang, this is design's essential appeal: "The past and future can both be part of the present."   >>>

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Giancarlo La Giorgia is a freelance print and video journalist. He is president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada: Quebec chapter, a member of the English Language Arts Network, and author of the bestselling book Canadian War Heroes: Ten Profiles in Courage.



ArchWeek Image

Inside Split House, a simple repetitive structural system of composite timber is used.
Photo: Xing Fu Extra Large Image

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A short glass-enclosed bridge connects the two wings of Split House.
Photo: Xing Fu Extra Large Image

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Split House site plan drawing.
Image: Atelier Feichang Jianzhu Extra Large Image

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Split House ground-floor plan drawing.
Image: Atelier Feichang Jianzhu Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Split House section drawings through each wing, looking west.
Image: Atelier Feichang Jianzhu Extra Large Image

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The long outside walls and uphill end walls of Split House's two wings are made of rammed earth.
Photo: Xing Fu Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The master bedroom at Split House.
Photo: Xing Fu Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Along the front of Split House, glazed walls offer views downhill from the ends of both wings.
Photo: Xing Fu Extra Large Image


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