On the Unnecessarily Shortened Lifespans of Some Contemporary Chinese Architecture
On January 06, 2007, the Main Teaching Building at Zhejiang University was imploded only 13 years after its construction. Hundreds of students and faculty went to the site to say goodbye to the building in which they once spent countless hours studying and working. There was no compelling reason for the destruction; the official statement was simply that the university needed a more “up-to-date” building for newly purchased equipment.
This sort of premature destruction is not an isolated phenomenon in China. As a matter of fact,
in the past decade, more than 90 percent of the buildings torn down in China were less than 30 years old, which is stunning when considered in light of China’s Architecture Design Code mandating a design lifespan of at least 70 years.
To give some comparative reference, Britain, under its Architecture Design Code, which requires a full 100 years, enjoys an actual average building lifespan of 124 years.
This situation in China is problematic for many reasons. First, the very brief cycles of designing, bidding and construction constitute a staggering waste of manpower and material resources. Second, as building materials such as concrete and steel are non-recyclable, the process of building and rebuilding has an unnecessary and devastating effect on an environment already heavily burdened.
More seriously, the greatly shortened lifespan of buildings reflects implicit problems rooted in China’s architecture, urban design, construction and real estate industries. One of the most obvious is the low quality of raw materials, pre-cast structures that lead inevitably to a low quality, short-term structure. The Shanghai Lianhuahe residential complex is one of the more telling examples. Designed purportedly to last 50 years, the housing complex did not last even a day before its collapse as the structure of its basement foundation failed to properly function because it was improperly constructed. Knowing that a change in the sequence of steps in construction would cause problems, the company responsible for the project carried forth nonetheless. Yet the contractor was not solely to blame. In this case, the workers, knowing the new sequence would be fatal to the structure, nonetheless continued in order to meet an unreasonable deadline set by the owner.
From a broader perspective, the construction market in China is problematic in its restrictions in its supply chain. An owner or even a designer will often restrict a contractor’s choices, making it difficult for him to use safer materials that may come at a slightly higher price. Lacking effective inspection on the bidding process, on material and construction quality, or even management qualifications, the owner and design parties tend to insist the contractor make use of the cheapest option available. To reduce costs, contractors often try to shorten the construction period, compromising quality and building integrity. While there is no other country that can compete with China in the “efficiency” of its construction, in most cases, too many cost reductions are required to survive the bidding process. These may include exploiting the labor force or substituting good materials with substandard ones, resulting in a dangerous compromise of building integrity.
Looking at the larger picture, this phenomenon suggests problems for Chinese cities as a whole. Entering the 21th century, China is becoming a significantly more urbanized country. The urban expansion came so fast that it would seem almost out of control in some cities. Shenyang, for example, has expanded its urban area by more than 40 percent in the last 20 years, and the once-suburban residential area has become the city’s business center in the last decade. With the shift in the urban zoning code, buildings had to change accordingly. Especially after the Beijing Olympics of 2008 and the Shanghai Expo 2010, larger cities as well as smaller cities were busy rearranging their structures to accommodate their rapidly growing populations. Bearing in mind that a goal for each city is also to look attractive to both its inhabitants as well as outsiders, city planners rarely miss an opportunity to try to improve their cities’ look and feel.
It is understandable in a country developing as quickly as China, that the metabolism rates of its cities are correspondingly high. However, such a process can quickly become fraught unless it is planned and closely regulated. However, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), the design of a city has not been left in the hands of urban planners — it is the government, rather, that dictates such policy. In stark contrast to professional planners, local governors have interests, such as optimizing Gross Domestic Product through extra construction, a goal that may be at odds with optimizing the urban landscape. The Chongqing Yongzhou Convention Center, for instance, was replaced by a five-star hotel only five years after its construction. It was abandoned by the Yongzhou Government because it did not bring as much profit as had been predicted.
A more balanced relationship between designer, governments, contractor, construction manager, as well as other relevant parties is clearly in order in China. On a more reassuring note, I am confident that as this problem has been noticed by many and widely discussed among the public, it will not be long before these problems are addressed. With this in mind, as a future architect excited at the prospect of working in China, I am ultimately confident that these problems will be addressed and that China’s construction industry has a bright future.