In 2018, after super typhoon “Mangkhut” swept through Hong Kong, a destroyed community kitchen in the village of Nam Chung transformed from a cargo container into one made of bamboo, earth and straw. For members of this eco-community, called PEACE (Partnership for Eco-Agriculture and the Conservation of Earth), to build with natural materials in modern times was not a random thought, but an idea conceived over years of minute discussion. This small scale, low budget and hand-sculpted structure may find it hard to earn a place at any current architectural awards, but its low carbon footprint and sustained impact could offer a proactive response to the escalating environmental and social crises. As a humble kitchen, it helps shed light on an emerging building practice- Natural Building, which incorporates natural materials and embraces a co-creation process.
The beginning of natural building practice goes back to North America in the 60s. As a response to the oil crisis coupled with social issues at the time, waves of urbanites went back to the countryside and started building their homes, in search of an alternative mode of living that aligned with their ideals. Confronted by the inaction of the construction industry to the crisis, they built on their own with what was locally available, log, earth and strawbale. It is a movement that continues to thrive in all continents today.
Back in Nam Chung, a similar calling was being heard. Located in the north-easternmost region of the New Territories in the Shatoukok area, Nam Chung is home to around 60 households and an abundance of wildlife. It enjoys a relative quietness, though on the weekend it is frequented by stream hikers, bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts. Among this backdrop is a community made up of dozens individuals who have gathered together intentionally with a common vision- to live sustainably in a way that is more socially inclusive and brings less harm to the environment. As such, the reconstruction of a community kitchen for PEACE came with a challenging design brief, as the business-as-usual way of design-and-build would be unable to respond to the changing societal needs.
There has been a constant reminder that the practice of architecture holds agency in society. The famous case of Jane Jacobs in the 60s, which popularized the term “place-making”, made a plea to urban planners, architects, and governors that they could not take heed of their own, but commanded an expanding view of stakeholders, and more collaborative effort across different disciplines. What follows is the rise of “participatory design process” and “design thinking ”, which asks architects and designers to lend a more “empathetic” ear to users. However, at the core of the above design strategies, users, homeowners or citizens remain passive customers, while designers hold a solid rein on their expertise.
A Co-Creation Process
PEACE’s community kitchen was an experiment in co-creation. Co-creation, here, refers to the design development and construction process that involves the designer and people who are not trained in the discipline. First, it is a design approach that regards the user as a partner instead of a subject, in which they are regarded as “an expert of their experience”. In the case of PEACE, as a designer from outside the village, I was unfamiliar with how the community members cooked, how often they used the kitchen, how many people the kitchen space was required to accommodate etc. During the design phase, I visited the site often, either camped on site or stayed in the makeshift dormitory, cooked and ate with them. This change of perspective between user and service provider allowed idea generation and exchange to take place freely and bilaterally.
Second, my role became that of a facilitator, one that initiates dialogues or enables debates to arise. At one point, we were to decide the type of material to be used as the roof. We considered corrugated metal sheet, plastic tarp or reed bundle from the pond. Initially, community members favoured the first option as it was more long-lasting and something they were already familiar with. However, after I suggested they look into the matter according to their principles, a different process of deliberation arose. Apart from efficiency, members came up with more perimeters, such as sustainability, manpower and cost etc. After ranking the materials in relation to the priority of needs, a consensus to build the roof with reed was reached.
The deliberative process described above was to recognize that architectural design is to design for purposes that go beyond product production —one that “addresses larger scopes of inquiry” . In light of the growing disconnection between humans and nature, the purpose here was to empower people with the means to create together. Over the course of two months, more than 100 people from within and outside the community took part in the construction of the community kitchen, including women and men, people from teenage to old age. It ultimately became a community building project, creating a space and platform for people to gather together, socialise and create collectively; a rare and precious occurrence these days.
This summer, the climate crisis continues to engulfs the world with heatwaves, droughts and, floods. Given that the construction industry accounts for 40% of globalofglobal the carbon emissions, architects and engineers share some of the responsibility for climate change, but do they have the means to do it right.
At home, there is an uncontested belief that concrete and steel are the only possible materials for construction of any scale. Indeed, their wide availability, standardised quality and high strength make them an easy choice. However, they are energy intensive materials. The extraction and production of these materials continue to deplete resources from the next generations. Even recycling concrete will inevitably produce residual waste that ends up in the waste stream.
Looking abroad though, there is a boom of innovation that steadily transforms the built environment with materials that are low in embodied energy and fully compostable. In mainland China, there are museums, public squares and houses built with rammed earth. Over the past decade, Prof Mujun, for instance, has led efforts into making rammed earth as a legally recognized construction material. In Indonesia, there are education centres and resorts built with advanced bamboo structures. Green School in Bali is a well-known example that has led to investment on research by renowned institutions on re-examining and advancing bamboo as a building material.
In the village of Nam Chung, we experimented with local natural materials. The need for members to return to the kitchen for their daily cooking commanded a fast reconstruction method—bamboo scaffolding. Taking inspiration from bamboo theatres and scaffolding on highrises, we adopted this construction method for its ingenious and local element, which requires only bamboo and string. Conceived as a temporary structure that would last no more than 3 years, the bamboo scaffolding of the kitchen was completed within a day and a half.
Next, the enclosure was constructed using hanging straw and plastered with earth. Being collected from Long Valley, one of the few remaining rice fields in Hong Kong (at the time of writing it has ceased production due the the government plan to turn the farmland into a wetland park), the rice straw is a natural insulation. The air pocket that it creates keeps the sun and energy away from the interior. The earth, taken from an adjacent fish pond, is a thermal mass. Mixed with aggregate and lime, the earth plaster absorbs and emits heat slowly. This earth-straw composite creates a comfortable interior space. Users of the kitchen always appreciate how much cooler the mud kitchen is compared to when it was situated in the cargo container.
Natural building practice is not without its challenges. As a community building project, it is demanding on human resources for the construction and upkeep. Local craftsmen who are experienced with natural materials in Hong Kong are scarce. The know-how of these crafts is not well documented or transferred. There is a need for more resources to advance research on the technology of these materials. Ultimately, to many Hong Kongers, it may not seem congruent with the modern lifestyle. However, it is a timely invitation to think for the future-how can we create and live in a landscape that is co-habited by humans and non-humans? The community kitchen has entered its fourth year of service without much fanfare, just like the many experiments that take place here in Nam Chung. As this place-making project sustains, community members of PEACE continue to push forward many experiments on different scales.
Loky Leung is an architectural designer and researcher with a holistic integration of natural materials, sustainability and community engagement.