A Plug-in House To Revitalise China’s Historical ‘Hoods

Beijing-based architecture studio People’s Architecture Office (PAO) has designed a plug-in for a dwelling in one of the historical hutong neighborhoods of China’s capital. This one-of-a-kind plug-in serves to upgrade a run-down house located in Beijing’s old center into a residence that fits the needs of modern urban living in China.

PAO’s plug-in is a tailor-made solution for Mrs. Fang and her family, who wanted to stay in the historic neighbourhood but needed to upgrade key areas of their home, including the kitchen and bathroom. This design was 30 times cheaper than buying a standard apartment in the same neighbourhood, and turned out to be the ideal solution for being able to stay in the hutong where she was born and raised. The neatly designed addition adds a bathroom, kitchen and roof terrace to the existing house and replaces another part of the old building.

To make this plug-in as cheap as possible on a site and with very tight restrictions, PAO used prefabricated panels. This allowed them to built the entire project on site in only 24 hours and using only one tool. All the plumbing, windows, locks and amenities are integrated into the modular panels. This was a good solution for the specific issues of this area, as there is no sewer system and most residents are still dependent on public toilets. To solve this, PAO integrated an off-grid composting toilet in the design.

Hutongs are neighborhoods made up of narrow alleys and courtyard residences. They are commonly associated with northern Chinese cities and Beijing, where they form the heart of Old Beijing and represent a big historic and cultural element of the city. There are only around 1000 Hutongs left, all in need of some serious rebuilding and repairs, but as they are being listed on the heritage protection list, their renovation is becoming a bit more complicated.

The plug-in is much more than an attractive architectural intervention. It provides a solution for Mrs. Fang, but also shows how many old structures in the same context could be transformed in a way that is affordable. As more and more people are moving to Chinese cities every year, it becomes increasingly difficult to find sufficient housing solutions in a city like Beijing. Prices are exploding and space is limited. These kind of strategic design interventions provide alternatives to large scale master-planning and traditional real estate projects. They show how Beijing’s hutongs can be sustained in an organic way, lead by its inhabitants.

It’s not a surprise that this is a project by PAO. As their name already explains, the office shows a huge engagement with the housing situation of lower urban classes in Chinese cities. This is clearly expressed in earlier works, such as this Courtyard House and their Tricycle House.