Fairy Water: reflections on community

During the course of the three weeks, on top of informal visits to people’s houses, there were five organised events with the community.

  1. Interviews with individual families
  2. Roof tile painting with children
  3. Mapping exercise with parents
  4. Community workshop mapping
  5. Embroidery workshop with women

Interviews and visiting families

The standard of living and the lack of care and concern for the elderlies and children left behind is concerning. One household that we visited was especially having a hard time. The 70-plus-year-old grandpa was ill and had to take care of his wife and daughter who are both mentality challenged. His son and grandson are in the village but does not help or visit him. When asked what his favourite thing is, he replied, ‘death’. Another person was the grandson of a landlord who was criticized heavily during the Cultural Revolution. When he was three, his father was executed by the party and his house (the Guest House) was confiscated and redistributed amongst the families. However, he still lives in the village and remains (visibly) positive relationship with the villagers. Another 90-year-old grandma living next to the Guest House has trouble walking. She has a wheelchair but there is a big step where the door is and so she is unable to travel outside of her place. She uses a bench to help her walk in the village. Normally she just travels to the Guest House and back. Little kids in the village wrote a letter to the big sisters and brothers saying how much they miss them and want them to go back and visit.

There are a lot of stories like that which stick to your head. And there are a lot of little projects which we as architect could possibly do to help the daily living conditions in the village. Building a staircase for one of the old couple, for example. The staircase that they currently have is very difficult to walk in and the grandpa has tripped on the staircase a couple of times. They use the staircase every day and it would make sense to design something that could improve their lives. For the grandma who cannot walk properly, would it be possible to make a small ramp so she could travel around the village with ease? These are little project that could greatly improve the lives of each person. But that being said, it is also necessary that if we are doing one project like this, to continue doing this for other families so everyone is included in the development of the village. It might be that a limit is set on the budget for each household and each student goes in to one household to build something that they actually need, instead of a pavilion.


With Alex’s guidance we were able to conduct a community workshop targeting on gathering information and teasing out the needs of the community through mapping. It was a very interesting learning experience understanding how the community should be approached and how the workshop should be run, e.g. how men and women should be split into groups, how people should get physical and record down information, how the students doing the asking should have an interest and sense of responsibility towards their topic. A very interesting thing I have kept on noticing is how to slow down and do it step by step. I have the old habit of wanting to make things perfect, but working with communities require patience and tolerance. It might be that a workshop is unsuccessful, but it does not mean that being unsuccessful means unfruitful. There are still lessons to be learnt, for example, from the previous workshop in March which rushed straight into design opinions and had people sit in teams to come up with a decision. The lessons from that session and this one was that it was important to have 1-on-1 conversations and a process for the community to first understand what themselves and then understand our role as facilitators.

It was also very interesting Alex’s confidence in community versus MM and Henry’s perception of the backward and uneducated villager. What is actually the role of the community in this project? Can we safely say that these communities can help themselves? Julia said while we were suggesting this workshop that the community does not even know what they want. I do not have experience working with communities and seeing a project to fulfilment and I am not yet convinced fully what the role of the community is. However, given that there will be outsiders coming in, the choice becomes more of 1) have the experts run the show 2) have the experts guide the people. The second does seem more sustainable in the long term because it will enable the people to know how to continue after the experts have left. It is interesting though that MM and Henry’s perception is that after the experts leave, the government will come in and support the sustainable development of the place. That is based on the assumption that the government will care. Only if the people care, will the government step in and do something about it. So it is important to have community engagement.

The second question is, how much? How much power does the community have and how much power should we take away? During the design process, Henry insisted that the design decisions remains with the architect. However, Alex (and I would have to agree with him) insisted that it is important to have the community engaged in the design process. So while the design is still vulnerable, there was an argument as to whether the community could join in the discussions. Although the final decision was that the community could discuss the design, showing the Rhino model on the laptop was probably not a very clear way of talking about the design anyways. MM, as the leading figure of the project, gave comments suggesting that the villagers are not able to give sensible comments on the design. It was quite fascinating because the pavilion was quite function-less and the overriding design in the pavilions is aesthetic views of the Guest House and its construction techniques. The first factor is quite personal but the second is definitely within the expertise of the masons and carpenters and could be discussed with them. This process of community engagement during design still need to be improved in terms of both planning (everyone needs to be on the same page about community design) and execution (materials used and workshop planning and communication).

Alex has suggested that it would be best if we start the structure for the community workshops and have it continue running as we leave. That way, the community is able to organise itself in terms of what is needed and how to achieve it. That way, they can demand and look for the ways that can help them. And other people can readily jump in to help them with their needs.

Fairy Water: reflections on construction

The workshop began with a mock up tests of little elements – wall, roof and brick. This was an exercise to get familiar with the local materials, crafts and masons. It then moved on to combination of the different designs into a single pavilion, with input from Gao. When design was confirmed, the construction began with the collection of materials and then the actual building of the structure.

Design was not so important in this workshop, especially when there was not a function allocated to the pavilion, other than to look onto the Guest House. It was meant as a temporary structure, for two years and will be demolished when the community centre is built on the same location. I learnt more about the design of joints and elements than the design of the whole structure. However, it was interesting that the aim of the pavilion was to be a catalogue of different material connections and possibilities in the village. If the design actually was that, it would have been very interesting.

People’s opinions about materials – mud bricks and not able to reuse it; grey bricks and its beauty; mortise and tenon and needless to use nails; social stigma

Chinese architecture is inward-looking. There are joints that you don’t see and the magic happens on the inside.


Bricks are divided into several types in this village.

  1. Grey bricks (Qing Zhuan) are traditional materials used in the Guest House. They are soft bricks, fired slowly with charcoal in special urns, over water. After they are fired, they are then clamped and sanded against each other to create a smooth surface on the facing side. This process takes a long time. The masons are very proud of the historical technique and the beauty that it creates. However, they no longer do it because of the complexity and effort. The mortar used for this is then usually gypsum mixed with organic glues found in crops.
  1. Red bricks (Hong Zhuan) are common materials found now in the village and area. They used to be made in the village by the villagers but now can be bought simply on the market. They are fired in urns quickly and so they are harder and cannot be sanded. The result is a rough finish. This kind of bricks come in two sizes, 10, 20, 30 and a smaller size. The mortar used is normally gypsum or cement with gypsum for decorative lining.
  1. Mud bricks (Tu Zhuan) are traditional materials used in common houses in the village and area. They are made with sand and water and air dried. If left out to dry in the sun, the surface might dry too quickly and crack. The way to test the mud bricks is to drop it on the ground from head height and see if it withstands the impact. There is also mud mortar made from the same material and could be used as temporary or permanent joints. Mud bricks cannot be reused.

Brick construction techniques

We wanted to test the wall and the points of insertion for timber – a typical condition found in the timber-brick buildings. Together with the mason, we first laid out the typical wall types used in construction in the village (Appendix a) and then tried one typical way of inserting a timber beam into the brick wall (Appendix b). The current way of insertion either leaves a hole in the wall while constructing it, and hence disrupts the pattern, or knock out a hole in the wall post-construction which damages the structural stability of the wall. We wanted to test if there is a way to allow for flexibility and stability at the same time. The different ways of new walls were made to create holes at regular intervals along the length of the wall. Timber elements such as beams, purlins, staircases or even furniture can then be inserted into the wall. This idea of flexibility also comes from the buildings in the village which are constructed at different times for different purposes. Flexibility allows for practical expansion of the buildings. The title of the mock up was engineered holes.

However, during the testing of these mock ups, there needed to have a tie-brick in between the two walls to ensure structural stability. Working the tie brick into the patterns then became a challenge and in the end we resorted to overlaying the layers of bricks in cantilevers to eliminate the need for tie bricks (Appendix c). Another important point to consider is the position of the beams. The location of holes in the wall has been arbitrary but the angle of the roof is standardised to be 1 in 2 (40cm length, 20cm height) in order to make sure that the roof tiles can sit properly and angle is sufficient for water drainage, but also because of the use of bricks and half bricks. Therefore, adjustments also needed to be considered to the wall to allow for the beam position.

There are also holes made in the upper parts of the walls of typical brick building so as to insert beams into it to build the second storey. The holes are then later filled with mortar or half bricks. In the construction of a typical brick room, bricklaying begins from the corners and moves inward. The bricks in the middles could be half-bricks.

Mortar placement was an interesting exercise. The typical way of placing it was to scrape on the sides and none in the middle or the side of the bricks. During actual construction, this was deemed to be unsafe as there is insufficient amount of cement/mortar between the bricks. Also, the masons use mortar to level the bricks because of the uneven sizes of the recycled bricks. This was also deemed to be structurally unsound.

In terms of foundation, the retaining walls and the columns should be tied in together to withstand horizontal forces. However, during the construction of the pavilion, some areas were not tied in together and the columns have to be rebuilt.

During construction of the pavilion, we wanted to test this technique and insert a staircase into the wall. However, one of the major problems with this is that the wall must be tall enough and have a sufficient amount of mass above the staircase in order to hold the timber elements down. Having a half wall does not allow for such a technique and this brick wall became more decorative than functional.


Material and gathering

Typical timber in the area is Chinese fir, Kampur and pine. Kampur is the cheapest and most common one. There are some historic forests in the area but to fall trees in there would need the trees to have died first. In India apparently they nail steel bars in a circle around the tree trunk and the tree will die. Kampur and fir are planted and felled with permit. The best kind of timber is regrown timber (chopped once and regrown from the same stump) and they are not easy to be corrupted. Typical ways to waterproof the trees is to apply layers of Tong Oil, which prevents it from termites and also rain. It is also advisable to lift the timber 20cm away from the ground to prevent water from entering into it.

On the hills behind the Big House Group of Fairy Water Village, there is a forest of Eucalypts which is forested to make paper. It is grown by the government as it grows very rapidly. However, because of the its need for a massive amount of water, it damages the soil.

Historic trees could also apply for licensing and protection. Once the tree is licensed, anyone trying to harm it is punishable by law.

Termites were present on site and a termite expert was invited to examine the site and the Guest House. Termites are scared of sunlight and dig tunnels to protect themselves from the sun. They leave traces which are visible as elevated tunnels of soil. Once disturbed, they escape and are difficult to find again. The best way to deal with termites is to first leave it and then leave possibilities to trace it. To get rid of termites, either find the queen termite, extinguish her and then the colony will die, or poison the termite/soil. The second way is the most typical but is harmful for health. When there are young children, it is advisable to leave the building for a week before opening it to this particularly vulnerable group. There might also be a type of poison that affects the termites as they communicate with each other.

Recycled timber is available cheaply around the village and there are houses with new, unused timber or old timber from demolished houses. When MM brought us around the place, it was interesting that she would point out the old buildings and how we can demolish it to get this piece of timber or that wall of bricks. Obviously these buildings do not matter in her eyes or even the villagers’ eyes. The contrast between the attitude towards this building and towards the Guest House is quite different. The quality of recycled timber is not very clear. It was not a good idea to do material viewing at night. We could have insisted more on buying new timber because that would have saved us time and labour costs in processing the old timber pieces.


Using recycled timber was difficult in terms of communication with the carpenter. However, I do feel that this carpenter is a special case. The rest of the people were much easier to communicate with. We (me and Jeff) began with showing him the 3D Rhino model of the design. It is understandable that this is not very clear. We then moved on to giving him plans and sections of the structure. However, spending the first two days doing mock ups we realised that the plans and sections do not communicate our ideas to him and he is building things that are not out intentions. Following that we decided that the easiest way is to make a physical model so that he could see the structure – also very importantly the different levels of the ground. The model was made of chopsticks and scrap wood pieces and was labelled heavily to simplify the process for the carpenter. This was successful as the discussions were able to focus on the model and we could pin-point which joint and beam we are discussing etc. The carpenter also referred to the model often when he is working to ensure that he is making the joints right.

 The model also served very interestingly as a conversation piece between us and the villagers/curious onlookers. I had placed a pile of paper near the model to invite people to write their comments, although this was not very successful. However, having that physical and visual representation of what we are trying to build is an important communication tool to reach the villagers. It might also be that any structure that we build in the future, there is a communication through physical models. Maybe the design involvement and workshop could use models instead of drawings.

Timber joints

Timber is fixed onto each other with mortise and tenon joints (Appendix e). We observed the carpenters making these joints and recorded the process. When a new set of equipment arrived we sanded the chisels and axe and participated in the making process, starting with making a work bench (Appendix f). Beams and columns are locked into each other with mortise and tenon joints and end pegs. The beams could be stacked on top of each other and connected together with pegs to make thicker beams. The beams have to be vertically staggered to minimise compromise to the timber and not creating a four-way hole at any one point of the timber. The direction of the beams (vertically or horizontally) is controlled not by the position of the mortise but by the shape of the tenon (angled or straight). The pieces are made off-site and then transported on-site for assembly.

Connection between timber and brick became problematic. This is because the brick columns were standing alone and unstable when finished and there is a need to lock in the bricks column with the timber column. THe more continuously connected the structure is the more stable it is. The current practice is to place the timber on top of the brick. The team was unsure that this is sufficient joining between the two different materials. There were two proposed solutions, one to add a metal plate on the bottom of the brick, subject to the availability of steel plates. The other is to make timber parts on all columns which then act as clamps to prevent the timber from sliding off (Appendix d).

The other issues on structural stability included the viability of timber columns that have cracks in them. There were doubts whether the cracking is a cause for concern. The carpenter was not worried as apparently only cracked wood is able to dry properly. However, some of the timber has huge cracks across the length of the wood and we ultimately decided to use a thicker piece of timber to replace these cracked ones. The other option is to use steel ties to tie around the timber, however, these were not readily available (Appendix d).

The structural stability of the two standing columns were an issue. The proposed solutions included knocking them down and making a new wall tied into the columns so that the columns could at least withstand one direction of the horizontal forces. Negotiations with the workers resulted in a compromise using a different solution as they have already rebuilt columns twice and are very happy about redoing work again. This solution is to make a timber clamp in between the two columns and hold them together. This could also be applied to the other side and thus unsure that on both directions there is resistance (Appendix d).

Construction on Site/Brickwork

Clearing the site – work on site started with clearing the vegetation and grass. This included burning the site. However, this could only be done when the vegetation has been cut and left out to dry for at least a night. This way we can ensure that it will actually burn.

Fengshui – there is not much belief in Fengshui in the area. MM and Gao seem to have more respect for the Fengshui than the actual villagers do. This is something interesting – Fengshui is now viewed as a part of the culture of Chinese architecture and something to be respected and imposed from the outsider, as a method to reconnect to the past almost.

Fairy Water: visiting different wells in the village

Following the community workshop, we realised that availability of water is an issue in the village. We went to the village clinic to ask about the water conditions and the doctors explained that kidney stones and other kind of water-related diseases are common in the village. We started investigating further into the situation.

Many households still get water manually from wells in the village. Water from the village comes from the mountains resulting in a high level of minerals, visible on the kettles after boiling. We mapped the different kinds of wells in the village and also ran a water survey to understand water usage and the severity of the disease situation.


Water usage survey.

Fairy Water: crafts making

Embroidery is a type of traditional crafts in the village. As part of the workshop, we also wanted to explore the opportunities to reactivate the crafts of making these baby’s bibs and create an opportunity to improve the economic means for the village.

We sat down with some ladies to understand and record the process of making these items and then went to town to find appropriate materials for a small workshop the next day.