Beyond the "Made In China" Mentality: Why China's Innovation Revolution Must Embrace Pre-Fab Architecture

Chinese construction company Broad Group's rendering for Sky City One, soon to be the world's tallest skyscraper. (© Image: Broad Group via Gizmag)

When Wired correspondent Lauren Hilgers arrived to Broad Town, the headquarters of the Broad Sustainability Group in Changsha, China, she soon realized that this was not your typical workplace environment. At Broad Town, employees must be able to run 7.5 miles over the course of 2 days; recite company “policy” - covering everything from how to save energy to how to brush your teeth - at a moment’s notice; and refer to their boss as “my chairman.”

It may sound strict, but the workers at Broad are on a higher mission. The CEO and founder of the company, Zhang Yue, a.k.a the chairman, doesn’t just consider himself the head of a construction company, but of a “structural revolution.”

In a few years, Zhang has turned the world of skyscraper design on its head, pushing the technical and structural capabilities of pre-fabrication to its utmost (perhaps you’ve heard of the 30-story hotel he built in just 15 days). Not only do Broad’s techniques save time and money, they represent a potentially game-changing opportunity for China to maintain its unfathomable rate of growth in a way that’s both safe and sustainable.

But where does innovation enter in this revolution? China, for years an intellectual playground for Western architects, has become increasingly concerned with nurturing its own latent intellectual capital. However, if Broad’s paradigm takes hold (which, pragmatically-speaking, it should), what will that mean for architectural innovation? In a world of pre-fab structures, can architecture exist?

The Unsinkable Scraper

Zhang, who started out (and made his wealth) manufacturing boilers and air-conditioning units, made the unlikely shift to sustainable construction on the backs of two major life events: one, about a decade ago, when he became a stalwart environmentalist; and two, in 2008, when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit China’s Sichuan Province, killing about 87,000.

After unsuccessfully attempting to convince developers to retro-fit buildings to be more structurally sound, Zhang changed tactics. He became obsessed with designing a structure that would be both earthquake-proof and environmentally-friendly, and conscripted about 300 of his engineers to the task. 

The result was Tower Hotel, the world’s first factory-made skyscraper. Over 93% of the 30-story tower was prefabricated as a series of modules. Once on site, workers only had to bolt the modules together: no welding, no scaffolding, no water (a typical site uses about 5,000 tons of water to build), and very little waste (only 25 tons, instead of the 3,000 tons usually generated). The entire assembly process took 15 days.

And while the speed certainly raises eyebrows about structural integrity, the quality of the construction is actually the Tower’s greatest selling point. According to Lauren Hilgers, the Wired correspondent who spent time with Zhang Yue at the Broad Headquarters, “In a nation where construction standards vary widely, and where builders often use cheap and unreliable concrete, Broad’s method offers a rare sort of consistency.” According to Broad, who had a prototype of the building tested, the structure could survive an earthquake of up to 9.0 on the Richter Scale.

Moreover, the Tower Hotel uses 10% of the concrete required by other buildings its size, meaning it requires less structural steel (drastically reducing its weight and price; Tower Hotel costs about $400 less per square meter than a traditional commercial high-rise in China). Its exterior is comprised of thermal insulation and five-paned windows that keep the rooms cool. It can produce biogas from sewage and heat itself from hot waste water.

And Zhang’s latest sustainable, earthquake-proof skyscraper will be his most ambitious (and attention-calling) yet. Sky City One will at 2,750 ft (220 stories) be the world’s tallest structure, beating out the Burj Khalifa by about 33 feet.

Shanghai Tower. Courtesy of Gensler.

If all goes to plan, it will rise in about 210 days, cost only $628 million dollars - and very likely be the beginning of that revolution Zhang was hoping for.

A Tale of Two Towers

To understand why Sky City One represents a different schema for China, let’s explore it in the context of one of its famously tall counterparts. Shanghai Tower is the culmination of everything that architecture has been in China in the last decade (and that Sky City One is not): first, it’s the brainchild of an internationally-recognized Architecture firm from the West, Gensler; second, the tower is the epitome of cutting-edge (Western) design.

Shanghai Tower. Courtesy of Gensler.

Strategic environmental thinking informs every detail. The tapered, asymmetrical shape reduces wind load and makes for a more energy-efficient structure. Its many features - integrated wind turbines, a rainwater collection system, geothermal heating/cooling, and local, recycled materials - should afford the building both a LEED Gold certification and China’s Green Building Three Star rating.

Moreover, Shanghai Tower is conceived as a “self-contained city:” it’s a mixed-use building lined top to bottom with public spaces (about a third of the tower is dedicated green space). The tower will take about 5-6 years to complete, and, at $2 billion dollars, cost 3 times more than Sky City One to construct.

There’s no denying that the highly-functional Shanghai Tower, with its delicately twisting form and transparent, permeable skin, is undeniably architecture at its best. But it’s problematic in that it’s self-referential; in no way is it a Chinese Architecture.

Co-Op Canyon. Courtesy of Standard Architecture.

For years, China has been the intellectual playground of Western Architects who have designed nearly all of its iconic works - the CCTV tower (OMA), The Bird’s Nest (Herzog & de Meuron), the National Grand Theater (Paul Andreu), the China World Trade Center (SOM). Leaving many in China to ponder, in the words of Alexander Lesto, “why the hands molding the country’s new face are not Chinese.”

Sky City One, on the other hand, is Chinese. But you could easily argue that it isn’t architecture at all, let alone Chinese architecture; it’s no more than an impressive exercise in engineering. Thus, embracing the Broad model is also problematic: it furthers the country’s “Made In China” reputation, when so many in the country are desperately ready for its citizens to begin to “Create in China.”

Talking ‘Bout A Revolution

So where does Zhang Yue’s “structural revolution” come into all this? 

Perhaps it doesn’t. A new generation of Chinese architects - led by the likes of Pritzker-Prize Winner Wang Shu, Zhang Ke of Standard Architecture, Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, and Tiantian Xu of DnA - has emerged, one that could easily take on the country’s legacy of cutting-edge, sustainable skyscraper design.

Pre-fabrication could remain as it always has. A pragmatic alternative to architecture.

However, when one considers the sheer scale and pace of China’s urbanization, it cannot be denied that Zhang’s safe, sustainable skyscrapers offer an unparalleled opportunity. In only forty years, China’s population has gone from 80% rural to 51% urban (that’s about 700 million people living in cities), a percentage that’s only expected to rise. And, as the 2008 earthquake revealed, it is the quality of construction, and hence human life, that has suffered in the attempt to meet the insatiable demand. Pre-fabricated skyscrapers could change all that.

As Thomas Mayne, of Morphosis has noted, China’s economy, urbanization, and image will depend on the construction of tall buildings; it is the job of the architect to “push the generic nature of highrises in different directions.” If this mindset of innovation were applied to pre-fabricated structures, and not just skyscrapers as they’re traditionally imagined, the impact on millions of Chinese would be tremendous.

For too long, “pre-fabricated architecture” has been a contradiction in terms. Perhaps the only truly innovative way forward, for Chinese and Western architects alike, would be to finally bring these two concepts into conversation.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Beyond the "Made In China" Mentality: Why China's Innovation Revolution Must Embrace Pre-Fab Architecture" 01 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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