Energy efficient home, easy to maintain — and no mortgage

A few decades ago, cave homes in China were simple dark affairs with tiny doors like this one.
A few decades ago, cave homes in China were simple dark affairs with tiny doors like this one. Tim Johnson / MCT

MIAOGOU VILLAGE, China — Like millions of other Chinese, Li Zhanjun lives in a dwelling that is fireproof, noise proof, warm in winter, cool in summer and the epitome of an eco-friendly design. Moreover, it's cheap.

Li lives in a cave.

About 20 million Chinese still reside in caves and dirt-covered dwellings on the Loess Plateau that straddles the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River in China's northwest.

Some of the caves have been passed down for generations, with hard-packed earthen walls, electrical wiring, piped-in plumbing and other modern conveniences, including cable television.

Longtime cave dwellers are often passionate about their way of life, saying they are shielded from the elements in a practical and efficient fashion, dwelling along hillsides and leaving valuable arable land in valleys for growing crops.

Researchers say economic necessity isn't the only reason so many Chinese continue to reside in caves.

"People from abroad think people who live in caves are very poor. But our research shows that is not always the case," said Wang Jun, a researcher on caves at the Xian University of Architecture and Technology.

Many simply have grown accustomed to a lifestyle that dates back more than a millennium. Caves also have a revolutionary luster. Mao Zedong, the revolutionary founder of modern China, lived in caves that still honeycomb this region after the Long March, plotting the drive to take over the country that succeeded in 1949.

Caves are easily excavated from the silty soil here, requiring only picks and other digging implements. The earth is so hard-packed that caves don't need additional support to prevent collapse. Most have a stone facade, with large lattice windows framing a door and allowing light to pour in during the day.

Generally, the caves are shaped like loaves of bread, 10-to-13 feet wide and anywhere from 20-to-25 feet deep, with arched ceilings. Several caves dug next to each other can have connecting doors, providing for a larger overall dwelling, with flues allowing for ventilation from indoor cooking fires.

The caves provide a cool respite from intense summer heat, and a snug retreat for inhabitants as winter temperatures drop.

Wang Aifang recalled how one day last winter, temperatures fell to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. When she stoked up an indoor cooking furnace, the cave quickly warmed up.

"Look how the warm air circulates from the stove, under the bed and out the flue," she said, feeding a fire in an earthen hearth with branches from dried sesame plants.

Her dirt cave had walls so hard-packed they appeared to be made of concrete. They were covered with white lime, except at lower levels, which she had covered in newsprint.

"The houses in the city have to use heat. We don't," Wang said.

Wang, the architect, who's not related, said researchers had done tests on the caves finding that even when outside temperatures fell to 3 degrees, indoor temperatures in the caves stood at about 54 degrees.

Just a few decades ago, as many as 40 million Chinese lived in caves. Back then, many caves had small doors and windows, making them dark and dank. The numbers of cave dwellers has dropped as living standards improved in China, even as cave designs have gotten more comfortable, with bigger doors and windows and better ventilation systems.

Wang is trying to convince authorities to promote cave living, designing greenhouse fronts that allow them to trap solar heat more efficiently in winter. He said caves are far more energy efficient than freestanding buildings.

"If you cook just a little food over a fire, it heats up the whole cave. A house isn't so efficient," he said.

One American who spent five months with Chairman Mao in the caves around Yanan, his revolutionary headquarters here in Shaanxi Province, recalled the caves as "a great way to live."

"My cave was very easy to heat — just a little square stone charcoal brazier . . . with a few sticks of charcoal glowing would warm the place during the day. When you went to sleep, on your little cot, you'd bank the fire by raking the ashes over the embers and then puff them back to glowing in the morning," said Sidney Rittenberg, who spent some three decades in China before returning to the U.S.

"Life in the cave was quite clean," Rittenberg added in an e-mail. "After boring a new cave out of the hillside, they would leave it unoccupied for the first year to let it dry out, so that by the time someone moved in it was both clean and dry."

Cave living holds less appeal to young Chinese.

"They think it's rustic," said Li, who along with his wife Wang raised two sons in their cave, which was dug out by his grandfather. "They (the caves) are so comfortable, but the young people think it's primitive."

In addition to caves, many Chinese in this region live in hillside housing with earthen berms for walls and earth on the rooftop. Many are built with local stones from a quarry, with an arch facade. Standing outside his earthen home, Sheng Xiaolong noted the stonework on the facade, comprising large slabs.

"Actually, we pay more for this than for a regular building," Sheng said. "People are not allowed to use explosives anymore to get their own stone slabs. . . . Stones are heavy and require a lot of labor."

Cave designs have changed over the years. As rural incomes rise, cave dwellers bring more furniture home. They've built walls that go straight up to about six feet, allowing for wardrobes to be placed flush against walls. Ventilation systems have improved, and Wang said some 80 percent have indoor plumbing.

They remain largely impervious to natural disaster.

"They are safe in earthquakes. Only landslides can damage them," Wang said. "They can't burn down."

One of the biggest advantages remains economic, he added.

"You can live there forever. You don't pay anybody," Wang said.


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