Follow Us:


Project Profile


2008 Award of Distinction 

Fujian Earth Buildings

Horizontal Navigation Bar w/Rollover Effect


Project TitleFujian Earth Buildings

LocationYongding and Nanjing Counties, Fujian Province, China

Size314,438 square metres

CostUS$ 14,230,000

Responsible PartyZhang Song, Chen Zhonghou and Yi Xiangrong

Heritage ArchitectZhang Song, Zhou Xuanxuan, Li Yi, Liu Kai, Li Wei, Dong Yi, Yang Qingcong, Miao Jie, Yang Kai, Shen Ying, Sun Tian and Cao Rui

ContractorGovernment of Yongding County and Government of Nanjing County

Date of CompletionSeptember 2007


Located in Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangdong Provinces of China, tulou (earthen buildings) are monumental multi-storey buildings, either square or circular in form, which stand out distinctively in the rural landscape. Constructed with walls of packed soil and interior structures in timber, these vernacular buildings function as clan residences, housing many families and multiple generations. Associated with Hakka communities, who are late immigrants to the area, the tulou are well-fortified and self-contained structures. The Fujian tulou in particular are known for their wide distribution, their range of subtypes and their sheer numbers. Yongding and Nanjing Counties, with over 15,000 and 7,000 dwellings, respectively, have an unparalleled collection of surviving tulou buildings and communities, a collection important to both the history and culture of the area and to the future of the region’s inhabitants.

A unique combination of materials, techniques and aesthetic values, tulou strongly reflect the interaction of humans with their environment. These buildings also provide insights into the history, art, science and society of the region of China in which they are located. In recognition of this outstanding significance, the tulou have been inscribed on the World Heritage list. Preserving the tulou means protecting not only the buildings themselves, but also ways of living and social interaction. After 1949, the collective mode of clan living that was closely associated with tulou housing gradually faded away. Subsequently, national urbanization trends and the uneven development of local and regional economies have posed a threat to the continued existence of tulou. In recent years, many inhabitants of these buildings have moved to urban areas and, as a result, the fragile earthen structures are increasingly deteriorating.

This conservation project was launched at the initiative of the governments of Yongding and Nanji Counties, and aimed to bring new life to these traditional communities and to help protect the tulou as an important cultural resource. Most of the tulou buildings were in a dilapidated state and needed significant upgrading to meet present-day sanitation and lighting standards. With advice from Tongji University, the project restored a total of 35 traditional tulou buildings across two counties, five townships and ten villages. All were intended as demonstration projects for other work in the region and as examples of continuing heritage values.

Building History

The earliest tulou complexes in Yongding County date from the tenth century. This building form became increasingly popular after the thirteenth century and reached its peak in the fourteenth century. At present, Yongding has significant tulou clusters and individual buildings in Chuxi, Hongkeng, Gaobei, Yanxiang and Zhenfu. These include 91 sites dating to the fifteenth century, 47 to the sixteenth century and 123 to the seventeenth century, for a total of 261 separate complexes and buildings. These provide shelter for 979 households, comprising a total population of 4,473 at that time.

In Nanjing County, the earliest remaining tulou date from as early as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). From the fifteenth century onwards, clusters of large-scale tulou buildings proliferated in the mountainous area of the province. This tradition extended well into the 1980s. In Nanjing, the project focused on the township of Hekeng, which has seven circular tulou and seven square ones. Together these provide housing for 434 households, with a combined population of 1,771 at that time.

Project History

In 1999, with the support of the county governments, the Historic City Research Centre of Tongji University drew up a long-term comprehensive strategy to revitalize tulou in these two counties. As a first step, the centre began a programme of field research and set up archives containing data related to the tulou in these counties. In April 2000, the university completed master plans for conservation of the tulou in each county. Work began on site in May 2001.

Project Scope and Framework

The project was a comprehensive effort to enhance and preserve the existing historic tulou in harmony with their natural setting, by conserving the buildings, associated structures and landscape features as well as to improve the overall living conditions of local residents. The conservation work was aimed at highlighting the significance of the tulou to the history and visual character of the region. The project also sought to preserve the local folkways and lifestyles, including customs, festivities and other forms of intangible cultural heritage. In this way, the project team hoped to preserve vernacular building traditions and promote cultural continuity in rural areas in a holistic manner.

A pilot project for additional work, the effort included three tulou clusters and two buildings in Yongding and two clusters and two buildings in Nanjing. structing in rural areas. Much of the project was aimed at general improvements to the overall infrastructure and at the revitalization of the living communities. The work included both construction of new facilities and the removal of incompatible newer structures that had been added to the tulou over time, such as squatter settlements and livestock sheds.

In Nanjing, work included the reclamation of 46,800 square metres of historic housing; the removal of 8,800 square metres of incompatible buildings; the construction of 15 public toilets; renovation of 13 bridges; the dredging of 11 kilometres of waterways; the embedding of 48 kilometres of pipes and cables; and the replacement of 26.5 kilometres of electrical wires. Additional work included lighting services for tulou structures and numerous improvements to landscape features and roads.

The figures for Yongding were comparable. Between 2001 and April 2006, the work in Yongding resulted in the rehabilitation of 22,510 square metres of living space; the demolition and removal of 37,000 square metres of incompatible buildings; the creation of 53,500 square metres of open areas; the reconstruction of 47 kilometres of roads; and the installation of 60.9 kilometres of electrical, telecommunication and television cables. A total of 1,492 persons from 476 rural households were temporarily relocated. In both Nanjing and Yongding, all of the work was completed by the end of 2007.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

The guiding philosophy of the project embodied five ideals: unhurried discovery; restrained repair; reuse and recycling of materials; practicality and attention to detail; and lastly, research, consultation and networking among consultants. 

Documentation was an important aspect of project implementation. Close-range photography was the principal tool for the development of an archive with links to key buildings. The project staff also recorded histories of buildings and residents as an important part of the overall conservation process and as an aid in decision-making. New maps provided important information on existing ownership and jurisdiction; they also helped in determining the age and location of incompatible newer buildings, many of them illegal constructions.

The conservation team sought to strengthen the buildings’ structure and restore their exterior character and interior features. They paid careful attention to authenticity in terms of colours, dimensions, heights of each storey, doors and windows and decorative elements. 

The project placed significant emphasis on the use of appropriate materials. Decayed building parts were removed; replacements were made with identical materials, traditional craftsmanship and size. For instance, in fixing the roof, as many old roofing tiles were retained as possible and missing or damaged tiles were replaced with new units based on historic designs. Wood structures and details which were vulnerable to termites received a coating of tung oil (Chinawood oil) to help prevent termite infestation and preserve surfaces from moisture penetration. Builders also installed stone column bases beneath wood posts and added iron reinforcements to shore up decayed or inadequate structural members.

To strengthen the packed soil walls and prevent leakage, the project team used newer reinforcing material consisting of a mixture of clay, calcareousness binders (lime-based cement), and a minimal amount of modern Portland (hydraulic) cement. Both clay and lime are traditional building materials for tulou, whereas the cement serves as a bonding agent. The newer materials are evident and can be removed at a future date if necessary. 

In terms of enhancing the quality of life for residents, the project undertook improvements to water supply, electricity supply, toilets and open spaces. Water was supplied to every household by making better use of the original wells in the tulou and installing new concealed water pipes. Toilets and sewerage pipes were upgraded. Telephones, closed-circuit televisions and other electrical appliances in compatible colors and designs were installed. Incongruous accretions surrounding the tulouwere demolished and replaced with open green space.

The project also involved substantial work on the landscape features. Paths and roads in and around the tulou buildings traditionally consisted of stone pavers installed by hand labour. The pavers were usually of granite or black stone obtained from the beds of the creeks or from mountains sites. These pavers were reproduced and reintroduced at the sites as part of the project, adding another level of authentic character to the residential areas. Nearby dams and planted mountain sides were reinforced to prevent mudslides and landslides.

Important Issues

The type and relative stability of tulou structures were the determining factors in how they were restored. Those buildings designated as heritage sites, together with other important buildings identified during the documentation stage of the project, were preserved without major changes. Many of these buildings required interior and exterior restoration. Those tulou buildings of less notable quality and those suffering significant structural problems were subject to major interventions, in addition to the interior and exterior measures taken with the buildings in the first category. During the documentation phase of the project, the research team identified some modern 1980s era buildings built in brick and concrete not entirely out of character with their historic surroundings but still lacking some critical qualities of association and visual compatibility. These received new exterior treatments, including new colour schemes, exterior decoration and alterations to their surroundings to bring them further into line with the historic appearance of each settlement. Modern buildings deemed inappropriate to the tulou complex settings were demolished.

Project Sustainability and Viability 

The project placed considerable emphasis on sustainability. Regulations promulgated by the local governments have provided the basis of the future conservation and continuing viability of the rehabilitated tulou complexes. Protective measures have included the application of strict conservation measures and the creation of administrative committees and relic preservation groups. To help ensure long-term maintenance, the project’s leadership helped establish a comprehensive scientific monitoring system and an assessment organization. The monitoring system covers a range of related subjects, such as heritage architecture, meteorology, hydrology and ecology. The assessment organization is responsible for collecting responses from owners and occupants and undertaking other periodic measures. Nanjing County has undertaken significant efforts in the monitoring the condition of historic tulou buildings. Steps have included the creation of a control centre and the installation monitoring equipment in over 20 tulou buildings to carry out real-time assessments of changes in structural conditions and both sudden and gradual shifts moisture levels. The project helped reinforce existing trades and skills through the training of younger artisans, who are now available to carry on maintenance work.

Project Impact

This project is an exemplar of the concept of integrated conservation, balancing both human and heritage concerns in an effort to achieve beneficial outcomes for both. Incorporating a concern for people, buildings and landscapes, the project has served an important role in the maintenance of traditional communities in rural areas and in the improvement of the surroundings. Through its efforts to preserve tulou, it has also contributed to the revival of the culture and the economy in these areas. It has also provided a benchmark for the conservation and revival of collective residences, especially for similar projects in other underdeveloped regions.

Since the inception of the project, the Fujian provincial government has encouraged the tulou inhabitants to help develop the province’s growing tourism industry by opening restaurants and hostels in the tulou and selling tulou-related souvenirs. The tourism revenue is divided among the inhabitants, the project sponsor and the government. A part of the revenue raised through the tourism industry has been channelled back into the conservation of the tulou buildings and to the improvement of the lives of the tulou inhabitants. As an indicator of the scale of tourism impacts, the inhabitants of Tianluokeng cluster receive about US$465 each month, which represents 20 percent of the total monthly tourism revenue.

In the aftermath of the Fujian project, the local governments have promulgated a series of regulations, thereby providing a legal mechanism for the enforcement of the plan. In July 2007 the Fujian Municipal Government published “The Regulations on the Conservation of Fujian Tulou”, and in March 2007 the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Nanjing County approved “The Regulations on the Conservation of Nanjing Tulou”.

Similar legal mechanisms have been established in each tulou complex, and the inhabitants of renovated settlements have subsequently signed documents that stipulate their responsibility in the conservation and maintenance process. In January 2008, the Nanjing County government established a local administrative committee, consisting of local government administrators and the inhabitants in tulou buildings, to oversee the management and maintenance of the tulou buildings and their surroundings an important step in ensuring their future preservation.

Quote from the Project Team

"It has been proved that the methods and measures of the project in the past nine years are reasonable and effective. The execution of the project has not only improved the conditions of tulou buildings but also raised public awareness of the value of heritage and knowledge about protection measures. The significance of Fujian tulou has been well understood."