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Project Profile


2009 Jury Commendation for Innovation

Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School

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Project TitleMaosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School

LocationMaosi Village, Xian Sheng, Gansu Province, China

Size10,600 square metres

CostUS$ 157,281

Responsible PartyEdward Ng and Jung Mu

Heritage ArchitectEdward Ng

ContractorMao Jiaxiong

Date of CompletionJuly 2007


The Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School is located in the village of Maosi in the Loess Plateau region of Gansu Province in northwestern China. This is one of the poorest regions in the country due to its remoteness, limited resources, extreme climatic conditions, soil erosion and other factors. Temperatures range from minus 20 degrees centigrade during the winter months to 40 degrees centigrade in the summer.

In the past, classes had been conducted in dark caves located a long distance from the children’s homes, requiring children to walk for an arduous two hours to reach school. The conditions in the caves were cramped and overcrowded and there was danger of the caves collapsing. To address the need for schools nearby, the government had provided new school buildings built of concrete and brick, but these buildings did not perform well in the extreme climatic conditions, with the result that they were too hot when the weather was warm and were very cold in winter.

The project aimed to improve these poor conditions by creating a prototype school that would meet the children’s need for a comfortable learning environment, and in a sustainable manner. The project sought to provide a high-tech, but low-keymodern structure that would be harmonious with the site. The Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School was also designed to embrace the village’s rich cultural values and its vernacular earthen architecture through using local construction techniques, artisanship and materials.   

Project History

The initial idea for the project dated to 2002 with the building of a bridge to improve accessibility to the site of a proposed new school. In 2005, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) recognized the bridge for its architectural significance and its unique relationship to the site. The construction of the new school, a project intended to complement the bridge, began in April 2006.

Project Scope and Framework

The objective of the project was to develop a school for approximately 400 students to replace four existing primary schools located in the village of Maosi. The school needed ten classrooms and twelve offices for the teaching staff as well as restrooms, playgrounds and other facilities.

The aim was to make the school as economical as possible, not only during the construction phase, but also throughout the life-cycle of the structures, that is, to minimize running costs. To achieve this goal, the project team adopted a low-energy approach, used traditional architectural forms that had been developed over time to fit the local context, and sourced materials locally.

An important aspect of the project was to design buildings with thermal performance such that no fuel would be required for heating during the winter period. In the past, carbon monoxide fumes generated by indoor coal-burning stoves had led to the deaths of school students. Furthermore, the cost of coal had meant that the schools did not have the funds to purchase sufficient books and other school materials.

The new school was designed to maximize daylight and natural ventilation, with classrooms housed in five two-storey units spread out following the topography. The structures designed under the project have a large thermal mass of mud brick walls, double-glazed windows and insulated traditional roofs. These features, combined with the semi-buried form on the northern sides and the careful positioning of the buildings to benefit from direct solar gain, have resulted in maximizing thermal comfort. Unlike older school designs, the Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School needs little or no energy for heating.

The first phase of the Maosi School project was the preparation of the site. This included the provision of water and electricity supply, creation of means of access and preliminary site work. The next step was excavation of the foundations and erection of masonry walls. The building and installation of the post and beam structural system followed. Construction of the roof, doors, windows and floors came next, after which the construction crew applied a waterproof wood preservative treatment to the finished timber elements.The work crew began work in June 2006 and completed three buildings, for a total of six classrooms, in time for the school term beginning September 2006. The final stage of the project, which brought the school up to its proposed ten-classroom capacity, was completed in September 2007.

Conservation Methodology and Materials

Earthen architecture has long been the method of construction for buildings in the Loess Plateau region. Local people have used earth and mud to create dwellings and other buildings for centuries. Mud bricks are easy to make and can be produced by compressing wet earth in wood moulds. No chemicals or heating are required in the process, nor does the manufacture of mud bricks result in atmospheric pollution. The materials can also be reused both for new buildings and as an additive for croplands.

Earthen architecture, moreover, has superior thermal properties and provides a flexible building form that adapts well to the surrounding landscape. The school project employed only locally available natural resources and recycled materials, including mud bricks, rubble, straw and reed, which have minimum embodied energy. The project also generated very little waste. Wherever possible, the construction team found new uses for existing materials. For example, rafter ends were reused for other purposes and spare mud bricks were ground and used for plastering. The overall environmental impact was therefore minimal. The project relied on a balance between traditional and contemporary construction techniques. For example, the designers created a new light-weight roof, adapting the double sloping roof of the local earthen housing in the new building but using a light steel structure combined with traditional timber purlins. Another example of contemporary additions was the newly-designed angled openings for the windows, which maximize daylight in the indoor spaces.

The team set a priority that the building style could be replicated with ease and efficiency in other new schools across the province. Because of this consideration, the design was made to be adaptable to local circumstances and allow for variation in materials and techniques.

Project Impact

The Maosi Ecological Demonstration Primary School has provided a bright, spacious, safe and comfortable environment in which students can learn. The Ministry of Housing, Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) has adopted the lessons of the project and intends to apply these in other contexts. If deployed as a prototype, the school could influence the design of an estimated 200,000 new schools in the future.

The construction of the school has provided vital lessons for the community and for educational planners and architects. The combined outcomes of cultural continuity, local pride and the wise employment of local materials contribute to a new sense of environmental responsibility and design excellence.

Quote from the Project Team

"All architectural elements were carefully designed to result in a natural and desirable atmosphere that is harmonious with the surrounding environment and local cultural heritage.”