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Shanghai Calling: On site in China

The speed of chinese construction is astounding, writes student Eleanor Jolliffe

I have been working in China for over a year now and already we have started, and completed, three, almost four, projects, with another two on site. The speed at which architecture goes up here continues to astound and amaze me.  

We ran a mobile office for a week from on site in Kunming, Southern China, and I experienced this speed first hand. I would glance up from my makeshift desk after a couple of hours of detailing to see a muddy slope transformed into a rolling lawn. This speed is impressive but details can easily get missed at this pace (both on the architectural design, and the construction side) and, unless you trust your construction team, an eagle eye has to be kept on progress to ensure quality.  

The sheer number of workers accounts for much of this speed

The sheer number of workers accounts for much of this speed, manpower is much cheaper here and many clients are happy to throw people at a project to get it finished on time. A 2,000m² sales centre we recently finished had around sixty people simultaneously working for the final week to finish. There was one elderly man whose sole job was to make sure that people who had come in through the landscape, being hastily constructed outside, took their shoes off so as not to tread mud onto the newly laid carpet inside.  

The build quality does vary between provinces

The build quality does vary between provinces though and details we have given to our Shanghai construction team have been changed and simplified for similar projects in more remote areas. China is such a vast country, modernising at different rates in different areas, and expectations of architectural quality and design vary depending on which city or province you are working in. Many clients are happy to consider speed over quality, everything in China needs to have happened yesterday. Culturally there is a more disposable attitude to buildings here - why would you design and build to last twenty or thirty years if it only needs to function for five? When buildings have met their function or are too dilapidated they are knocked down and a new one built. 

An Australian friend studying at a Shanghai University experienced this first hand when his pleas for maintenance work on his dorm room went unheeded. He was amazed to wake up the morning after term ended to find the building being dismantled around him. He and the remaining Chinese students, who I must add had been warned to be out by that day, scrambled to pack and leave as walls and bathrooms were slowly demolished around them. By the end of the next day the building was no more and two months later he arrived back after the break to find a new dorm in its place. They had recycled the windows though; it wouldn’t do to be wasteful! 

Builders also seem to be very flexible and happy to adapt to change. It is not uncommon for me to receive a phone call from my boss, on site nearly 1,500 miles away, with drawing instructions: ‘Oh, and can you do it in the next hour because the workmen are at lunch and are building it when they get back.’ They also have few problems with being asked to tear things down and re-build them. Just because a client has agreed to drawings doesn’t necessarily mean they will sign off on the result of them.  

Landlords are also not immune to changing the building around you; we are working on a retail project at the moment that should have been finished last month. However, just as the studwork and first fix electrics were built the landlord changed the mall architecture; cutting just over two meters off our shop façade and causing a complete re-design of the shop. With fire certificates and permissions to get before work could start again and a client paying rent on an empty building site we had two days to re-design, get client approval, re-draw the shop and send out the drawings.  

The whirlwind of building here is exhilarating, if exhausting. It may be a baptism of fire, and somewhat confusing when your grasp of the native language is still limited to everyday incidents - builder’s slang, electrical jargon and technical architectural terms have not yet surfaced in ‘My Chinese Classroom’. The margin for error is very tight at this speed, but it is unparalleled learning experience to go from a vague theoretical knowledge of construction drawing to a built project in less than six months and supremely rewarding to see things being built just days or hours after you hit send.  

  • Eleanor Jolliffe has recently completed her Part I at Nottingham University. She is currently doing an internship in Shanghai.

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