Newswise — As the environmental impact of urban development and sprawl becomes increasingly evident, architects and designers are turning more and more toward "green" design. An Earthwatch-supported research project in Shaanxi Province, China examines traditional cave dwellings as an inspiring example of sustainable design.

"While we are looking for new ways of building to ensure a bright future for our planet, we may draw inspirations from the past when people had more harmonious relationship with the environment," said Jiang Lu, an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University. On March 31, 2006, Lu presented her team's findings at the international conference of the Interior Design Educators Council, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

"This study examines a type of traditional Chinese cave dwellings that can be seen as an example of the most elegant sustainable design solutions that have the least environmental impact," said Lu, recipient of Earthwatch's Young Scientist award for 2005. Lu is co-principal investigator of Earthwatch's Chinese Village Traditions project, along with colleagues Jin Feng (Iowa State University), Anrong Dang (Tsinghua University), and Yanfeng Liu (Yulin College).

There are more than 20 million people currently living in traditional cave dwellings in China, especially in the loess plateau along the Yellow River in the northwest part of the country, and people are still building new cave dwellings today. Although basic by modern Western standards, these dwelling provide residents with reliable shelter, making the best use of materials available with a minimum negative impact on the environment.

In 2005, Earthwatch volunteers helped Lu and her colleagues conducted field studies of the cave dwellings in Dang Jia Shan, a generations-old mountain village of 30 households. They measured the physical dimensions of the structures, photographed the building materials, recorded temperatures to examine thermal performance, and interviewed villagers about functional design and construction methods. Based on these data, a life cycle analysis was conducted to examine the environmental impact of the cave dwellings.

"Based on our fieldwork, we have found that almost all the features of traditional cliff cave dwelling coincide with modern sustainable design principles," said Lu. "These cave dwellings reflect a core concept of Chinese culture—being in harmony with nature. They are the result of a people's adaptation to their environment with limited natural and technological resources. The people and their culture survived here for hundreds of years without leaving heavy marks on the environment."

Examples of sustainable design features found in the caves include the fact that they are built entirely from materials acquired nearby and using simple hand tools, avoiding the added environmental costs of manufacturing, transport, and heavy machinery. They do not occupy valuable arable land, so are very efficient in their land use. The cliffs face south, and the thermal mass of the solid loess provides solar warmth into the winter and a cooling effect into the summer.

Earthwatch teams are helping Lu and her colleagues document the folk traditions of Dang Jia Shan, which is being relocated by the government to allow for a massive reforestation program. The teams are recording every aspect of village life, from land use to botanical medicines, with implications for future population relocation policies in China. Their findings on cave dwelling design will help inform the green design movement, which is central to sustainable development efforts.

The Interior Design Educators Council, Inc. (IDEC) ( fosters exchange of information, improvement of educational standards, and development of the body of knowledge relative to the quality of life and human performance in the interior environment.

Earthwatch Institute ( is a global volunteer organization that supports scientific field research by offering members of the public unique opportunities to work alongside leading field scientists and researchers. Earthwatch's mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. The year 2006 marks Earthwatch's 35th anniversary.

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