China: little home planning

Insulation seems nonexistent in central China except around boilers or hot-water pipes, which are shrouded in mudlike coats.

Upper floors are hot in summer, and the lack of insulation around doors and caulking around windows can turn rooms into sieves. Use of unseasoned wood in door panels (and ofttimes in furniture as well) also leads to cracks that leak air.

Casement windows are of wood or steel. Screens are being added everywhere, but the wiring readily rusts.

Construction varies tremendously in quality, as might be expected, considering its extent and the mixed skills involved. Hotels and public buildings in the largest cities are generally of much higher quality. The capital and main seaboard cities also enjoy a more advanced technology.

Modern prefabricated housing has been developed and tried out in the Peking-Tientsin area.

One ''box style'' dwelling is described as readily movable and easily erected. It is allegedly earthquake-proof and, because of its thinner, insulated walls yields one-tenth more floor space than traditional brick houses. The wallboards are a sandwich of cement (outside), with a felt insulating core and then interior gypsum covered with a fiber cloth in light blue, green, or cream.

Plastic floor coverings come in deep blue, green, or orange-red. Aluminum-framed sliding windows complete the building.

According to recent government reports, the building materials industry has plans to extend production to each province so that within a few years some 6 million square meters (7.2 million square yards) of these prefabs can be produced annually. If the materials don't burn with toxic fumes, this might make a useful export item for inexpensive housing in moderate climates.

Wood is scarce in mainland China, so the concrete box and artificial prefabricated materials, particularly when made from slag or other waste products, make good sense.

In the traditional concrete structures, noise is nil between adjoining units but acute from overhead. Ceiling insulation is nonexistent on the underside and carpets or rugs on the upper side. Few private individuals have rugs.

When Westerners put them down they always elicit comments, particularly about the difficulty in cleaning. Vacuum cleaners are available, but few people need them.

Because interior apartment walls are solid, wiring and pipes usually lie against, or on, the surface, although plumbing may be concealed. Drains occasionally appear on the outside of buildings, washing water cascading from them into the adjacent gutters.

At the present time there seems to be no national standard for electrical plugs and outlets, a condition Americans also faced half a century ago. Chinese electricians (or the householder) must frequently change plugs on fans or refrigerators before they can be connected. Everyone soon becomes adept at assembling wire, outlets, and plugs to expand the service off those infrequent sources of electrical current.

The tentacles groping away from the outlet can become quite involved.

One 3-socket plug in the single wall outlet of a year-old building spawned a 15-foot exterior cord running along the floor up and over a door frame to the refrigerator squeezed into the tiny kitchen. A second cord powered the electric fan, almost as ubiquitous an appliance as the thermos jugs. A third trailed 12 feet across the room, ending in a homemade wooden block supporting two single outlets. These permitted the use of a reading lamp and radio.

The whole shebang was run off the overhead fixture. Fortunately, the outlet was live whether the ceiling light was on or not. Not so in the kitchen, where there were no outlets. If one ran a wire from the light, it worked only when the light was on. That was no good for the refrigerator, although it is better placed there than in the living room and also provides needed countertop space.

Good-quality inexpensive paint suitable for use on concrete is not handily available in China. Whitewash is. Lacquer-type enamel is also available, but it flakes and chips easily. Too, it costs one-half to two-thirds of a month's salary for the lowest-paid worker. At that price they can afford to color a room only waist-high.

The intensity of these colors (chartreuse, electric blue, canary yellow, orange-red, or dark red), however, probably makes such a limited use practical. As a result, most rooms are whitewashed. A few are tinted.

Show a Chinese pictures of the same Western room done in white, gray, yellow, or maroon, and a man will usually pick white as his favorite. Women like the yellow. A few of each sex prefer maroon, although they suggest it might be hard to put up with it all the time.

None selects gray, the normal condition of old white walls everywhere.

Concern for the science of color and color research is down the road a bit yet, but there's little doubt that inexpensive, easily applied, washable paint that would adhere to their powdery walls would be well received by residents of the People's Republic of China.

Although changes are taking place in Chinese building techniques, the usual design of most rectangular apartment blocks with their high ceilings, inadequate wiring, antiquated Western bathroom fixtures (or lack even of showers in Asian toilet rooms), and inefficient kitchen planning harks back to 19th-century European inspiration or, at the least, ''Soviet realist'' design.

The age of Chinese planning is yet to develop fully.

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