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China’s Short-Lived Buildings

[Editor’s Note: According to Mr. Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, the average lifespan of a building in China is 25 to 30 years. A survey by China Youth Daily shows 83.5% of the interviewees believe the primary reason for premature building demolition is “local government leaders want to build their image and embellish their job performance.” The following abridged translation is from an article appearing on, one of China’s largest news portals, titled “Why are China’s Buildings Short-Lived?”] [1]

In the early morning on March 30, two high-rise buildings in Ningbo City were demolished in order to make way for the building of a subway. This led to a public controversy over the unique Chinese “short-lived building” phenomenon. Mr. Qiu Baoxing, Vice Minister of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development, said China builds the largest number of new buildings in the world, with an average new construction area of two billion square meters each year, but the average life of a building in China is only 25 to 30 years. Many buildings are demolished not because of problems with quality, but because of a lack of careful urban planning and protection of the atmosphere, the worship of GDP growth, and commercial interests.

In a survey conducted by China Youth Daily, 85.8% of the people surveyed indicated that their cities have had “short-lived buildings,” and 50.1% were unhappy with their city’s urban planning. When asked about the cause of the short-lived buildings, 83.5% of those surveyed responded, “Local government leaders want to build their image and embellish  their job performance;” 71.8% believed that urban planning lacked scientific principles; other reasons included shabby construction quality (39.6%), developers making a quick profit (36.3%), problematic demolition approval procedures (36.2%), and architectural design problems (28.8%).

Statistics show that, in 2002, a total of 120 million square meters of Chinese urban housing was demolished, which is equivalent to 37.5% of the total of 320 million square meters that were constructed in that same year. In 2003, a total of 161 million square meters of Chinese urban housing was demolished. That represents 34.2% of China’s annual growth, and equals 41.3% of the 390 million square meters of total construction for the same year. China is the world’s largest builder in terms of new construction area, with average annual new construction of 2 billion square meters, consuming 40% of the world’s cement and steel production, yet what we built can only last for 25 to 30 years.

In 2003, China demolished a total of 161 million square meters of urban housing. Assuming that 200 kg of cement and 60 kg of steel go into each square meter, a total of 32.2 million tons of cement and 9.66 million tons of steel were wasted. This amount is 8.9% of all the cement and steel used in new construction in 2003. If each ton of cement costs 300 yuan and each ton of steel costs 4,000 yuan, the demolitions resulted in a loss of at least 48.3 billion yuan. In addition, since it costs about 145 kg of coal to produce 1 ton of cement and 741 kg of coal to produce 1 ton of steel, a total of 11.83 million tons of coal was wasted.

According to a report by the State authorities of housing construction, the construction of every ten thousand square meters of housing will generate only 500 to 600 tons of construction waste, while the removal of each ten thousand square meters of old buildings will produce 7,000 to 12,000 tons of construction waste. Each year in China, construction waste accounts for 30% to 40% of total municipal trash, and 400 million tons of construction waste are produced each year. The transportation, processing, and storage of this waste have a negative impact on the environment.

International building design specifications are about the same as those in China. As an example, Eurocode 1 and ISO2394: 1998 – both require that housing and other common construction should last 50 years; monuments, other special or important structures, and bridges should last at least 100 years. However, the actual lifespan of buildings in foreign countries is much longer.

When we look at Paris, we do not see many high-rise buildings. Traditional architecture is spread throughout the city with a well-organized layout, giving Paris its unique elegance.

In the 1980s, Japan proposed a “century house” construction concept, using only concrete higher than grade 40 for housing. In China, most short-lived buildings used concrete grade 20. The gap in concrete quality alone shortens the life of Chinese housing by at least ten years. In Japan, 6.6% of all housing is more than 50 years old and 38% is more than 30 years old. In the United States, 31.1% of housing is over 50 years and 58.8% of housing is more than 30 years old.

In Budapest, the government expressly bans the demolition of buildings over 50 years old. In France, the government marks and protects all construction over 20 years old and structures that are known either nationally or internationally.

In Europe, the protection of old buildings is a symbol of civilization. In Britain, France, and other European countries, century-old homes are commonplace. Many old houses are marked with eye-catching Arabic numerals showing the year of construction. This indicates the builders’ confidence in the durability of the building, which has been passed down for generations. Residents in today’s Europe are also proud to live in older housing. The older the construction, the higher the value.

In China, the causes for many short-lived buildings are the following: a misguided urban development policy, valuing speed over quality, the blind pursuit of GDP growth, and enhancing job performance and developers’ profits. City officials and urban planners should pay more attention to this issue. They should make sure that Chinese cities maintain their own old construction and style during periods of rapid development and avoid demolishing valuable buildings in order to make way for new projects.

Details on the premature death of some buildings:
1.    Wulihe Stadium in Shenyang City. Age: 18 years; Date of Death: February 12, 2007
2.    Shouyi Sports Training Center in Hubei Province. Age: 10 years; Date of Death: June 16, 2009
3.    Yongchuan City Convention Center in Chongqing City. Age: 5 years; Date of Death: August 20, 2005
4.    Shenyang Summer Palace. Age: 15 years; Date of Death: February 20, 2009
5.    Building No.3 in the former Hubin Campus of Zhejiang University. Age: 13 years;  Date of Death: January 6, 2007
6.    Bund Garden District in Wuhan City. Age: 4 years; Date of Death: March 30, 2002
7.    Vienna Woods Garden District in Hefei City. Age: 0 years; Date of Death: December 10, 2005
8.    Qingdao Grand Hotel. Age: 20 years; Date of Death: October 15, 2006
9.    Qingdao Railway Hotel. Age: 16 years; Date of Death: January 7, 2007
10.    Five Lakes Hotel in Nanchang City. Age: 13 years; Date of Death: February 6, 2010
11.    Gloria Plaza in Beijing. Age: 20 years: Date of Death: the end of 2010
12.    Zhongli Bridge in Lanzhou City. Age: 13 years; Date of Death: July 5, 2010
13.    Shanghai Asia First Ramp Bridge. Age: 11 years; Date of Death: February 13, 2008

[1], “Why are China’s Buildings Short-Lived?” March 10, 2011.