When architect John Lin and his students from the University of Hong Kong first visited Shijia village in the province of Shaanxi, China, villagers had a list of requests for projects. But Lin wanted to create something that “empowered them to solve problems on their own,” he wrote in a statement. He and his students observed that rural Chinese villages were changing dramatically as people fled to urban centers. And urban ideas were making their way back to the villages: traditional mud houses were being torn down in favor of less economical and sustainable concrete and brick structures built by outsourced labor.

Lin—who, with Joshua Bolchover, founded the nonprofit research-and-design collaborative Rural Urban Framework at the university—worked with students to design a prototype for a vernacular village courtyard house, where three generations might live in a dense cluster of ad hoc additions. Lin's prototype “would be a model or reference,” he wrote, and was not meant to inspire exact replicas. The $53,400 project, constructed with villagers' input, serves as a reminder that modernization is possible with the skills and materials available locally.

The 4,100-square-foot, one-story house was completed in March 2012. Its concrete-column structure and mud-brick walls are surrounded by a perforated brick screen for daylight and ventilation.

The kitchen, living room, bedrooms, and bathroom are interspersed with four courtyards for pigs and an underground biogas system that produces energy for cooking. “The house becomes an example of self-reliance,” writes Lin.