In 1999, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck Nantou County in rural Taiwan. The massive temblor destroyed more than 50,000 buildings, killed nearly 2,500 people, and threatened to dismantle the tribal home of Taiwan’s smallest aboriginal group, the Thao. A native of Taiwan, Hsieh ran a conventional architecture practice in Xinzhu from 1984 until 1999. When the quake decimated the countryside, he moved his firm to the affected site in Sun Moon Lake and took a leading role in redefining rural design construction with community engagement as a guiding principle.
In many disaster scenarios, the technical and financial burden of reconstruction renders the affected community powerless and dependent on NGOs to deploy basic aid. But thanks to Hsieh Ying-Chun, the Thao’s story is a tale of self-reliance and community empowerment.
Hsieh establishes a cooperative network of designers, local contractors, and residents that supports and sustains local needs. He develops simplified building techniques based on earthquake-safe steel-frame structures, which can be adapted to specific circumstances, traditions, skills, and availability of materials. Hsieh’s flexible designs prescribe only the fixed support features, leaving floor plans and aesthetic details to the residents’ discretion. Native materials such as straw, clay, and stone give a uniquely local identity to the buildings.
Renewable materials and community labor keep Hsieh’s costs extremely low—up to 50 percent below the development standard—which is key to the success and sustainability of his model. Hsieh structures his projects to employ villagers during agriculturally idle periods, to avoid conflicting with farming cycles.
In the years since his first humanitarian efforts, Hsieh has demonstrated the scalability and adaptability of his designs in other parts of Asia. In 2008, he was called to central China where nearly 70,000 people had been killed by the Sichuan earthquake, and the majority of buildings destroyed.
He worked with villagers to construct 500 homes, as well as composting toilets. In 2010 his team completed the reconstruction project of 700 homes for 13 different tribal communities affected by the severe mudslides caused by Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan.
Hsieh continues to travel where rural communities need him most. In 2012 Hsieh received a National Award for the Arts, Taiwan’s highest honor for artists.
Listen to the episode below.