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How An Innovative Bathhouse Keeps Rural China Healthy

BaO Architects’s Split Bathhouse in China’s Gansu province helps prevent the spread of waterborne diseases by giving residents a clean, welcoming place to take a shower.

When it comes to improving health care for residents in developing regions, solutions range from sourcing clean drinking water to administering affordable vaccinations. But in some cases, preventing the spread of disease can be as simple as providing a safe, sanitary place to take a shower. Beijing-based BaO Architects designed the Split Bathhouse in rural China to fulfill that role while providing a relaxing place that has become the center of a community’s social life.

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The village of Shamen is located in the Gansu province, in the west of China, where most houses lack even the most basic needs, architect Benjamin Beller tells Co.Design. “People are not used to bathing. The village doesn’t have running water so they use wells, which sometimes can be a bit far away.” At most, says Beller, families will fetch a bucket of water that will be used for both cooking and cleaning, with bathing consisting of a communal washing in the courtyard. And even that depends on the season, as Gansu is located in an arid, mountainous region where water is scarce.

But the bigger problem was that the villagers had not made the connection between clean water and health. “It doesn’t really occur to them that this problematic hygiene is the very source of most of their epidemics and discomfort,” says Beller. The spread of disease had been even more rampant due to the use of the public dry toilets (basically, holes in the ground) without places to wash their hands afterward. Two years ago, the school had to be closed for several months because of a scabies epidemic.

After BaO was introduced to the challenge, the firm committed to working on the bathhouse pro bono and began the arduous task of finding funds. Collaborating with an association named The Children of Madaifu, which subsidizes the living expenses of children who have lost their parents, BaO reached out to foundations, individuals, and governmental organizations to raise the 55,000 euros required for the project. The plan is to bring this model to other villages in rural China.

Working with a lean budget and limited resources, the Split Bathhouse manages to create a colorful, dignified bathing experience with the most basic materials — most of the structure is made up of concrete, brick, and wood. A wide central corridor welcomes bathers into the space and functions as a greenhouse to keep bathers warm in cool weather, but can be opened at either end to allow for circulation as it heats up from the sun. A nice detail makes it feel more like wandering through a brightly colored forest: Holes in the roof allow the existing trees to poke through the top.

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Inside, the bathhouse is divided into two spaces: green for men, and yellow for women, with shiny locker rooms that have as much personality as a high-class spa. Instead of a complicated ventilation system, the architects simply tilted the roofs of each building diagonally and added a series of vertical windows to let steam escape easily. And since BaO knew that people using the space would be doing more than just bathing, the architects added concrete benches and other surfaces for sitting, relaxing, and interacting. A large blackboard that covers the outside walls of the buildings provides a place for kids to play.

What also had to be put into place at the bathhouse was an infrastructural system that could procure, filter, and heat water without wasting the precious resource. Water is pumped from the ground via a well and warmed by solar heating modules on the roofs of the buildings before being piped into the showers. After passing through the bathhouses, wastewater is collected into a series of bamboo planters which use rhizofiltration (passing water through plant roots to remove toxins) as a natural graywater reclamation system. In addition, the entire site is covered with permeable gravel, which allows any rainwater to filter directly into the ground. Beller also hopes that by introducing this technology to the village, residents might be able to learn from the systems and recreate them in their own homes.

The bathhouse has had a tremendous impact on the community, which has taken ownership in their new space, Beller says. “This pride was a very important point we wanted to develop, because making sure the villagers would care and cherish their equipment meant that they would do anything to sustain it and manage it well.” The ritual of cleaning has now become a social event, and made the bathhouse the epicenter of community life. “They, of course, very much enjoy bathing and taking showers,” Beller says. “From outside of the building most of the sound you would hear is laughter.”

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato

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