Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:50 AM CST – China


House Renovation

NEW Home, NEW Life

Architectural designer Wang Pingzhong transformed a poor family of five’s pint-size apartment into a luxury home, wowing the Chinese Internet with his clever use of space. By changing the family’s life through design, Wang hopes to show the masses the art form’s true power

Wang Pingzhong Photo by Chen Tao

The sitting room in Zhou Yuan’s house before and after renovation Photo by IC

The stairway in Zhou’s house before and after renovation Photo by IC

At the end of an alleyway off Shanghai’s Sichuan North Road, century-old shikumen houses stand shoved together like one too many books on a shelf. These townhouse-like buildings originated in the late Qing Dynasty, probably around 1870, and combine both Chinese and Western architectural features. Yet after several wars and property reallocations, most of these buildings are no longer the proper homes they once were. Entire families crowding into a single tiny space are a common sight. Yards and open-air corridors have been swallowed by new walls to create extra pockets of space and accommodate the increasing population. Originally comfortable interior spaces were split into smaller fractions. The residences grew damp as newly constructed walls and roofs blocked out sunlight and impeded ventilation. Now these buildings seem dirty and overcrowded instead of warm and hospitable.

Three generations of Zhou Yuan’s family lived in a cramped apartment in one of the alley’s shikumen buildings. The five members had three floors, but each one was a mere 12 square meters, making it a typical shikumen “snail home,” a Chinese term referring to small, narrow apartments. In fact, the first floor did not really qualify as a living space; there was only room for a bathroom and the staircase Zhou’s family shared with the neighboring apartment.

However, after two months’ work, architectural designer Wang Pingzhong transformed the building. The story of its caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis spread rapidly on the Internet in an August 8 article with the headline “From 12-square-meter snail home to three-story luxury home,” making Zhou’s apartment a hot topic of conversation and turning Wang into a cyber celebrity.

Actually, Wang had been well known in the industry for some time. The redesigning and renovation of Zhou’s home was for a reality TV show that roughly translates as Dream Rebuilder, which had previously featured Wang. As more people, especially young people, move into China’s first-tier megacities, living spaces are becoming increasingly scarce and constricted. As a result, many city dwellers have begun to place more importance on clever use of space and the resulting boost in the quality of life. In Wang’s opinion, such improvement not only gives people a better life, but also a life of dignity.


Zhou Yuan’s home was never intended to be a home at all. It was built out of the “crack” between other houses. Three of its four walls are actually the external walls of neighboring buildings; a wall was built simply to enclose the small space.

Zhou has hemophilia. He often uses a wheelchair because he can barely walk, so moving upstairs and downstairs is torturous. His seven-year-old son, Zhou Junyu, no longer fits comfortably in the same bed as his parents, so before the remodeling, when he slept in his parents’ bed, he had to relegate his father to sleeping on the floor. When the boy slept on his grandparents’ bed, his grandfather would have to sleep in a cabinet.

“Not only was our home ‘in a crack,’ so were our lives,” said Zhou Yuan.

When Wang Pingzhong accepted the Dream Rebuilder invitation to renovate Zhou’s house a year ago, he did not anticipate the trouble that would come along with the assignment. First of all, neighbors worried the renovation would severely impact their daily lives. Then, when parts of the brick walls were removed, Wang found gas pipes from the alley’s other houses branching off behind them. Electrical wires were not only worn down, but also tangled into a dangerous spiderweb with water pipes and other cables.

Coordination with the local residence committee as well as the gas, electricity and water companies had to be done before Wang’s team could lift a finger. But consent from the neighbors was actually the most difficult to obtain. Wang separated the shared staircase into two independent ones, later deciding to renovate that adjacent apartment as well. Despite this, a female neighbor threw a brick in protest at the contractors while they were building a gutter on the third floor.

Nonetheless, after 16 drafts and two months of construction, Wang Pingzhong and his team completed the renovation. The originally run-down, cramped residence saw new life as a bright, modern, space-saving and highly humanized home. There are beds for everyone, so Zhou Junyu no longer has to displace a family member every night. Covered with reinforced glass, the once-outdoor balcony became a rainproof, sunny space. The front door and its surrounding wall were refitted with glass to fill the entryway with natural light. The kitchen and sitting room were integrated into one spacious area, equipped with a dining table that converts into a bed. An orange mosaic pattern in the bathroom lends it more warmth and modernity. Hidden closets, and chairs that fold into walls, save space and create multiple functions for single rooms. Along with the wooden staircase with a customized railing that is now completely separate from the neighbor’s, Wang squeezed in a hydraulic elevator to let Zhou Yuan and his family avoid the stairs altogether.

Upon returning home, the family was shocked and moved to tears. Seeing her sometimes wheelchair-bound son ride the elevator up and down with ease, Zhou’s mother wrapped Wang in a huge hug of gratitude.

Behind the Design

Taiwan-born Wang Pingzhong learned to paint when he was little. He excelled at many art forms, including sketching, oil painting and watercolor painting. At one point, while he spent three days copying a painting of a Spanish building, he realized that he had an urge to create the architectural piece in real life instead of just on paper.

“I wanted to engage in applied arts instead of fine arts,” said Wang. As a result, he attended Taiwan’s Tunghai University, and later the University of London, to study architectural design.

“My ideas of ‘space’ and ‘home’ differ from those of most other people,” Wang said. As a child, Wang’s family traveled frequently because of his father’s work. “It feels like you are always drifting,” Wang said. “For me, where there is family, there is home. The house itself sometimes becomes less important.”

Thus, Wang emphasizes constructing a dialog and a relationship between people and the space in which they live. People and their personal needs are always at the center of Wang’s blueprints. He treats every line in his sketches earnestly and seriously. “Every line is meaningful,” he said. “One line might affect the happiness of a family 20 years down the road.”

“Our renovations often change a space drastically,” he said. “Yet the important thing is not the appearance of a building nor the interior design, but instead the dialog created between people and the space.”

When he came to Shanghai in 2002, Wang found that the perception of his industry wasn’t as positive as he expected. In many cases, architectural and interior design were called simply “decorating,” treating the service with less respect. Many clients would ask Wang why his renovation fees were “so expensive.” “They would say they actually have a very good sense of aesthetics, it’s just they can’t draw the sketch,” Wang told NewsChina.

But through his hard work, his clients started to accept his concept of design. Now Wang’s company receives even more cases than it can handle. Wang chooses those that match his company’s character. “We are a creative company,” said Wang. “The first thing we [consider when we] accept a client is not how much money they can pay, it’s whether or not we click. It’s like being in a relationship. If we don’t click, we’ll quarrel and complain about each other, eventually breaking up.”

All in all, Wang believes that design can change lives. “I really want to contribute to society,” he said. That’s why he chose to help Zhou Yuan’s family renovate their house through the TV program Dream Rebuilder. Both he and the program’s hosts wanted to show the audience the “power of design.”

“I think many people may be moved by this design,” Wang said on the show. “Other designers may get inspiration. People might come to see the design industry as one worthy of respect, and recognize that design changes lives through space.”


Editor's Picks

Sex for Snacks

In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, a handful of high school…[More]

Worked to Death

A growing number of young Chinese white-collar employees are dying of…[More]


How Communism’s most controversial theorist finally found an audience – in…[More]

What do Chinese People Want?

“I wish I could do what you do.”…[More]


A student of Buddhism with a keen interest in China’s…[More]

Prize Fighter

Elevated into the State-approved pantheon of great Chinese writers thanks to…[More]

Dams in Distress

In 1975, over 60 dams collapsed after a rainstorm in Zhumadian city, Henan…[More]

Pathologically Politicized

Practitioners at all levels concur that “messy” is the word that…[More]


China’s indigenous honey bee is under threat from both environmental…[More]

Exam Boot Camp

A middle school in Anhui province has earned a reputation for…[More]

The New Class

China’s growing online education market has attracted the attention of…[More]

From Stall to Mall

Taobao’s shift towards a business-to-consumer model has come at a…[More]

In Whose Court?

The failure of the country’s administrative litigation system has prompted…[More]

Tradition on Trial

After Confucianism made the maintenance of inequality between the sexes fundamental…[More]

Inevitable Brutality

The vicious murder of a doctor in a Zhejiang hospital shows…[More]

Progress or Pornography?

A new sex education primer aimed at elementary school-age children has…[More]

Graft Breeds Graft

The gap between the investigation and prosecution of official corruption cases…[More]

Saving Nature

The concept of animal welfare is yet to be widely acknowledged…[More]

Problem Solved?

Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s public trial sends mixed messages…[More]


A 74-year-old man surnamed Xie from Shenyang, Liaoning Province was duped out of 420,000 yuan (US$69,342), despite bank employees’ efforts to…[More]

An Avoidable Tragedy

Poor city planning and lax safety regulations turned a minor gas…[More]


A policeman pulled his gun to dissuade villagers from stealing oranges…[More]

Who Cares?

A new law decrees that all Chinese citizens are now obliged…[More]

Mean Streets

The chengguan system has become the most visible symptom of a…[More]

How do Chinese people live?

So, the bottom line is that Beijing is an expensive place.…[More]

Back in Action

After stagnating for 10 years, China’s SOE reform has fired up…[More]


The hanging coffins of the Bo people, a Chinese ethnic minority…[More]


Wang Xun, an archeologist with Peking University, arranged the bones of…[More]

Trust Trip

Embarking on a three-month car journey around China without handing over…[More]

Fading Lights

For those who grew up under the bright lights of China…[More]