Houses built on top of Chinese shopping mall: Smart urban planning or absurd fantasy?

Lia Grainger
Shine On

The image above seems almost too bizarre to be real: four large suburban-looking homes sit perched incongruously on the rooftop of a shopping mall in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou, Hunan province. Complete with lawns, electricity and plumbing, they look as if they were plucked from the suburbs and plunked down amongst the high rises of this bustling Chinese metropolis.

In reality, the four "villas" were built as offices for the shopping mall's 160 real estate management employees, reports China Daily. So while they are not actual residences, the architectural oddity has been sparking debate about whether such a development could actually be a feasible solution to issues of modern urban overcrowding.

Is this a possible fix, or an outrageous fantasy?

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Andre Sorensen is a professor of geography at University of Toronto's Scarborough campus and is less than impressed by the rooftop houses.

"This is a cute idea, but it really has nothing to do with density," says Sorensen, who points out that these are used as offices, not homes. "There is no reason, technically, why housing could not be built this way…[but] this is actually very low density, if it were actually housing."

Others are less dismissive of the project.

"Yes they're unusual. No, they're not so outrageous," says Toronto architect and urban designer David Lieberman. "I mean, this is kind of a joke photo. Those are four ridiculously expensive houses, but this is where it begins," says Lieberman.

He explains that there is a misconception that urbanity is not kind to the planet, when in fact the carbon footprint of those living in cities is much lower than suburban dwellers.

"Urban density is environmentally friendly," says Lieberman. Mixing commercial and residential properties just makes sense.

Ingrid Stefanovic is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the founding director of the school's Centre for the Environment. She points out that one problem with developments like these is that most Canadian shopping malls are not designed to bear any extra load, and as such, any additions like this would likely need to be included in the initial planning process, rather than dropped on top as an afterthought.

"That being said, were such houses constructed, they would likely appeal to those who wish to live in highly dense urban centres, while maintaining a sense of open space and greenery as part of the traditional suburban dream," says Stefanovic. "It is easy to critique peoples' love of suburban spaces."

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There are already numerous examples of mixed big box and residential developments in Canada.

In Vancouver, a development on lower Cambie Street called The Rise features 90-townhouses and condos on top of a Home Depot and a Save On Foods. The building also features a 20,000 square foot green roof that is both a park and a community garden.

And though it doesn't include housing, Lieberman points to Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Business Management in Toronto, which sits atop a big box Canadian Tire and Best Buy in the city's downtown core at Dundas and Bay as a good example of mixed-use planning.

Stefanovic says evidence of the trend towards better use of rooftop space can be seen in today's condos.

"Already, we are building top floors of condominium buildings that are larger than usual, and host large private decks, the greenery of beautiful landscaping, lovely vistas, a sense of space as well as a sense of private place," says Stefanovic.

So can we simply run out and start throwing houses on top of malls? Lieberman says no, and yet he foresees a future urban landscape far more integrated than what we live in now.

"The key is mixed-use planning," says Lieberman. "The city of tomorrow is going to look very different than the city of today."

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