When McLean builder Gordon V. Smith talks about housing problems in China he puts it this way, to drive home some hard facts:
"It would be like trying to fit 25 people into a town house built for a family of three. There a person has an average 48 square feet of living space, while Americans have an average of 400 square feet each."
Smith knows more than most about China's building industry, having been host to a delegation of Chinese housing officials in May and then having toured China for 3 1/2 weeks in June.
He said the Chinese are trying to increase their average living space to 64 square feet per person, and plan to build 6 billion square feet of housing space this year. The United States is expected to build 560 million in the same time period.
Smith started on his journey hoping to trade ideas with Chinese builders, but he said he returned convinced the Chinese building industry is literally worlds apart from its American counterpart.
"We are so far removed in the ways we do things," said Smith. "There is really nothing to exchange."
He described many Chinese building techniques as crude. His snapshots show ragged walls of haphazardly laid brick and concrete slabs transported on hand carts.
But Smith admitted he envied the labor-intensive Chinese building industry, where workers come for a dollar a day if they are skilled and 50 cents if they are not.
He estimates it costs China $7 to build a square foot of living space where it costs $42 in the United States. Cheap labor is one way the Chinese keep their costs down, he said.
Another difference is the quality of the product. Whereas American builders entice home buyers with parquet floors, brick fireplaces, bay windows and lofts, Chinese builders simply put up regulated cement apartment complexes with no family rooms, plaster walls and a closet-sized kitchen whose principal amenity is a sink. The six- and seven-story apartment houses do not even have elevators. Yet housing is so scarce in China that the apartments are snapped up regardless, he said.
Smith also said he envied the Chinese builders because they do not have to apply for zoning changes and building permits, and because building inspectors are nonexistent.
The building industry is totally controlled by the government, he said, which creates zones, supplies the architects and assigns the work crews. Apartment complexes are paid for by factories with money left over at the end of the year, what we call profits, said Smith.
Theoretically, the workers decide who gets the new housing based on senority and need, but Smith said often the higher-ups in the industry will get first choice. The apartments rent for 2 or 3 percent of a worker's salary, and the money is deducted from pay, he said.
Smith also was fascinated by the builders' use of bamboo for scaffolding. Metal is scarce and forest lumber is precious in China, he said. Almost all building are made of cement.
Smith, who toured China with his family at his own expense, said he did not see any single-family detached homes such as those that populate the United States. Individual homes are usually in small farming villages, he said. He described them as long and narrow one-story buildings, very different from what Americans are used to.
About 10 percent of the people in China own their own homes, he said. In recent years, the Chinese government has allowed the people to buy homes with silver or gold they may have hidden before the war or with money sent by relatives overseas. He said a 500-square-foot house in China sold for $3,250. A 1,000-square-foot house in America would sell for $80,000 in this area, he said.
Smith said he has always been fascinated with China. He is partner of the Miller and Smith development firm in McLean that has built Whisperwood in Reston and the Amberleigh subdivision near Springfield.
Several months before his trip he went to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ask for the names of some Chinese builders he could contact during his visit and learned of the delegation of builders he was later to be host to in May.
The delegation was mainly interested in concrete, said Smith, who showed them pre-fab concrete fireplaces he was installing in a local subdivision. But what fascinated them most were the car carriers they saw on the Beltway, he said.
"They just couldn't get over it," he said. "So many cars that we have to carry them on a truck."