Rendering of proposed redevelopment; URA pamphlet

The Urban Renewal Agency (URA) has bought out the entire area of Kwun Tong, aiming to construct a mix-use building complex consisting of several 40 to 50 story tall residential towers, a hotel and office tower as well as open space plazas, and of course, a mall.

URA Pamphlet

Although URA has already begun their phase 1, they have yet to remove all of the buildings.  Through a contact in the agency, I was able to visit a couple of abandoned buildings having “unauthorized building works (UBWs)”- meaning illegal and unauthorized subdivisions that have taken place in the buildings. In  their majority, these UBWs are actually rooftop settlements.

Older Building with Rooftop Settlement;  a new developments is visible in the background.

As surprising as it is to see informal settlements on rooftops in a city and that lives through laws of eradication/reconstruction and a strong government control, it is even more surprising to see that many of these rooftop settlements are actually quite organized and consolidated! The type of rooftop construction depends on the type of building and their building managers… Generally speaking, there are two scenarios:

CASE 1: For some of the more consolidated and organized rooftops, where one primarily sees concrete constructions, there is a landlord in the building who had the idea and initiative of taking over the roof and subdividing it. After subdivisions were made, “lots” were either sold or developed and rented as units.

CASE 2: For others cases, the settlements began similar as shantytowns, squatting on the rooftops, and perhaps establishing informal agreements and/or rent with the building owners/tenants. In this case, the construction looks more like temporary construction using corrugated metal sheets, plastic bags and wood for structure (case 2).

In regards to the *case 1* structures, which are the type of rooftop settlements that I was able to enter, the subdivisions follow the original building plan subdivisions, leaving a path to serve as a double loaded corridor. They are barely recognizable at a first glance, so well they blend to the original façade. Plumbing, drainage and electricity is run through this center aisle. Something surprising is that, although illegal in their construction, all of the units have an address, and residents pay for utilities as well as other city taxes. This is the reason why it is why the URA faces quite a difficult situation when it comes to compensations…

Following are some diagrams and photo sequence to give you a better idea these areas:

A rooftop settlement seen from street level- in this particular case, the addition blends into the original facade.

On the ground floor: restaurants and other commercial spaces ; area next to staircase rented out as commercial space

Building interior-double loaded corridor, vertical circulation shaft (stairs),  added plumbing and electric circuits leading to rooftop.
Diagram-Plan and Section of Rooftop Settlement
At rooftop: open corridor; photo by Chi Leung

In the center aisle/corridor, there is an extra layer of concrete in order to accommodate the drainage, and plumbing on the side

In one of the corners, there is an open space which seems to be communal and a unit which, unlike the rest of the other units, which are concrete and have roofs made out of corrugated metal, is constructed out of corrugated metal and wood

3 thoughts on “HK “Unauthorized Building Works”: Rooftop Settlements

  1. Fascinating! Are all rooftop structures a single story or do some of the more formal ones build two-story units on the roof? Are the entrances the same to the roof-top units/settlements? If it is formalized in a sense, is this a viable way to consider integrating affordable housing into the heart of a city?

    • Hi Snider! Most of the rooftop structures are single story, but I was able to see a couple of two story ones- not that consolidates though- mostly made from corrugated metal. The entrances are all facing that middle corridor/open circulation path that is left in the center. The path and layout of the units parallels the original floor plan of the building below. Could this be a viable way to consider integrating affordable housing? Well, it seems to be a popular way to do it informally at least (Cairo is a great example of this and I know that we are beginning to experiment this in Europe for example). Nevertheless, because of the way that these rooftop settlements are built, they are putting a lot of load on the roof of buildings and abusing some of the other infrastructure (plumbing, etc). The government as of now tolerates them because they have no other place to relocate the people living on them- which makes for a really interesting “illegal yet tolerated” relationship. But yes, I think it does bring about interesting questions to regarding densification and affordable housing strategies!

  2. hey adri. drifted away from your blog for a while…but enjoyed catching up a bit, especially about rooftop settlements. i found the ones in cairo quite stimulating and fascinating. there is a famous book/movie called teh yacobian building that chronicles some of the different social tensions between a range of classes of people living in/on the same building. they certainly occupy that fascinating space between formal and informal, especially if they are taking up the same elevator, etc..
    as for hong kong, the photographer michael wolf has done a lot of interesting books, etc on hong kong’s crazy housing montages….
    hope you are transitioning back into the berkeley life well…what direction will you be taking for your thesis? just got back from colombia…missed you. mad good time.

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