Creating a Refuge From China's Hustle and Bustle

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SHANGHAI -- Over the past eight years, Gilles Boulianne and Brigitte Elie have spent most of their time turning a 70-year-old lane house in this city's former French Concession into a calm oasis from the nonstop rush outside their door.

The couple, who are from Canada, arrived in Shanghai 10 years ago, and Ms. Elie was determined to find a house, rather than an apartment, for her family. But some fellow expatriates told her not to consider lane houses, saying they were not as safe as the gated apartment compounds favored by many foreigners.

Homes built along the lanes, the narrow passageways called lilong, or longtong in Shanghai, are the city's most distinctive architectural legacy of the late 19th century and early 20th. These tall, narrow residences are Western-style row houses built of wood and brick but designed with Chinese-style central courtyards.

Despite her friends' well-meaning advice, Ms. Elie toured Shanghai with 18 real estate agents -- often not even knowing which part of the city she was in -- until she found a run-down, 1940s lane house and decided that it would be the family's new home.

Initially, the couple and their daughter Naomi, who was 4 at the time, rented. But when the landlord decided to sell, they quickly agreed to pay 3 million renminbi, or about $471,000 today, for the house, which covered 250 square meters, or 2,690 square feet. They immediately began major renovations, which took about a year and a half to complete, and today the property, on three levels, has three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The couple had plenty of experience with home renovations, having worked on properties in Canada and the United States, but their first Chinese project turned out to have its own particular challenges.

They knew construction standards in China could vary widely, so they kept a close eye on the work.

"We've had friends and some neighbors who renovated houses and it turned out to be a nightmare -- or worse, a nightmare two or three years later," Ms. Elie said. "I think the main advantage for us was a combination of our experience, our knowledge, and knowing how to tell the worker how to do things properly, so the renovations could last a long time. So far, so good."

Though the house was unattractive when they started, Ms. Elie and Mr. Boulianne uncovered some hidden treasures. They are particularly fond of the black brick walls that were buried beneath layers of plaster, mud and straw. And when they removed a plaster ceiling on the top floor, they found a 4-meter, or 13-foot, vaulted ceiling underneath.

While the couple still have plans for some improvements, they feel that the house now reflects their lifestyle and love of the outdoors. For example, glass doors are all that separates the entertainment and barbecue area in the interior courtyard from a 93-square-meter living and dining area.

"We like to have a lot of friends here to entertain," Ms. Elie said, "so it was important to have a flow from outside to inside."

Also contributing to the flow of the house are two water features, one an outdoor pond stocked with koi, and the other a trickling fountain in the living area, watched over by a tranquil-faced Buddha. Water is important in feng shui, but Ms. Elie says these features reflect the couple's love of nature more than a desire to improve the property's qi, or life force.

In the same spirit, reclaimed materials were used in the renovation wherever possible. The floorboards in the dining area and on the staircase came from an old roof, and the living area's built-in shelving was made of old beams. Ms. Elie said the salvaged items saved money, too.

"My husband and I have always been very environmentally conscientious, and that was one of the key issues when we renovated the house: to use less materials, less waste, use recycled materials, and also using natural materials that don't contain formaldehyde and glues and things like that," Ms. Elie said.

She used many of the same principles three years ago to create ecoBibi, a baby products company based in Shanghai.

The house's décor is a distinctive blend of found objects, Chinese antiques and bits and pieces collected on the family's travels around Asia.

"Every single object in this house has a story," Ms. Elie said, "whether it was bought when we traveled, whether it was found in the garbage, or whether an old neighbor moved away and gave it to us."

Shanghai's real estate market has cooled off a bit from its record high of 29,110 renminbi per square meter, or about $425 per square foot, in 2011. But Ms. Elie said the house's unusual features would probably push its value to between 25 million and 30 million renminbi -- as much as 10 times the purchase price. The number of lane houses is declining, making them more valuable, and Ms. Elie and Mr. Boulianne's home has windows on all four sides. That is a rarity among lane houses, which usually have windows only at the front and back.

The couple, however, are not ready to leave what one of their French friends calls the House of Happiness.

"I think we were able to achieve a place where we are comfortable," Ms. Elie said. "It's our oasis from working in a factory and traveling a lot, as well as the hustling and bustling of Shanghai and China. We have our frustrations and our good and bad days, so it's nice to come home to peace and quiet."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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