Lessons from Vernacular Architecture

Often the lines are blurred with regard to the disparity between the terms ‘Green’, ‘Sustainable’ & ‘Bioclimatic’. The dissemblance is purely a measure of the means by which the intended low impact design is achieved. Whilst going ‘Green’ merely refers to the active technology that the building uses to mitigate incontinent consumption, being ‘sustainable’ exemplifies the need ‘to reap what you sow’, thereby closing the cyclic consumption loop. On the other hand, ‘Bioclimatic’ defines the relations of climate and living matter. Bioclimatic or Environmental design epitomises varying degrees of climatic responsiveness through which ‘bioclimatic adaptation’ manifests using passive techniques and elements to reduce demand as the initial act.’ True Green approach’ should devise for demand reduction rather than assembling a ‘kit of parts’ to regulate demand, which is what we follow at Midori Architects.

In a city like Chennai which has a warm and humid climate, passive strategies that are used to mitigate the heat and humidity are similar to those implemented in a tropical country like Singapore. Early Passive environments balanced thermal expectations with the environment understanding fully well that architecture and environment are inextricably linked. The heritage Tudor revival ‘Black and White’ houses of Singapore’s colonial past is a bioclimatic precedent for the tropical monsoon climate. Large overhanging eaves held by Corinthian columns, extend from the pyramidal roof over the façade, sheltering it from harsh sun and torrential rain. Typical Anglo-Malay bungalows were elevated six feet off the ground on masonry piers to prevent floodwater and insects. This elevation capacitated the large windows to catch prevailing winds that permeated through the free-flowing layout, keeping the spaces cool and breezy. The high profile pitched roof draws hot air from within the house that is dispersed by lateral vents.

Another interesting aspect of this Asian vernacular was its masonry base with upper timber portion. During daytime, when temperatures are high, occupants used the ground floor spaces that were enclosed by thermally massive walls designed to keep heat out due to thermal lag. Whilst the light weight structure heated up during day, at night it would quickly purge the heat gained providing thermal comfort for first floor bedroom occupants. Most striking feature of the house is its broad verandas. Wrapped on all four sides and serving its primary aim to protect the core. It buffers and postures as an environmental modifier that simultaneously enriches place making and encourages semi transitional tropical veranda living. Architect design in Chennai should consider reviving the tried and tested passive design strategies that have worked favourably in vernacular houses.

Many might argue that common passive cooling strategies are difficult to achieve, given the climatic impediments in a city like Chennai, such as high radiation (direct/diffused), low wind speeds, high relative humidity, torrential rainfall, and small diurnal variations, thereby testifying the benefits of maintaining 24°C-26°C indoor environments. Contradictory to this, lessons learnt from our heritage show that passive design is social, climatic & architecturally intuitive and, can be cost free. Unlike our predecessors, are we denying ourselves the choice to bio-climatically adapt by imposing the uniform?

1. Image 1- Traditional Malay House, David’s blogspot,
2. Image 2- Passive strategies in a traditional Malay House, Author
3. Image 3- Manwaring House, Khosla Associates


2019-03-04T10:43:27+00:00March 1st, 2019|Blog|0 Comments