When most people think of the tropics the imagery of beaches, palm trees, cool breezes and relaxing on open verandahs of wooden villas is often the first thing that springs to mind - all appealing ideas to tourists of a paradise possessing cultural traditions and long lazy days. In reality, the tropics are hot, humid, wet and sticky, an uncomfortable location for those not used to consistently hot temperatures, especially in the present day when the expectation of thermal comfort can be addressed so readily with the flick of a switch.

In response to such expectations and the ever increasing availability of air conditioning, comfort dependencies, even addictions, have developed for both tourists and locals alike – a fact that is seeing the rapid rise of installation of air conditioners in heritage structures in both local residences and holiday destinations. The expectation of thermal comfort, in the form of mechanical cooling, now goes hand in hand with the idea of modernism and luxury. Iconic Southeast Asian vernacular structures such as the shophouse, the bungalow and the kampong all possessed elements that responded to the local climate – large windows for ventilation, over-hanging roof lines for shade, holes in the ceiling for hot air to escape, as well as tree covered public spaces.  Prior to A/C these features were often adequate for comfort maintenance. As Maxwell and Fry state; “An architect should know how to create the right kind of “feeling” or atmosphere for the particular climate he deals with and to do this well he must know the major scientific facts and understand the physiological ones.”

With Southeast Asia estimated to increase it’s energy demand by 76% between 2007-2030 and tourist numbers steadily increasing, air conditioning is likely to be viewed as a necessary requirement for boutique hotels

With the invention of air conditioning, this knowledge of the tropical climate is ultimately no longer integral or pivotal to design. Instead the tourist (and in some cases the local) still wants the cultural experience of the traditional vernacular but without the uncomfortableness of the overwhelming heat – comfort expectations and tourists demand have outweighed the need for environmental consciousness. However, in response to such a rapid rise in energy consumption levels as a partial result of increased AC use, a number of locals are re-adapting these traditional structures to contain passive cooling elements and in future years we may see a new breed of eco tourist embracing low energy forms of hotel cooling as a nod in the direction of responsible travel. And for those dependent on boutique comfort as a means of attracting business, the implementation of smart technology, building automation systems (energy efficient controls that moderate the energy consumption of heating, ventilation, AC and lighting) and sustainable policies can be seen as a compromise between luxury and environmental responsibility. Thus, in tropical Southeast Asia, luxury and comfort do not always have to equate to mechanical cooling – passive cooling, vernacular traditions and integrated technology can still fulfill thermal comfort ideals without the need for constant air conditioning.

And yet, from as early as the 1920s, the introduction of air conditioning to Southeast Asia was marked as a transformation point – some even predicted “that the introduction of air conditioning and its ‘manufactured weather’ would make the tropics more healthy and prosperous, transforming such regions from backwardness to civilisation.” In Singapore, for example, AC was initially installed in prestigious office buildings, cinemas and high-class hotels. Consequently, it did not take long for the concept of luxury and comfort to be associated with air conditioning – as journalist K. Brundle insisted, “it was a lavish symbol of confidence as opposed to the austere naturally ventilated architecture of economy.” Over time the use of AC expanded substantially – workplaces, shopping centres, public transport and private homes all embraced mechanical cooling as a means to meet altering thermal comfort expectations. Alongside this, items thought to be Western luxuries and unnecessary for the tropical climate – feather duvets, leather couches and woolen clothing just to name a few were introduced. Fast forward to the present day and for most middle class residents in Southeast Asia, A/C has become the norm, consuming the most amount of energy (36.7%) in an average household. Air conditioning has enabled a life of thermal comfort in the tropics, created a dependence on cooled space and identified itself as an icon of modernism, luxury and wealth. It is a broad social trend that means the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings for tourism, retail and hospitality are air conditioned to create that strange balance between being iconically 'traditional' but simultaneously modern.

Clarke Quay and Bugis Junction in Singapore are two such examples that have contained rows of shophouses within mechanically cooled spaces (Clarke Quay covered with canopies and Bugis Junction completely enclosed under a glass structure). Although identified as historically significant, it is not the cultural symbols that draw locals to these precincts – it is the uniqueness of the space (enclosed streets) and the fact it is cooled to meet visitor thermal comfort expectations. As one Singaporean resident declared, ‘the reason why I like the Cannery (Clarke Quay) is because all Singaporeans dream of air conditioned streets and that’s the closest thing we can get…’.In this instance comfort needs have surpassed the significance of the vernacular – instead the value of heritage lies in its boutique nature. However, the use of built heritage for luxury or unique status is not always the case, a number of environmentally conscious people are embracing vernacular traditions and utilising these spaces to experiment with passive cooling. There are a number of examples of local residents, who inspired by the cultural significance of the Singaporean shophouse, have adapted the space to suit a modern lifestyle but maintained features such as large windows for natural sunlight, long corridors to promote ventilation and a leafy garden for shade. Adaptive reuse projects such as this demonstrate that it is possible to integrate comfort and modernity with low energy-consumption cooling measures. Indeed, the notion of luxury in heritage is still readily attainable without the necessity of energy intensive forms of cooling and drying; slightly adjusting thermal comfort expectations and utilising passive cooling features achieves similar results without jeopardising the environment.

Residents are not the only ones utilising traditional forms of architecture - an entire tourist market is based upon the attraction of such cultural icons. Searching for the 'authentic' and unique experience, tourists stay in vernacular style buildings – ranging from home stays, hostels, hotels and resorts – as a way of gaining a cultural understanding of their holiday destination. A number of local architects have embraced the vernacular form when designing accommodation as a way of expressing the unique identity of the place, but also due to its environmental and climate responsive design. Such a structure has the ability to minimise air conditioning usage, interact seamlessly with the local surroundings and still project the image of ‘paradise’ to the visitor. Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa influenced many architects in the tropics in the way he embraced traditional design elements and created climate responsive structures. Building within Sri Lanka, Bali and India, his resorts used features such as long open corridors that face the outdoors and encourage natural ventilation, private courtyards attached to bungalows, pools surrounded by tropical plants and even an outdoor dining room beneath a hanging boulder – all created in response to the local environment and climatic context and without the need for mechanical cooling.

Kerry Hill is another notable architecture for designing boutique resorts that revolve around contemporary interpretations of tradition based designs. Making use of local materials such as wooden paneling to encourage ventilation, thatched roofs for insulation and rattan furniture to avoid heat absorption and deterioration, his spaces provide tourists with an insight into unique cultural traditions and showcases the benefits of vernacular design. More recently, the architectural practice Seksan Design offers tourists an even more niche experience with their luxury hotel chain ‘Sekeping’. Utilising converted sheds, old buildings and tiny houses, Ng’s Seksan’s designs encapsulate the local identity (part of a desire to promote Malaysian vernacular) and showcase the surrounding tropical environment, all in the name of environmental and social sustainability. All three of these architects’ resorts provide tourists with a distinctive cultural experience that encompasses environmental conscious design through the use of vernacular traditions and subsequently meets thermal comfort expectations. it is a paradigm of comfort and luxury that is much less dependent on energy intensive forms of enclosed space. This is far from the norm however, as as many resorts and boutique hotels across the Southeast Asia region continue to promote the idea of the traditional vernacular but manage them in less than sustainable ways.

Numerous internet booking and travel advice sites (such as TripAdvisor) highlight which hotels possess air conditioning – an obvious selling point for many. Installing numerous air conditioning units, blocking up natural ventilation portals, installing glazed facades (rather than open walls) and keeping the cooling on at all times to ensure the rooms are kept comfortable are all unsustainable measures that have been implemented in heritage based hotels. The Comfort Futures research team undertook fieldwork in the World Heritage listed site of Melaka and established that as the economies of streets became increasingly tourism related, the more the buildings became enclosed and cooled by mechanical ventilation. Interviews with local architects confirmed that the installation of A/C in hotel lobbies and rooms, travel agencies and tourist bars was paramount to providing a sense of luxury and comfort for guests. Despite the environmental impact that this level of energy consumption can cause and the potential risk it poses to the heritage values, the thermal comfort expectations of the tourist are given priority. Once again the idea that iconic architecture can only be considered boutique accommodation if air-conditioned overshadows the significance of vernacular design in relation to climatic context. With energy consumption levels dramatically rising in tourist hubs such as Melaka, mainly in response to increased AC use, consideration of sustainability measures and energy efficiency will need to become a priority for many of these locales very soon if the aura of luxury is to remain. The slow growth of responsible tourists and the emphasis being placed on sustainable policies in Southeast Asian tourist centres indicates potential for change – it may even be an opportunity to showcase the potential of tropical regional design and the benefits it holds in regards to the environment.

In 2013, the Asia-Pacific region recorded the highest growth of international arrivals of any continent, with the Southeast Asian region growing at 11%. Between 2013-2030, the UN predicts that the Asia-Pacific will account for the strongest growth globally at 4.9% annually. In light of this increase in tourist numbers, more and more Southeast Asian boutique businesses are looking at ways to become more eco friendly as a way of saving energy and responding to the increase in responsible tourism. Initiatives vary from using renewable energy sources, offering green conference and event services, conducting energy audits and replacing services as needs be, implementing energy efficient chiller systems and maximising natural ventilation in lobbies, rooms and balconies as much as possible to meet comfort expectations. An entire plethora of awards, guidelines and policies directed at ‘greening’ the hotel industry have thus evolved in Southeast Asia in recognition of the need for a balance between sustainability and market viability. For many hotel owners this has been a positive addition for attracting tourists and in turn encouraging more people to partake in responsible tourism.  Although measures are being put in place to ensure that energy usage is kept to acceptable levels and energy efficient strategies are promoted, questions about the wisdom of installing air conditioning and using it on an everyday basis are rarely raised. There thus remains a significant challenge of successfully integrating the hospitality sector's need for luxury and comfort with a more expansive notion of environmental responsibility, one that genuinely challenges our everyday social norms and expectations.

To date, across much of Southeast Asia, the hotel, tourism and retail sectors have prioritised thermal comfort needs over environmental conservation. Embedding comfort in historic buildings has even overshadowed the significance of other heritage values in the heritage tourism sector. However, there is a sense that the tide might be changing and the benefits of tropical vernacular architecture, which have long been used for resort architecture, are being recognised for their cultural distinctiveness and climatic responsiveness. Boutique resorts of this nature are intrinsically designed to enable passive cooling, showcase the surrounding environment and reveal cultural traditions that have long been used; aspects that need to considered as resources for a more sustainable future. Clearly, very significant challenges in this area remain. With Southeast Asia estimated to increase it’s energy demand by 76% between 2007-2030 and tourist numbers steadily increasing, air conditioning is likely to be viewed as a necessary requirement for boutique hotels. Yet, with vernacular design being marketed as a boutique (and simultaneously green) experience, there is still the potential to minimise the environmental impact of air conditioning without sacrificing the ideal of luxury.

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Further Information

Ministry of Design transforms five Malaysian shophouses into a boutique hotel - Dezeen Magazine