The increasing interest in sustainability and environmental responsibility has challenged architects to investigate and engage with climate specific passive building technologies as a means to reducing energy consumption. Vernacular architecture is one such area where architects have been sourcing climate responsive methods to apply to modern constructions. Vernacular architecture is used to describe structures built by people whose design decisions are influenced by traditions in their culture. Designs vary widely in response to local culture, society, climate and available resources, changing over a long period of time via trial and error and continuous adaptations. The end result is a “traditional” design solution that is climatically appropriate, culturally relevant and aesthetically pleasing. Whilst not the only factor, climate in particular acted as a primary instigator, influencing architectural form as a means to keep out the elements – rain, wind, sun and snow – and keeping the inhabitants comfortable and sustainable the social lives in and around the built environment.
In the case of tropical Southeast Asia, the elements of vernacular architecture - such as roofs, walls, screens, openings and floors - were all partially conceived in response to hot and humid tropical climatic conditions (around 70-100% relative humidity and 30 degrees Celsius) as environmental filters, keeping the sun and rain out while letting the breeze in. The Southeast Asian vernacular house typical has the following features:
- A large and well-insulated pitched roof with deep overhang. The large roof is typically thatched insulating the interior from the heat of the sun. It tends to be steeply pitched to efficiently drain off the water during a heavy rainfall. And the deep overhang shields the interior from the sun and rain.
- A porch, verandah or other in-between buffer zone that is roofed but not enclosed with wall so that it is shaded but also well-ventilated.
- Porous walls that screen the interior space for privacy purpose but admit breezes to facilitate cross-ventilation.
An example of the Southeast Asian vernacular house is the traditional Malay House. Found in villages or kampongs, including urban kampongs, around peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, the traditional Malay House is a timber frame structure elevated on stilts with a pitched roof that has deep overhang. It has a serambi (verandah) and porous walls that facilitate cross ventilation. Although originally built by the Malays, the Malay House was also adapted and inhabited by the other ethnic groups in multicultural Malaysia and Singapore. The traditional Malay House also influenced the design and planning of the colonial bungalows in Malaysia and Singapore, just as the traditional Malay House itself was shaped by colonial influences. For example, what is called the colonial black-and-white bungalow in Singapore (built during the 1890s and 1900s) shares many climatic design features as the traditional Malay House.
Many of these climatic design features have evolved over time. With urbanisation, modernisation and technological transformations from the second half of the twentieth century, these building features and the attendant socio-cultural practices were initially adapted for the simplified and abstract formal vocabulary of modern architecture. For instance, post-war modern tropical architecture reinterpreted the vernacular climatic responsive features of deep overhang, in-between buffer zone, and porosity to create an architecture of brise-soleil, balcony and ventilating bricks. But with air-conditioning becoming increasingly ubiquitous and the attendant shift in social practices of keeping cool from the 1980s onward, these climatic responsive design features disappeared almost entirely. Instead of porous building envelope protected by deep overhang, the mechanically cooled architecture has a flat and hermetically sealed envelope. In other words, due to the advent of air-conditioning, architecture in tropical Southeast Asia began to look architecture in any other climatic zones.
In the 1990s, there were at least two reactions to the formal homogenisation of the built environment in Malaysia and Singapore that the increasing prevalence of mechanical cooling brought about. The first was to take the traditional Malay House as an image literally and apply it to a modern building. It led to an architecture that appeared like a traditional Malay House on steroids but was spatially and environmentally like a modern mechanically cooled building. The second was to follow the postwar approach of reinterpreting the traditional Malay House or other vernacular exemplars based on its climatic design principles. Architects in Southeast Asia and beyond, such as Tay Kheng Soon, Ken Yeang, Charles Correa and Geoffrey Bawa, took this approach contributing to a movement that William Lim and Tan Hock Beng characterised as “contemporary vernacular”. This is both a climatic and a cultural approach of addressing the energy profligacy of air-conditioned buildings and homogenisation of architecture.
In rapidly developing Asian cities, where environmental pressure and energy consumption are at an all-time high, climate responsive design inspired by vernacular architecture is a means of building economically with low environmental impact, and reducing energy consumption for a low carbon future. Further research and experimentation of traditional solutions in vernacular architecture should take place as a means of establishing how they can be adopted, modified and developed to work with modern requirements. As the renowned Indian architect, the late Charles Correa insisted, “In this, the old architecture – especially from vernacular – has much to teach us, as it always develops a typology of fundamental sense.”