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Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

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Bioclimatism and vernacular architecture of north-east India

Manoj Kumar Singh a, Sadhan Mahapatra b, *, S.K. Atreya a
Instrument Design and Development Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, New Delhi 110016, India
Department of Energy, Tezpur University, Tezpur 784028, Assam, India

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Vernacular architecture based on bioclimatism concepts was developed and used through the centuries
Received 21 March 2008 by many civilizations across the world. Different civilizations have produced their own architectural
Received in revised form 12 June 2008 styles based on the local conditions. This study is carried out on the vernacular buildings of north-east
Accepted 12 June 2008
India across all the bioclimatic zones. A survey of 42 houses, more than 70 years old was carried out at
representative locations across all bioclimatic zones. The study has yielded ndings relating bio-
climatism, socio-economic status and cultural setup to the vernacular architecture of the region. Also,
different solar passive features are available in most of these houses, related to temperature control and
Vernacular architecture
Solar passive design promoting natural ventilation. These houses are constructed using locally available materials like wood,
North- East India cane, bamboo, stone, mud, jute, lime and represent unique examples towards sustainable building
2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction techniques and micro-climatic conditions in building design, which

improve the articial energy efciency of the building and thermal
Climate, socio-cultural setup, economy, materials and tech- comfort conditions in the built environment [7].
nology availability are the main factors that greatly inuence Vernacular architecture is a term used to categorize methods of
building architecture and its sustainability. Since climate varies construction which use locally available resources to address the
from place to place, favourable architectural solutions for the built local needs [3]. These kinds of structure evolve over time to reect
environment are also region specic. Vernacular architecture con- the environmental, cultural and historical context in which they
structed by the people reects their needs and socio-cultural values exist [3]. The building knowledge in this type of architecture is
[1]. The buildings that are constructed using locally available often transported by traditions and is thus more based on the
materials show a greater respect to the existing environment and knowledge achieved by trial and error and often handed down
also take into account the constraints imposed by the climate. Of through the generations [8,9]. This kind of architecture is greatly
the various factors that affect architectural design, climate control inuenced by culture and geographical location but the most
is of prime importance for maintaining comfortable conditions fascinating aspect is that these architectures show identical archi-
inside the buildings [2]. Vernacular architecture sets an example of tectural solutions in similar climates across totally different and
harmony between dwellings, dwellers and the physical environ- very distant geographical locations [3]. This architecture is a source
ment. But it is often ignored in modern times. However, it may not of great wealth for modern architecture as it represents solutions
be appropriate to adopt these models as readymade solutions for which show maximum adaptability and exibility and thus sets an
modern architecture. Our advanced technical capability and example towards sustainability. In modern times, building mate-
cultural context prevent us from returning to these old-fashioned rials like cement, steel and bricks are highly energy intensive.
architectural forms. But we can learn a lesson from the approach of Studies show that the embodied energy cost as well as running
the builders who acknowledged the interdependence of human costs can be signicantly reduced in climate-responsive building
beings, buildings and physical environment [3]. design [10]. Energy efcient building has the potential to reduce
Bioclimatism is a concept that integrates the micro-climate and carbon emissions by 60% or more, which translates to 1.35 billion
architecture with human thermal comfort conditions [4]. Different tonnes of carbon [5]. So climate responsive building design has
studies on vernacular architecture have revealed that bioclimatism become a necessity rather than an option for energy conservation
is a critical parameter for achieving sustainability of modern and carbon emission reduction [5]. For sustainable solutions,
architecture [5,6]. This concept takes into account the solar passive environment and traditions are not supplementary to each other
but are pre-requisites [7,11]. So we must not underestimate the
* Corresponding author. Tel.: 91 3712 267107; fax: 91 3712 267005. solutions of vernacular architecture. Rather it demands a system-
E-mail address: (S. Mahapatra). atic and detailed scientic understanding [3].

0360-1323/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888 879

Solar energy utilized more efciently by orientation of the available in the vicinity. These kinds of buildings have specic form
building was found in Greece around 2500 years ago [5]. A few and the cost of construction is minimal. Pukka buildings are made
centuries later, Roman bathhouses were also built to receive up of stone, bricks, tiles, metal or other processed materials and
maximum solar energy heat gain through south facing windows surkhi or mortar used for binding. These structures are expensive
[5]. In India Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Red Fort, Delhi are excellent and do not required regular maintenance. Semi-pukka buildings are
examples of solar passive architectural concepts [12,13]. Different a combination of kachcha and pukka style. Common building
ancient civilizations have produced their own traditional archi- materials in hilly areas are rocky rubble, ashlar, stone pieces,
tectural styles and adapted to local conditions. Gradually developed bamboo, wood and cane. In plain areas mud-blocks or sun-baked
over ages and without the use of articial energy producing bricks are widely used for construction.
devices, these buildings provided varying levels of comfort inside
the built space [14]. In India there are exhibits of indigenous use of 2. Different bioclimatic zones of north-east India
locally available materials and techniques to construct buildings
that are based on the local climatic conditions or even on the India possesses a large variety of climate ranging from
ethnicity of the community [1517]. extremely hot conditions in desert regions like Rajasthan to severe
Indian vernacular architecture includes informal and functional cold conditions at high altitude locations like Kashmir. Fig. 1
structures designed and built with local materials to meet the represents the existing bioclimatic classication of India. In this
needs of the people in rural areas. These works also reects the rich study we consider the north-east region of the country which
diversity of Indias climate, locally available building materials, consists of seven states; Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh,
culture and ethnicity. Despite the diversity of the country, mainly Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura. This region lies between
three different kinds of architecture: kachcha, pukka and semi- 21 N to 30 N latitude and 89 400 E to 97180 E longitudes. The north-
pukka are available [9]. Kachcha building is made up of unprocessed east region is classied into three major bioclimatic zones: warm
natural material such as mud, cane, bamboo, thatch and wood and humid, cool and humid, and cold and cloudy [18]. Fig. 2

Fig. 1. Existing bioclimatic classication of India.

880 M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

Table 2
Passive design strategies potential for different bioclimatic zones of north-east
India [18]

Bioclimatic Potential strategies (% wise)

Natural Passive solar Comfort Air- Conventional
ventilation cooling/heating conditioning heating
Cooling requirement (AprilSeptember)
Warm and 16.6 0 7.6 75.8 0
Cool and 16.6 0 14.2 69.2 0
Cold and 0 22.5 44.5 31.5 1.5

Heating requirement (OctoberMarch)

Warm and 14.0 22.5 32.5 26.5 4.5
Cool and 8.0 30.8 37.5 13.7 10.0
Cold and 1.7 37.5 15.0 0 45.8

humid bioclimatic zones reveals that a short period in December

and January needs conventional heating. The remaining winter
months fall within the passive solar heating zone, representing
about 22.5% the colder half of the year. In fact passive solar design
plays a more signicant role during the warmer half of the year.
During the warmer half of the year, most of the monthly climatic
Fig. 2. Re-classied bioclimatic zones of north-east India. lines lie outside the comfort zone. So due to warm weather and
high humidity, only 17% of the time cooling can be provided by
natural ventilation and the remaining 76% of the time is dependent
represents the re-classied bioclimatic zones of north-east India. on articial cooling [18].
This classication is based on the ambient temperature, humidity, Cool and humid climatic zone temperature varies from 25 to
rainfall, wind speed, altitude, solar radiation and physical topog- 30  C maximum and from 20 to 24 C minimum during the summer
raphy of the region. months whereas in the winter months the maximum temperature
A warm and humid climate generally covers the entire area of varies from 20 to 25  C and the minimum temperature varies from
Assam except some regions of middle Assam. The maximum 10 to 15  C. The humidity level is on the higher side (7595%). From
temperature in summer is in the range of 3035  C and the the bioclimatic chart of this zone, it has been found that a small
minimum temperature is in the range of 2227  C; in winter the portion of the monthly climatic lines fall in the conventional
maximum temperature varies from 25 to 30  C and the minimum heating zone [18]. Most of the monthly lines fall in the solar passive
from 10 to 15  C [18]. Relative humidity remains high throughout heating zone representing about 31% of the time of the colder half
the zone. Table 1 presents the specications of different bioclimatic of the year. In summer time most of the lines fall outside the
zones of north-east India. The main difculty in a warm humid comfort zone and passive cooling by natural ventilation is only 17%
climatic zone is overheating with high humidity. Table 2 provides (high wind in summer) and the rest of time (outside the comfort
passive design strategies potential for different bioclimatic zones of zone) has to depend on articial cooling which is 70% of the
north-east India [18]. The passive design potential for warm and summer time [18].
The cold and cloudy climatic zone has a maximum temperature
range from 20 to 25  C and minimum from 14 to 19  C in the
Table 1
summer months and during winter months the temperature varies
Specications of re-classied bioclimatic zones of north-east India [18]
from 15 to 20  C maximum and from 5 to 10  C minimum (Table 1).
Bioclimatic zones It has cold winter months and no warm summer months except
Warm and humid Cool and humid Cold and cloudy a short period in July and August [18]. The six climatic lines for the
Temperature Summer Maximum 3035 Maximum 2530 Maximum 2025 warmer half of the year exceed the humidity limits of the comfort
range ( C) Minimum 2227 Minimum 2024 Minimum 1419 zone. In summer time passive solar cooling contributes 22.5% of the
Winter Maximum 2530 Maximum 2025 Maximum 1520 cooling requirement, 44.5% of the time lies in the comfort zone and
Minimum 1015 Minimum 1015 Minimum 510
only 32% of the articial cooling is needed in this region. This zone
Relative 7590 7595 8090
humidity has passive solar heating potential of 38% during the colder half of
(%) the year and conventional heating is required around 46% of the
Rainfall 17002100 15002000 >2000 time [18].
Sky Generally clear sky Generally clear sky Occasionally clear
conditions but overcast during but heavy overcast sky but overcast 3. Methodology and scope of the study
monsoon during monsoon sky rest of the
Wind Low wind during High wind during Medium wind The vernacular architecture of north-east India across the
direction summer and from summer and from from NE, SW and three bioclimatic zones is widely varied in its built forms.
SE, N and NE E, SW and W W direction However no serious study has ever been made on the vernacular
directions direction architecture of north-east India in relation to bioclimatism, socio-
Vegetation Heavy vegetation Heavy vegetation Heavy vegetation
economic status, cultural setup and sustainability. In order to
M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888 881

Fig. 3. Mud architecture.

address these issues, a survey of 42 houses (i.e., 14 houses in each 4. Vernacular architecture in warm and humid climatic zone
bioclimatic zone) across all three bioclimatic zones was carried
out. Houses that were more than 70 years old and still in use 4.1. Materials used
were selected. Measurements of illumination levels inside the
rooms, external wall thickness, inter-room partition thickness, In all the houses of this climatic zone, locally available material
false ceiling height and dimensions of doors and windows were like bamboo, cane, mud, lime and brick are used in different
taken. Collection of photographic evidence of various solar proportions effectively and efciently. The residential building
passive features available in these houses and extensive interac- constructed traditionally has a wooden framed structure. The main
tion with the inhabitants of these houses were also part of the construction materials are wood, mud-blocks and backed bricks.
study. Surkhi (mixture of lime, brick powder, sand and jaggery, etc.) is
This study was carried out to nd out the inuence of different used to x the bricks in pukka buildings. The main advantage of
features of bioclimatism such as climatic conditions, common using wood for construction is that it is hard, resistant to moisture
building plans, socio-cultural set up, materials used and solar and has poor thermal conductivity. In a two-storied house, the rst
passive features in the vernacular buildings of different bioclimatic oor is raised from the ground by brick masonry. The rst oor is
zones of the region. The signicant features related to the climatic completely constructed of wood. The ground oor is made up of
design, construction materials; topography and built environments brick masonry to make the structure free from watery and damp
were then identied. ground. In some of these houses half of the walls are constructed

Fig. 4. Air circulation and ventilation features.

882 M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

(Fig. 3). Because of excessive rainfall it is observed that the roofs of

traditional houses are slanting and facing two or four directions.
Roofs are extended to act as an overhang to protect the wall from
rainfall. We also found that the wind direction is intelligently used
for natural ventilation. Fig. 4 presents the features that enhance air
circulation and promote natural ventilation.
Mud architecture is quite common in rural areas (Fig. 3). The
thickness of the walls in mud buildings is kept around 0.51 m. The
life of a mud houses life is around 2025 years or even more
without any major modication. The mud used in the construction
of houses in this zone is not processed (i.e., no external material is
added to change the property of mud). These houses need some
repairs after every monsoon. In the case of a pukka building, surkhi
is used in xing the bricks and for plastering. Studies shows that
Fig. 5. Air gap in a multilayered false ceiling. 0.380.51 m thick wall made up of surkhi gives a heat gain or loss
time lag from 10 to 15 h [19]. Use of surki is quite common in the
buildings in this climatic zone.
with brick masonry and above that it is wooden construction. This In our study we found different solar passive features in these
practice has emerged from the numbers of years of experience. buildings. An advanced passive feature like an air gap is main-
tained in the lower side of ceiling (Fig. 5). This air gap is created by
4.2. Solar passive features in building design using two layers, one of bamboo and the other of wood to
construct the ceiling. This feature actually helps to reduce the heat
A solar passive house/structure is designed such that it makes gain inside the built space. The windows and doors are completely
effective use of solar radiation to warm up in winter and to block wooden structures and can be partially opened depending on the
out this radiation in summer. The design of solar houses/structures residents requirements. Fig. 6 shows the woven bamboo strips or
requires a detailed understanding of the relationship between cane strips sandwiched between the two layers of surkhi or pro-
architectural textures, human behaviour, culture and climatic cessed mud used for making a false ceiling. In most traditional
factors [13]. houses in this climatic zone the inter-room partition walls are
Bioclimatic zone specication of a warm and humid climatic made by sandwiching woven bamboo strips between two layers of
zone shows that high humidity and excessive rainfall are the prime mud.
factors that inuence the comfort conditions inside the built space Fig. 7 shows a veranda on the east and on the west side running
[18]. Solar radiation and wind speed and direction also have an along north to south of a school building constructed in the year
impact in the building structures. The effects of all these factors are 1863. A vertical wooden structure blocks the afternoon sun from
clearly visible in the vernacular architecture of this region. Due to entering the classrooms. The overhang on the windows is also used
heavy rainfall in the region, the entrances of the houses are pulled to block the suns rays. This school is located on the bank of the river
inside. To minimize the damage due to rainfall, the external walls Barak. The excess humidity in the air is tackled by providing a lot of
are cleverly built. Half of the wall is made up of backed brick openings in the form of windows and doors. Vegetation is used
masonry and above that the wall is made of by wood. In the case of effectively for shading. Fig. 4 shows the chimney arrangement. This
mud architecture, the houses are made on a raised platform so that feature enhances ventilation by increasing air circulation through
the drained water from the roof cannot crumble the side walls the opening in the ceiling. Almost all the houses in this zone have

Fig. 6. Materials and techniques used in false ceilings and roong.

M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888 883

Fig. 7. Shading techniques to block solar radiation.

rooms with ceiling height ranging from 4.57 to 5.49 m and the walls 5.2. Solar passive features in building design
are 0.460.51 m thick. This height helps in the formation of natural
draft to enhance ventilation. A typical rural house in this climatic zone is a low energy dwelling.
These houses are constructed only using locally available materials.
5. Vernacular architecture in cool and humid climatic zone The orientation of the house in rural area plays a major role. Most of
the houses are eastwest oriented and south facing to receive
5.1. Materials used maximum solar radiation. In this climatic zone the walls of the houses
are made by sandwiching a particular species of bamboo between
The houses in this zone are made of locally available materials, two layers of processed mud. Fig. 8 shows the bamboo arrangement
i.e. processed mud, wood and bamboo. Bamboo is sandwiched on which processed mud is applied to nish the wall. Processing
between two layers of processed mud for making walls. Mud enhances the binding properties and adds porosity to the mud.
(before applying to the woven bamboo) is processed by adding cow Increased porosity actually increases the water retention property of
dung, lime and beaten straw or chopped jute. There is a distinct the mud which in turn provides resistance to temperature change and
difference in rural and urban houses. Bricks are used for the thus helps to retain comfort conditions [20]. In urban houses the
construction in urban houses but are almost negligible presence in outer walls are 0.200.38 m thick but in rural houses they are 0.07
rural housing. Older houses have a thatched roof (of grass) but this 0.13 m thick. In both cases inter-room partition walls are 0.070.13 m
has now been replaced by galvanized tin sheet. thick and are also made up by sandwiching woven bamboo in

Fig. 8. Materials and techniques used for walls.

884 M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

Fig. 9. Rocks and bricks used for walls.

between two layers of processed mud (Fig. 8). The longevity of the houses to reduce the cost. The place for cooking is made in such a way
houses is around 2025 years and sometimes even more. that it also serves the purpose of space heating. Fig. 6 shows the use of
locally available materials like wood and cane for the construction of
6. Vernacular architecture in cold and cloudy climatic zones the ceiling. The windows of the houses are small in size and the walls
are relatively thick. This helps to reduce heat loss from inside the
6.1. Materials used house. A rural low energy dwelling is generally made up of bamboo,
cane and wood. The oor of this low energy dwelling is generally
Building materials used for constructing traditional houses in elevated (0.501 m) from the ground. Floors of almost all the houses
these climatic conditions are wood, bamboo, cane, cane leaves, are made of wooden planks. As wood is a poor thermal conductor, this
stone chips, rock slabs, surkhi, etc. These building materials are improves the inside comfort conditions. Cane leaves (dried and
available locally and used judiciously to construct the houses. arranged in a particular fashion, shown in Fig. 6) are used for roong.
Houses are compact and constructed on south slopes of the mountain
6.2. Solar passive features in building design and oriented in an eastwest direction to receive maximum solar
radiation. The ceiling height is very low inside the house. These
The houses presented in Fig. 9 are quite common in almost all houses have minimum surface to volume ratio which maximizes the
parts of this climatic zone. Since this is hilly area and stone is readily heat gain inside the rooms during daytime and minimizes the heat
available, residents of this area use stone blocks to construct their loss during nighttime.

Fig. 10. Common building plans for warm and humid climate.
M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888 885

Fig. 11. Functional building diagram for warm and humid climate.

7. Discussion economic conditions of the region [21]. Social structure, economic

and energy consumption are the major inuential parameters that
Bioclimatic building design can be learned from the vernacular laid down the constraints for residential building design. It is very
architecture of the three bioclimatic zones. Vernacular architecture clear that social and economic status have a great inuence over the
shows the combination of local climate conditions, available quality of life as these decide the individuals awareness and access
materials, design techniques, living style, traditions and socio- to modern technology [22].

Fig. 12. Common building plans for cool and humid climate.
886 M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

Fig. 13. Functional building diagram for cool and humid climate.

It is quite interesting to note that this vernacular architecture arrangement (slanting and facing two or four directions); (iii) false
provides a good solution to the climatic constraints of the region. It ceiling; (iv) proper ventilation; and (iv) use of locally available
has also been found that there is more than one approach to solve building materials. This architectural form is quite simple,
the same climatic constraints. The local builders and residents economical, satises the social setup, cultural needs and above all,
always try to take into account the climatic constraints, culture, it intelligently meets the climatic requirements [17]. The building
social, economic and religion, while constructing the built envi- plans of the commonly available houses in the climatic zones are
ronment [23]. This sort of spontaneous process leads to a new form presented and the corresponding functional building diagram has
of architecture which the people of this region commonly call been developed based on this common building plan that meets
Assam type [24]. Assam type houses are semi-pukka and pukka the socio-cultural requirements.
forms of building [24]. The unique features of an Assam type house In our study on vernacular architecture of the warm and humid
are: (i) wooden framed wall for anti-seismic properties; (ii) roof zone of north-east India, we found that these types of architecture

Fig. 14. Common building plans of cold and cloudy climate.

M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888 887

are quite different from modern rural or urban houses. In rural available materials such as mud, bamboo, cane, wood, etc. for
areas the houses are scattered settlements and built to meet the construction and as a contribution towards sustainable building
day to day requirements of residents but in contrast the urban design by minimizing the use of energy intensive materials.
houses are collective. Rural and urban houses constructed around In our study of vernacular architecture of cool and humid zone,
70 years ago are of similar architecture. The building plans of the transition spaces in terms of verandas, corridors, etc. have very
commonly available Assam type houses in this climatic zone are limited use. In the architecture of urban areas we found that doors
presented in the Fig. 10. The functional building diagram for this and windows are about 3040% of the oor area but for rural
climatic zone has been developed based on these common building housing, window numbers as well as size decrease. The daylight
plans and presented in Fig. 11. illumination level is far below the standard norms in most of the
The courtyard is a common and characteristic form of residential rural houses. The measured daylight illumination level is in the
architecture in warm and humid climatic zone. It serves as range of 1522 lx, whereas the standard daylight luminance is 50 lx
a collector of cool air at night and a source of shade in the daytime for family living rooms [27]. The building plans of the commonly
[25]. The region has different ethnic groups and has a number of available houses in this climatic zone are presented in the Fig. 12.
festivals where social gathering is common during its celebrations. The functional building diagram for this climatic zone has been
The entire north-eastern region has more than 50 different tribes developed based on these common building plans and is presented
with distinct cultural and social setups [26]. So the courtyard in Fig. 13.
provides the much needed space and satises the social and Vernacular architecture of cold and cloudy climate zone is
cultural needs. Moreover the courtyard provides the necessary greatly inuenced by the prevailing climatic conditions. There is no
space for post harvesting activities like drying, winnowing and such distinction in rural and urban architectures. Minimizing heat
weaving. Humidity in this zone is quite high throughout the year. loss features are dominant in building plans in this zone. The
So to maintain comfortable conditions, the architecture needs to building plans of the commonly available houses of this climatic
provide enhanced air circulation. These courtyards play an impor- zone are presented in Fig. 14. The functional building diagram for
tant role in natural ventilation and enhanced air circulation. Tran- this climatic zone has been developed based on these common
sition spaces in terms of verandas, corridors, etc. inside the building plans and is presented in Fig. 15. In most of the buildings,
buildings are very common in this kind of architecture and acts as locally available materials like stone, wood, bamboo, cane, cane
buffer space. In a good number of buildings, we found that transi- leaves, etc. are used. Since these materials are from the same
tions spaces are modied according to the needs in summer and climatic zone, they t into the local environment perfectly. Use of
winter months to maintain comfortable conditions inside the locally available material has environmental advantages such as: (i)
building. In this architecture, the doors and windows are about half signicant reduction in energy involved in material processing and
of the oor area. Movable ventilators are provided above the doors transportation; (ii) making the structure light, exible and with
and windows. Large numbers of windows and ventilators not only good anti-seismic properties; and (iii) low environmental impact in
provide the necessary natural cross ventilation but also allow their production, renewability and even natural dissolution. We
adequate day lighting throughout the day. One prominent features found different solar passive features available in most of these
in this vernacular architecture is that bathrooms and toilets are houses related to temperature control. Fig. 16 represents the
separated from the main building. This is done to protect the different shading, ventilation techniques, typical window
building from excess moisture and to keep the hygiene level high. construction techniques and common roof patterns that are found
Due to the religious beliefs also, toilets and bathrooms are sepa- across all three climatic zones. The roofs of these houses are steeply
rated from the main building [26]. inclined to overcome the excessive rainfall.
The buildings in a warm and humid bioclimatic zone show It is also quite interesting to know that the inhabitants of these
a numbers of solar passive features such as enhanced air circula- buildings are quite aware of the usefulness of all these solar
tion, promoting natural ventilation, reduce heat gain and effective passive features without knowing many details and scientic
shading mechanisms, etc. This kind of architecture uses locally reasons behind those features. Most of the solar passive features

Fig. 15. Functional building diagram for cold and cloudy climate.
888 M.K. Singh et al. / Building and Environment 44 (2009) 878888

Fig. 16. Shading, ventilation techniques and common roof patterns.

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