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Vernacular Architecture

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.
Tom Winter
August 13, 2015
Comfort Futures
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

 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-
 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
Tom Winter
August 13, 2015
Comfort Futures
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

Tom Winter
August 13, 2015
Comfort Futures
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
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.”

The Bungalow - The Production of Global Culture - A.King - The Bungalow 1 copy.jpg

Tom Winter
August 13, 2015
Comfort Futures