When you think about tropical architecture, what comes to mind? Perhaps a lanai with a mahogany ceiling, opening up to a lush green landscape with the scent of frangipani wafting on the breeze? While that romantic vision may be very site-specific, it offers a roadmap that can be used in design and living everywhere.
The tropical climate is characterized by year-round high temperatures and intense sun, with a wet and a dry season. Throughout history, structures were designed to create spaces open to nature with few or no walls, taking advantage of air flow, with large overhangs that protect from sun and rain. The design evolved out of the need to adapt to the harsh climate. As a result, users were connected to their natural surroundings, feeling temperature changes and enjoying fresh air, which are all part of wellness.
Fast forward to the way most of the West lives: We have overpowered nature with the use of electricity and gas to heat and cool our environments to the exact temperature we want. Digging a little deeper into tropical architecture, there are lessons to inform us about how to approach design anywhere in the world.
Lesson 1: Connecting to Nature
When you vacation in a tropical environment you inherently spend more time outdoors. Design includes open patios, operable wall panels and light-filtering screens that blur the lines between nature and the built environment. As we learn more about how valuable our connection to nature is, we understand why these
qualities resonate with us and contribute to our mind, body and spirit wellness.
When we remove the barriers between indoors and outdoors, we begin to live in harmony with nature. Science has shown that living in harmony with nature reduces stress and anxiety and increases mental clarity and focus.
In our daily lives, we may live in a cold-weather climate with the common misconception that spending time outdoors is not possible. It should be noted, however, that the top eight happiest countries, as rated by the World Happiness Report, are cold-weather climates, with Nordic countries leading the way. In Norway, there is a saying: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Despite the cold weather, Norwegians embrace nature as part of their culture, and happiness is the result. From a harsh tropical heat to brutal cold, weather should not be a deterrent.
Lesson 2: Sustainability
Our planet and its resources are limited, and our built environment uses most of our power. Our homes use approximately 25 percent of all the energy we produce. Our heating and cooling systems alone account for about half of that energy. That’s a substantial portion of our energy use. Design needs to be part
of the solution.
Tropical architecture shows us that it is possible to use passive design principles effectively even in harsh environments. Passive design principles are based on eliminating gas and electric power for our heating and cooling. As architects and designers, we are constantly looking for ways to make our buildings more energy efficient, using windows that are thermally better, sealing up homes as tight as possible to reduce thermal loss, using higher efficiency furnaces, low-flow fixtures, etc. Continuing to evolve technology is necessary and important, even though, ironically, the more airtight the building is, the more it disconnects us from nature. But even more important than the efficiencies we can achieve from technology can be learning to use what nature is giving us. Understanding the climate we are in, from tropical to desert to polar, should dictate the design strategies that we use.
There are many innovative design techniques that can maximize what we are given in different environments. In tropical zones, the strategy is to keep the sun out, while in northern climates we can design to use the sun to take advantage of solar heat gain. Large south-facing windows on a 30-degree, bright winter day can eliminate the need for heating, similar to being in a car on a sunny day.
In our homes this may be as simple as turning off the air conditioning and opening the windows in the house or apartment in the morning to let the cooler air in and then closing them before the day heats up to keep the home from warming up. This small move has many great benefits. For our personal wellness benefits include fresh air, a connection to nature, our bodies become awake by feeling temperature changes. For the sustainability benefits, we reduce the use of electricity, strain on the grid, CO2 emissions, etc.
Lesson 3: Materials
We need to be conscious of the tactile aspects of our surroundings from inside the home to the landscaping. Tropical architecture responds to the senses of sight, sound, smell and touch.
Since we can spend more time barefoot in the tropics, we can feel the changing textures on our feet within a few steps from warm wood to cool stone to a gravel path, the sand on the beach to the water in the ocean. While we may not be aware of this consciously, each step makes you more aware and present as well as grounding our bodies.
Tropical architecture also shows us the inherent value of the use of local materials on our wellness and for the environment. It typically uses local wood and stone from the region as well as local craftsmen techniques in their homes. This was one of the design principles championed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He was impacted by the architecture on his numerous trips to Japan, including nearly three years spent there working on the Imperial Hotel. We see many of his houses embedded in the natural surroundings and even exposing the natural materials in the interior spaces.
David Krebs is a registered architect and member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). His company, AoDK Architecture, is based in Cleveland, Ohio.