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Letter from Thailand: the 'rightness' of its traditional buildings

Posted by John Adden on May 07, 2014
Letter from Thailand: the 'rightness' of its traditional buildings

Over the years I've been working in Thailand I've been involved in all sorts of projects, but what has interested me most is the process of trying to understand the 'rightness' of its traditional buildings, which clearly grow out of their environment, climate and culture. What might this 'rightness' offer to builders today?

Old Lanna, the northwest of Thailand, is a place I've come to love. The environment is lush, the climate hot but bearable, interspersed with heavy rain, and the culture mainly agricultural. The traditional house has grown out of these conditions: broad, overhanging roofs to protect the openings from the rain and sun with steep, high roofs to allow the heat to rise, the roofs and walls and floors made of perforate materials to allow the maximum ventilation while excluding the sun.  Of course, the house is raised above the ground which enhances the ventilation up through the house, protects it from flooding and provides a significantly cooler environment below during the day for resting, working, domestic animals, etc.

Many traditional houses in Lanna had (and still have) roofs covered in big leathery leaves which annually fall from the trees, the walls usually made from woven bamboo mats or single skin thin teak boards, both of which breath, and raised floors of split bamboo or boards with straight joints to also allow for ventilation.

A wonderful lesson in sustainability and 'rightness': buildings seem to literally to grow out of the land. This is in stark contrast with most new construction. Air conditioning has arrived, which is understandable to a degree, but this means that the entire vocabulary of perforate construction has gone 'out the window'. Imperforate masonry, aluminum-framed windows, concrete roofs seem to be the norm now, providing a sealed environment as required for air conditioning. This has changed everything.

As always, there are complex reasons for abandoning the old ways: teak is no longer readily available, bamboo and leaf or palm frond roofs have limited durability and urban construction makes very different demands. But it's awful to see bare glass buildings totally reliant on air conditioning, bare concrete walls which store heat and become giant radiators and a complete lack of rich planting around buildings to provide much needed shade and absorb the heavy rains often replaced with entire sites covered in concrete.

So the modest efforts I've been making, where possible, is to try to re-enthuse locals about the virtues of providing shade, limiting air conditioning to essential spaces, and exploiting the richness of the local flora for its shade, rain absorption and life enhancing virtues.

I hope these brief notes might be of interest and, as I have no idea how familiar you may be with Thai buildings, I've attached photos of buildings I like a lot: a teak house protected from the elements by broad, overhanging roofs and trees, the kitchen interior of the same house showing the perforate surfaces, and a little guest pavilion with leaf roof and woven bamboo walls.

Best wishes,

John

[Publisher's Note: This blog post is excerpted with permission from an e-mail I received from John Adden, a London-based architect who also works in SE Asia.] 

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