Tropical Architecture reimagined

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ARCHITECT FELINO A. PALAFOX, JR.

TROPICAL Architecture has been a popular design choice for resort developments, spas, and other recreational leisure amenities as it is known for blending in with nature. Many may perceive Tropical Architecture as a design aesthetic; however it is the principles applied that embodies Tropical Architecture. This architecture involves incorporating planning and design solutions into the development to keep the interior temperature cool despite the hot and humid climate.

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Principles in designing for tropical climes integrate the whole context of the site for a holistic design. It adapts to the site’s size, shape, neighborhood, access, topography, limitations, locations, microclimate, and overall visual impact. The sun path and wind direction is taken into consideration for the building’s orientation to minimize heat gain within the building, and allow for passive cooling. It also takes into account what materials can be sourced regionally and locally.

Tropical Architecture goes way back to our ancestors’ era, and is dominantly followed in Southeast Asian countries with tropical climate. Despite existing long ago, its principles that aim for a sustainable development, can still be applied, especially now that the aggravated issue of global warming.

First Tropical Architecture in PH
Have you ever wondered why our “bahay kubo” is designed as such? The wide use of bamboo and nipa are due to the abundance of these materials around the area, and that these help with keeping the house cool. The house is elevated to protect the people inside from the dampness and humidity of the earth. The thatched roof may be made from bamboo cogon grass, anahaw, or nipa, and is steep to protect the dwellers from the harsh sun and torrential rains. The eaves are longer to provide shade. The bamboo floor is laid with just enough spaces between to allow natural air to enter through the floor.

Despite the fact that there was no architecture course available in that era, our ancestors have created a perfect example of Tropical Architecture. This is true of all our vernacular architecture, such as the Ifugao houses in the Cordillera region and the Ivatan houses in Batanes, among others. The reason for such is that our indigenous tribes respect nature and treat is as part of their everyday lives, designing their houses and other structures in accordance with how nature works.

Modern-day Tropical Architecture
Nowadays, many of our buildings and structures have forgotten the principles of Tropical Architecture, and have lost their local characteristics, leaving our cities vulnerable to disasters and uglification.

There is a growing trend for a Modern Tropical Architecture, as newer technology creates opportunity for better materials and durable structures. It retains its Asian characters with a hint of Western influences that people have adopted nowadays. While it still incorporates the use of natural materials, newer ones such as the use of reinforced concrete is added to the building design, which increases the firmness of the structure. Vernacular materials are processed in newer ways to become more affordable, and to allow people of this age to better appreciate our heritage.

Passive and active design
The most practical approach for Filipinos is to make use of the passive design, because it does not incur the extra cost pf buying technology and saves money for future home and building extension projects. The first passive design starts with the blueprint of the structure. One must already designate areas for future expansions and the orientation of windows and vents for wind circulation should be studied in detail.

One of the biggest costs for extension projects comes from the need to re-route or add additional plumbing, sewage, and water pressure. Oftentimes, if not done properly, the sewage clogs or there is a leak. That is why it important from the start to know how many bathrooms a home or building would need, and that the utilities are ready to accommodate extensions. The water line should be accessible, and the “poso” should not be enclosed.

Next are the orientation and the size of the windows. In the morning, the sun rises in the east, that is why most rooms are oriented in this direction so that the rays will flood the room once you wake up. Then, the next most used room during the afternoon is oriented to the movement of the sun so that it will maximize natural light. On the other hand, if the windows are too wide, the tendency is the increase of heat. The objective is to give an ample amount of natural light but not at the expense of uncomfortable room temperature.

The size of the room should also be proportionate to the number of dedicated light bulbs. Too many bulbs are unnecessarily costly. Too little light would be uncomfortable for reading and for work. According to a study by the US Green Building Council, research suggests that increased natural light exposure and air utility improves performance by 6 to 26 percent. Green buildings can boost employee activity.

Proper lighting and management of heat actually decreases the amount of energy that air-conditioning units need to regulate the temperature of the room. The active approach of buying inverter type air-conditioning can further decrease energy cost. The usual energy cost of air-conditioning per hour is about P15 to P30. An inverter decreases energy cost by 40 percent.

Tropical Architecture need not be confined to one look. Modern times call for newer technology applied to our buildings and structures, using the same principles. As planners and architects, we should remember the principles of the Tropical Architecture of our ancestors and create innovative solutions to relate these principles to a modern context for more green and sustainable architecture.

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