How Traditional Design Can Protect Modern Homes from the Elements
Discover how we could sustainably regulate temperature and manage humidity using simple techniques from the past
It’s possible traditional architecture holds some of the answers. Historical techniques often represent less embodied energy, adapt to the local geographical context, and make the best use of local materials – so the thinking goes. But can traditional techniques really suit modern tastes and lifestyles?
Here, we examine how Houzz architects around the world have worked traditional techniques into their modern-day designs, and explore some of the lessons we can take from global architectural traditions when it comes to regulating temperature and managing humidity. By no means exhaustive, this list presents a taste of the magic that can happen when old informs new.
Thermal control is in some ways the holy grail of modern sustainable design. It was primarily this aspect of construction that was targeted by sustainable architecture standards such as Passivhaus and the RT2012 regulation in France. However, humans have been solving the problem of how to regulate temperature at home for much longer.
Thick walls The most basic technique? Extremely thick walls to separate inside and out. And it doesn’t get more basic than a cave dwelling, with the stone walls of the cave itself ensuring a controlled temperature inside.
In Spain, cave dwellings are being rediscovered and adapted to modern life, including the one pictured here, designed by UMMOestudio. In these caves in Andalusia, the natural shielding keeps the temperature stable at 15°C to 19°C, despite local temperatures ranging from 0°C in the winter to 40°C in the summer.
Architects Enrico Maria Cicchetti and Francesco Palmisano added a very modern glass cube entrance to this complex of five renovated trulli.
In fact, vegetated roofs play an important role in heat control on a larger scale, by reducing the urban heat island effect in cities. This refers to the rise of ambient temperatures in urban areas due to an overabundance of hard, reflective paved surfaces.
Green roofs can also address another problem: biodiversity. The Wave House (pictured), designed by Patrick Nadeau with a green roof by Ecovegetal, has been covered with sedums, grasses, thyme, lavender and other small perennials and aromatic plants. These plants also provide food and shelter for insects and other wildlife.
Thatched roofs are also durable and can last for decades without needing to be replaced, though they require regular maintenance. Möhring Architects used thatch on both the roof and walls of this home in Germany.
On Ibiza, pagesas similar to the one pictured here by architect Marià Castelló would traditionally have been insulated with Phoenician juniper beams, layered with Phoenician juniper chips (tegell) and dried Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass that’s found in abundance in the area.
Fun fact: Posidonia oceanica, and the ecosystem it creates, is the reason for the stunning clear blue waters that make the Balearic islands a tourist favourite.
Rammed earth has high thermal mass and acts as an excellent insulator, as well as helping with moisture control. And this is on top of low embedded carbon in its production and transportation, particularly if soil from the site itself is used.
Pictured here is a rammed earth building in Auroville, an “experimental micropolis” of rammed earth construction built on the border of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, India, in 1968. The town serves as a centre for teaching about and experimentation with the architectural applications of rammed earth.
Of course, other methods of heating and cooling go hand-in-hand with insulation. Controlling how light enters and heats a building – both to take advantage of that heat in winter and to minimise it in summer or in hot climates – is a basic tenet of passive construction.
Extended eaves In Japan, the play of light and shadow is central to traditional architectural forms. The engawa, for example, is a porch-like indoor-outdoor area; the floors of the indoor spaces are extended to the outside, and covered by overhanging eaves. An engawa controls the amount of light that enters into the home, thereby helping to keep the interior space cool. It also keeps rain away from the building envelope.
The engawa pictured here, created by Cubo Design Architect, faithfully reproduces the proportions of one described in a 16th century Japanese text. This engawa is part of the traditional Japanese wing of a home that also incorporates French influences and contemporary design.
In addition to limiting the amount of light that enters the home, they create a comfortable place for owners to escape indoor heat and take advantage of ambient breezes.
Ornate screens, called jali in India and mashrabiya in much of the Arab world, are used to control light while allowing breezes through.
Spasm Architects designed this jali screen out of Corten steel for a home in Ahmedabad, India. “The corners of the building are perforated in patterns of trees and branches, a nod to the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque jali, an architectural wonder of Ahmedabad,” says architect Sangeeta Merchant, who worked on the project.
In Japan, tsuboniwa are small gardens, traditionally built into internal courtyards, but which can really be built into any unused urban space.
“I don’t think we need to divide it into Western or Japanese,” award-winning Japanese landscape architect Kazuyuki Ishihara says. “We can look at [tsuboniwa] as a way to make use of small, unused spaces, turning them into green spaces. We don’t need to use Japanese plants specifically, but rather local plants native to the region.”
Another component of a healthy and safe home is keeping water out – both in terms of flood-proofing and in managing humidity, which can destroy materials and encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi that can be harmful to health.
Building on stilts is one method that’s found around the world. Queenslanders, a traditional residential architecture in Queensland and other parts of Australia with a tropical climate, were built on stilts called ‘stumps’ to keep out flood waters and torrential rain.
Although its lack of plumbing made it difficult to convert this trabucco into permanent housing, studio zero85 turned it into a multipurpose room and a space for community concerts.
Traditional architecture offers a variety of creative approaches to keeping water away from the building envelope and allowing construction to breathe – using locally available, sustainable materials. Thatch, discussed above, is one.
Wood shingles Wood shingles are another, traditionally used as a facade material in Russia, Japan, Scandinavia and elsewhere.
Wood is, of course, a renewable resource, and involves less embedded carbon than materials such as concrete. Wood shingles can last decades, depending on the species, climate and quality of upkeep. Today, fungicidal and fire-retardant treatments can help extended their lifespans even more.
This lightweight material is also suitable for multistorey construction, as demonstrated by this eight-storey building designed by Gert Wingårdh and built by wooden construction specialist Folkhem in Sweden.
Rammed earth Clay and rammed earth, already discussed above for their thermal mass advantages, can also help to regulate humidity.
In Italy, lime mortar was also adapted to a waterproof flooring material called cocciopesto or opus signinum. Going back to Roman architecture, the material is made of broken tiles and bricks mixed with lime mortar. It’s not only waterproof, but also a good way to reuse existing materials. It was used to great effect in this masseria, or farmhouse, restored by Studio Talent, where it was even used in the shower.
The best of both worlds
These examples demonstrate the beautiful synergy that happens when traditional knowledge is incorporated into modern builds. The key is taking the best from both tradition and innovation and putting them together.
Of course, as societies and lifestyles change, so do our needs in the home. A Japanese engawa, for example, ensures thermal comfort in summer, but makes for a very cold interior when traditionally paired with paper screens.
Historically, this was addressed through a localised approach to heating: cosy clothes and small sources of heat to warm people, not spaces. Modern homeowners are unlikely to find this lifestyle comfortable, but they can solve this problem by pairing an engawa with glass sliding doors instead. This is how the problem was addressed in the home on Kashikojima island, pictured earlier.
Inspired by some of these approaches? A professional who understands energy, heat, airflow and humidity can help adapt these valuable traditions to modern builds.
Which of these ideas appeals to you? Share your thoughts in the Comments.