Feb 23, 2022

Through Sun, Wind, and Rain: Modern Tropical Architecture in the Philippines

In the Philippines, which is geographically located near the equator, the weather can be scorching hot during the summer season or confronted by torrential rains brought about by typhoons and the southwest monsoon (habagat). 

Unfortunately, except for a few places such as Batanes, the country has always had traditional house designs and construction methods that are not enough to withstand such extreme weather conditions.  

With climate change an all-too-real situation with its long-term effects on the environment, more people should be aware that although most house designs look good on the outside, they should always serve the purpose of providing comfort for the residents. 

Houses in cold climates should naturally be designed to keep people warm. Conversely, in a tropical climate like the Philippines, houses should be designed to keep the residents cool and comfortable. 

That said, in this article we’ll be talking about tropical architecture, its importance in the Philippines, and the design elements of tropical architecture that you can incorporate into your home. Let’s get started!

What is Tropical Architecture? 

Tropical architecture is a field that creates various architectural design solutions that cater to certain climatic conditions of a region. These design solutions are commonly called climate-responsive designs. 

In a deeper sense, tropical architecture is more than just steep roofs, wood and timber materials, and high ceilings. It is a strategic manipulation of natural sunlight, ventilation, and other natural external factors to create a conducive and thermally comfortable living space that adapts to the tropical climate.  

Tropical Architecture and its Relevance to the Philippines  

The Philippines is considered a tropical country highly characterized by high temperature, humidity, and abundant rainfall. The country’s climate is commonly categorized into two major seasons: the wet season, which runs from June to November; and the dry season, which runs from December to May. 

The country experiences both extremes with a mean temperature of 28 degrees Celsius during the warm season, 26 degrees Celsius during the wet or cold season, and an annual temperature of 26 degrees Celsius.  

Despite these existing climate conditions, people still tend to overlook these when buying or constructing a house. Most of the time, people prioritize looking for exterior design inspirations on the internet without considering the most crucial factors: the functionality, quality, and comfort of the internal spaces. 

Thus, the houses may look beautiful on the outside, but most of these so-called modern and glass-enclosed abodes that are common nowadays are not actually fit for the country’s hot and humid climate. 

Aside from sacrificing practicality because of the additional costs, it is also not sustainable to rely on mechanical ventilation systems and other mechanisms in achieving thermal comfort to address the climate conditions of the country.  

First Tropically Designed House in the Philippines: The Bahay Kubo  

The “bahay kubo” is a native dwelling that serves as an icon and a cultural heritage of the Filipinos’ craftsmanship. Its name originates from the Spanish word “cubo” meaning “cube,” which reflects its usual plan layout, and “bahay,” which is the Filipino term for a house. So literally, a cube house. 

The bahay kubo is commonly made of lightweight indigenous materials such as bamboo and nipa, which were readily available in the early times (and are still in wide use now for huts).  

Bahay kubo is perfect for the tropical climate of the Philippines because of its passive cooling features achieved through large window openings, a huge overhang that extends beyond the walls, bamboo slats flooring, and its elevation from the ground through posts and stilts. These allow air to freely circulate around the house and provide comfort to its users.  

Parts of a Bahay Kubo

  • Sibi – Commonly known as eaves, sibi is the extension of the roof beyond the wall and acts as a natural sun-shading device and as a cover for the window openings during rains.  
  • Balangkas – The wooden framework of the roof, walls, and floorings. It holds the exterior elements of the bahay kubo.  
  • Batalan – A space adjacent to the kitchen area and is used mainly for bathing and washing the dishes. 
  • Bulwagan – The main space of the house. It is commonly referred to as the living area. 
  • Silid – The bedroom or sleeping area.  
  • Silong – An enclosed space under the bahay kubo where livestock, harvests, and tools are stored.  
  • Sagang – Railings made of bamboo for the enclosed porch area.  
  • Hagdan – The main access to the house, what we call stairs.  It is commonly made of wood or bamboo. 
  • Banguerahan or banggera – An elevated counter or shelf projecting outside the kitchen area and is used to dry and store kitchen utensils.  
  • Sahig – Evenly spaced bamboo strips that serve as the flooring of the bahay kubo. It is one of the main passive cooling features of the house, allowing air to seep through and circulate.  
  • Bubong – The topmost covering of a bahay kubo that serves as a protection from sun and rain. It is commonly made of cogon or nipa.  
  • Dingding – Wall siding that encloses the bahay kubo. It can be made from various materials but is commonly made with sawali (woven bamboo).  
  • Haligi – The main foundation of a bahay kubo that supports all the other elements, from the roof to the flooring.  

Design Elements of Tropical Architecture  

Passive Design 

Passive design is a set of design strategies that utilize air flow, strategic spatial planning, building orientation, and form manipulation to control heat gains and maximize natural ventilation. This design minimizes the use of mechanical ventilation systems such as air-conditioning in creating interior spaces that provide thermal comfort for the users.  

Air Flow Patterns 

In the Philippines, there are two natural prevailing wind systems: the Northeast Monsoon (amihan) from November to February and the Southwest Monsoon (habagat) from July to September. There are also the so-called trade winds, which are winds in the tropics that generally come from the east. 

These wind systems, together with external factors that create different air flow patterns, are some of the main considerations in site planning and building orientation. In site planning, building massing is usually oriented perpendicular to the general direction of these winds to maximize air flow, thus creating circulation from the outside into the interior spaces. 

Cross Ventilation 

Cross ventilation is a natural method of letting fresh air freely circulate from the outside into the building through openings and wall partition manipulations. Through cross ventilation, cool air passes through the spaces in the interior and pushes out stale and warm air either through a vent or other openings such as louver windows.  

Natural ventilation is essential in tropical architecture because natural prevailing winds help in moderating internal temperatures and creating air movement. 

In countries with extreme heat such as the Philippines, heat gains are one of the common problems encountered, especially during the summer months. Letting natural air pass through the interior spaces helps in maintaining a certain level of thermal comfort that is conducive to a relaxed atmosphere for house dwellers. 

Openings and Window Types 

Louver type  

Louver is one of the most common types of windows in tropical regions, with one of the highest percentages of ventilation opening. They are designed to keep moisture out and regulate airflow and light penetration through their angled slats that are either fixed or operable depending on their location. 

Louver-type windows come in different variations — horizontal or vertical, and are usually made of wood, glass, aluminum, or metal. 

Wood Slats 

Timber is a common building material utilized in tropical architecture because of its decorative element for the exterior of the house. It is essentially used for sun-shading purposes and as an alternative for full wall partitions. 

Instead of solid concrete walls, wood slats are used to help air flow freely within the house since they let air pass through. They also add character to a space if you are someone who likes some pattern and wood accents to break a boring-looking area.  

Decorative Bricks/Blocks 

For those who do not fancy an all-wood house, decorative blocks can be an alternative to accentuate a house instead of a plain opening or windows. Commonly used for partitions and exterior walls, this type of opening creates a different sense of style for your house while it provides ample shading and air circulation. 

There are several types of patterns that you can choose from depending on the style that you want to achieve. Such patterns add character through their shadow play whenever sunlight passes through them.  

Full-length Accordion Doors and Windows 

These doors and windows are commonly seen in tropical houses, especially in locations with scenic views. With their functionality and flexibility, they are usually used in open-plan houses with large courtyards and gardens. 

These large operable doors and windows function as barrier breakers, making spaces more adaptive to changes and movements inside the house. Their full-length height also lets enough sunlight and ventilation pass through, creating a certain connection between the interior and the exterior spaces.  

Natural Lighting  

Maximizing natural light is one of the foundations of tropical architecture. Natural light plays a vital role not just for thermal comfort and visual ambiance, but it also affects the users’ circadian rhythm (also known as the body’s 24-hour natural adaptation and response with the environment, which includes physiological and behavioral rhythms). 

Circadian rhythms are usually affected by varying light and dark, thus regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle (commonly known as the body clock).  

Other Benefits of Natural Lighting 

One of the most common benefits of natural lighting is energy conservation. The proper use of natural light can reduce a significant amount of energy consumption. 

Natural light provides better illumination for interior spaces, making them appear larger and more inviting. Scientific research says that spending time in spaces with natural lighting improves overall physiological well-being. 

Planning and Orientation 

Strategic planning and orientation play a vital role in tropical architecture. In countries with hot climates, the primary conditions revolve around creating designs with varying forms and massing to create ample open breathing spaces and access to natural light and ventilation.  

Building Forms 

Houses with large building footprints tend to have higher heat gain, thus adding to internal and external surface temperature. As a solution, building forms are manipulated in ways that would not make the structure look like a massive block so that more spaces have access to natural light and ventilation.  

Orientation   

Orientation, on the other hand, is the strategic placement of a building on a site. Properly oriented houses maximize natural light and let wind flow penetrate the interior spaces. Proper orientation also provides better views for locations with natural, scenic surroundings.  

Space Planning  

Open planning is an ideal space layout for tropical houses. With the elimination of excessive walls and partitions, spaces appear to be larger through the diffusion of light. Air can also flow freely within spaces in an open plan layout since there are minimal walls that act as barriers. It also makes spaces multi-functional, making them flexible for rearranging depending on your current needs. 

Sun-shading Devices 

In certain conditions where harsh amounts of sunlight are inevitable, sun-shading devices are used. These are elements or systems that reduce or eliminate light permitted into a building.  

Shadow Angles 

When natural sunlight hits a wall surface, it creates various lengths of shadow angles depending on the sun’s altitude and the time of the day. These shadow angles are used to determine the direction, orientation, and length of sun-shading devices to be used to regulate the amount of sunlight that would penetrate a building.  

Brise-Soleil  

Sun-shading devices or brise-soleil are architectural elements that function as a sun breaker to reduce heat gain by deflecting excess sunlight. These sun-shading devices commonly come in vertical or horizontal blades, but there are various other patterns and designs to choose from should you go for an added aesthetic element to the exterior of a house.  

Glazing  

Double panel glass is used when huge glass windows or walls are unavoidable and sun-shading devices are not ideal. It is a type of glazing with two-sandwiched glass and an air gap in between that cuts heat loss or gain by up to 30% compared to single-panel glass. This type of glazing creates better insulation, thus reducing internal temperature.  

Pitched Roof and Large Overhangs  

As commonly seen in a bahay kubo, a pitched roof with large overhangs is one of the common elements of tropical architecture. Pitched roofs help regulate internal temperature by letting warm air rise and seep through above, while large overhangs act as a natural sun-shading device and a barrier from heavy rainfall. 

With its slope, a pitched roof is also ideal during the rainy season since it lets rainwater run down freely, preventing moisture buildup.  

Building Materials 

Building materials often used for tropical architecture are those that are readily available and abundant in the area or have been a part of history and culture. 

Despite the advancement in construction methods and availability of new materials in the market, the indigenous materials remain as some of the most sustainable since these are locally sourced, minimizing the carbon footprint in production and transportation.  

Bamboo  

Commonly referred to as the “poor man’s lumber,” bamboo has been widely used for several centuries. With its versatility, tensile strength, and durability, bamboo offers many different possibilities in usage such as furniture, wall accents, and cladding. 

And thanks to continuous research and modern technologies, it has been made possible for bamboo to be used as a major construction material through soaking in a special solution that preserves the material for several years, making it highly resistant to damage, fire, and termite infestation.  

Wood/Timber  

Because of its abundance, wood is one of the most common building materials in tropical architecture. Aside from its natural feel and pleasant appearance, wood is also a versatile and durable building material. With a variety of species available, wood can fit any aesthetic, design, and functionality.  

Here are some other benefits of wood/timber in construction: 

  • Wood has natural acoustic properties. It absorbs sound waves and minimizes echo, thus  reducing noise levels for added comfort.  
  • Although wood is a lightweight material, it also has a high tensile strength, making it durable and easy to work with.   
  • There are thousands of species to choose from, with varied properties, color, pattern, and natural beauty that would fit any design you are aiming for. 
  • Unlike steel, wood is a noncorrosive material, which makes it ideal for houses with salty air such as those near a coastal area.  
  • Wood is naturally safe since it comes from natural sources. It is free from toxic pollutants that are harmful to people and the environment.  

Nipa/Cogon 

Nipa and cogon have also been an evident part of Philippines history and indigenous architecture. They are especially found in coastal areas such as the Ivatan houses in Batanes. 

Used in steep roofs, these local materials help in maintaining a low temperature in the interior by letting warm air seep through its gaps. They also add a distinctive character to your home. However, they are also highly flammable. This is where certain restrictions in its use come in handy. 

Vegetation and Landscaping 

Plants and other landscape elements are commonly used to beautify exterior open spaces to make them more inviting. Gardens, courtyards, and other outdoor spaces are designed with various soft and hardscape elements to serve as places for gathering. But more than their usual function, landscape and vegetation play a bigger role in tropical architecture and design.  

Here are some of the benefits of plants and trees in achieving thermal comfort:  

  • Trees with large canopies provide ample shade, blocking almost 90% of the heat from reaching various surfaces.  
  • More green spaces on your property instead of concrete pavements helps in reducing heat gain. Plants have natural heat-absorbing qualities compared with concrete pavements that absorb and retain heat, thus keeping surface temperature low.  
  • Plants are also called natural air purifiers as they take in carbon dioxide and send out oxygen through photosynthesis. This helps in keeping indoor and even outdoor air quality high.  
  • Plants can also act as decorative accents inside and outside by integrating them on green walls. With added functionality for sun-shading, they block out unwanted sun radiation, purify the air, and regulate internal temperature.  

Examples of Modern Tropical Homes in the Philippines  

Photo Credit : Real Living PH

Coco Martin’s Tropical-Inspired Mansion

This 2,000-square-meter mansion is a tropical luxury haven situated right in the heart of the city. Although it may not be as evident in the exterior, especially on the façade, its major design inspiration is tropical. 

Upon entering, visitors will be welcomed by tall trees, lush vegetation, and a waterfall feature that mimics the elements in nature. Vegetation helps regulate internal temperature by providing shade and absorbing excess heat, while the water feature helps cool down the air through an evaporative process. 

Tall windows and doors and a high ceiling help illuminate the interior spaces with natural lighting while providing views of the garden outside. Open planning is also adapted to create an uninterrupted flow of air within the living, kitchen, and dining spaces going to the veranda, which makes the interior look spacious and inviting.  

Through the large windows and operable doors, the interior spaces are connected to the exterior, leading to the backyard garden with its resort-like amenities. Outdoor verandas are covered with long roof overhangs to provide shade against the heat of the sun. 

The outdoor garden features an open gazebo that is situated above a koi pond, a swimming pool, a whirlpool bath, and a lone-standing cabana that serves as an outdoor guesthouse.  

The koi pond, swimming pool, and the abundance of softscape elements such as plants, trees, and grass function as natural cooling elements that lower air and surface temperature, while adding to the house’s overall modern tropical aesthetic. 

Photo Credit: Real Living PH

Andi Eigenmann’s Tropical House in Siargao

Andi Eigenmann’s newly constructed house in Siargao Island is a perfect example of modern tropical design in a rural setting near the coastal area.  

Andi’s house became viral because of its modern interpretation of the traditional bahay kubo. One of the key features is the use of a traditional thatched cogon roof, which perfectly blends with its surroundings and the architecture in the area.

An open grand staircase with high ceilings can also be seen at the center,  breaking up the massiveness of the house and serving as one of its main focal points for natural ventilation. The main materials used are wood, cogon, and bare concrete. It exudes a modern yet cozy tropical ambience that is perfect for the island’s vibe.  

Building a Tropical Home: Factors 

If you are looking to purchase or construct a property in the Philippines with a tropical design in mind, the best locations would be in regions with mountainous landscapes such as Tagaytay and Rizal. With varying terrain, natural features, and lower temperature due to their altitude, these are ideal places to build a tropical-design home. Additionally, they are quite near Metro Manila. 

Here are the factors you need to consider when building your own tropical home. 

Varying Terrains 

In an architectural sense, houses situated in mountainous lands with varying terrains may be a bit challenging to design than those on flat lands where you can construct your dream house with ease. However, the variation and natural features of residential lots up in the hills or mountains can offer a wider range of possibilities through strategic planning.  

For one, building forms would not be limited to just massive, box-type houses. Because of the limitations in land manipulations and excavations due to sustainable reasons, building forms would not be as massive, creating more opportunities to maximize the use of different floor levels, elevations, and building orientation. 

It thus creates a more interesting design and site planning that maximizes the natural views, provides sufficient openings, and creates open breathing spaces with minimal disturbance in the natural terrain of the land.  

Natural Vegetation and Landscape  

There is just something comforting about being surrounded by plants and trees. Together with a tropical home, vegetation creates a certain sense of calmness due to the green color that is naturally soothing to the eyes. 

Plants also have this natural power of helping decrease stress levels and anxiety, improving one’s mood and overall well-being. They help in improving overall air quality with their natural air filter while mitigating heat gain. Plants also help decrease air and surface temperatures by providing shade and deflecting the radiation from the sun.  

Lesser Noise and Air Pollution  

Various pollutants such as noise and air quality affect the overall condition of a house you want to live in. If you choose to buy a property or construct a tropical home in almost remote areas, you get to have less exposure to these pollutants since you are living away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  

In a tropical country like the Philippines, it is important to factor in natural conditions when looking to buy or construct a house. These conditions affect the level of comfort for your house to make it conducive to live in. 

If you are considering buying a tropical home for you and your family, let us help you find one that would suit your needs here at enta.ph

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