These 5 houses exemplify responses to our tropical climate

These practices strive to design for comfort in the face of oppressive heat, humidity, and rainfall of Southeast Asia

  • June 6, 2018

Southeast Asia and other regions in the tropics receive more direct sunlight and heat from the sun compared to the rest of the world because of the earth’s tilted position on its axis. Given this, the tropical climate has posed great challenges for architects in the region who strive to build for cool and comfort in the face of oppressive heat, humidity and rainfall. However, these five tropical houses exemplify responses for the climate.

1 | Nature as Protagonist

by ONG&ONG

With tree, water, wood, and stone, ONG&ONG creates a memorable home for nurturing a nature-loving family. The house is at a cul-de-sac in the residential estate of Bukit Timah. It is a home designed to teach children to appreciate a tree, relish fresh air, conserve nature’s gifts, enjoy each other’s company, and be considerate of others.

bluprint architecture tropical houses
Structural support for the second floor (near the pool) is clad in timber, with cabinets to accommodate the retractable glass walls of the ground floor living area. The light gray volume of concrete and wood holds three bedrooms and a family room. Above it, the attic clad in dark gray metal strips houses two more bedrooms and a gym. Photographed by Derek Swalwell.
bluprint architecture tropical houses
The view from above the glass-covered entrance walkway and turf-covered carport shows the two volumes of the house interlocked at a right angle with the spiral staircase at the junction. Photographed by Ed Simon.

With single-mindedness equal to none, Singapore has educated, motivated, and even legislated so its citizens would embrace eco-friendly and neighborly practices. This house is one of a growing number that shows they have succeeded.

The construction of the spiral staircase reveals the contractor’s ingenuity—two steel pipes were cut to form the inner and outer spirals. Photographed by Derek Swalwell.
Behind the second-floor landing, a pocket garden lets light in and warm air out, although with two sets of windows on either side of the family room, it is hardly needed. To the right of the pocket garden, a door leads to one of the daughter’s bedrooms. Sliding glass windows protect the interiors from rain when closing the screens is insufficient. Derek Swalwell.

READ MORE: ONG&ONG laser cuts shutters for Faber House

2 | He Saw the Light

by Fabian Tan

Fabian Tan utilizes some tropical design taboos but produces a house cooler and more comfortable than most in sweltering Kuala Lumpur. Contradicting requirements from the clients, a young couple, forced Tan to be creative. They wanted a well-lit and well-ventilated house closed off from the street for privacy, with four bedrooms and bathrooms on a 176.5-square meter lot.

bluprint architecture tropical houses fabian tan architects malaysia
View from the study. The ground floor corridor terminates at a 6-meter door, which opens to a pocket garden with a tree. Underneath the square skylight, the top leaves of a tree planted in the atrium peeks just above the second floor knee wall. The “roof deck” layout of the second floor allows the house to breathe. Wind enters through the sliding doors by the kitchen and crosses through to the balcony window by the living area—cross ventilation at its best.
bluprint architecture tropical houses fabian tan architects malaysia
Left: The entrance corridor leads to the atrium with the tree, where volumes containing the bedrooms and other areas of the house branch out. To the left are the guest rooms on the ground floor and the dining and kitchen areas on the second. To the right, the master bedroom and the living area above. Both are bridged by a walkway above the staircase. The tree is positioned underneath the atrium skylight, which casts an ethereal glow at noontime. “The tree is growing taller, it’ll reach the skylight one day,” says Tan. Right: The stair treads and the upstairs flooring are made of merbau wood, a dark-colored timber commonly used for outdoor construction. Tan used this material, together with the tree in the inner courtyard, to make the interior spaces feel like outdoor spaces, as Malaysia’s hot and humid weather discourages people from going outside.

Tan’s simple yet efficient solutions for natural lighting and ventilation have met the clients’ every requirement and then some. The house is an ode to simplicity, its lack of ornamentation turned into visual poetry. The fact that Tan designed such a well-lit house that breathes and stays cool using simple methods and materials is a feat. Tan’s compositional approach to the minimalist house shines a light on how to brighten up a home without leaving it at the mercy of the sun.

bluprint architecture tropical houses fabian tan architects malaysia

READ MORE: Palpable geometry in Fabian Tan Architect’s Knikno House

3 |  Tropical Takeover

by BUDJI+ROYAL Architecture+Design

Jerry and Celia Jiao refused to live hemmed in a box, so they called BUDJI+ROYAL to take them out of it. BUDJI+ROYAL had been brought in to undo work started by a previous design team. After inspecting the site and ascertaining what the clients truly wanted, Pineda and Layug agreed the architecture had to be a conversation with the trees and the site, and the interior design, a meditative retreat to relish Mother Nature’s gifts.

bluprint architecture tropical houses budji+royal
Low gray steps lead from the sidewalk to the front door shaded by a deep canopy. Elated their 490-square meter plot had over a dozen mature trees along the perimeter, homeowner Jerry Jiao, a green thumb, bought landscaping materials and with the help of his brother, Jojo Lazaro, filled in the gaps with a profusion of tropical plants.

The Venturi Effect and the differences in air pressure inside and outside the house ensure that—so long as the openings for air intake and outtake are open—fresh air will always flow through the home. It is tropical design at its elegant best, and every bit as contemporary as the fine Schema and Kenneth Cobonpue pieces that accentuate the home.

bluprint architecture tropical houses budji+royal
Left: A vintage Colnago Mexico road bike takes up prime space in the foyer. Right: A reading corner in the master bedroom basks in the morning light. By 9:30 a.m., the sun will be high enough for the eaves to shade the room. This is a good spot for viewing the stream just across the street.

Instead of trying to subjugate the setting, Layug and Pineda subscribe to harmonious co-existence with context. Their success comes not from denying the realities of living in the tropics, but by listening intently to what the site is trying to tell its stewards.

bluprint architecture tropical houses budji+royal
We first visited the house on a rainy November morning. Burrowed in a valley in Antipolo, mist hung in the air, held by trees whose tops formed canopies over the streets. Inside, sunlight streamed through the glass gaps in the trees. The house was still cool from the chilly night before. Standing in the foyer, one can immediately see and be seen by the rest of the house—the living and dining areas, the bar, and the stairway to the right. The master bedroom windows (upper left) overlooking the living area allow the Jiaos to see people’s comings and goings.

READ MORE: Panorama Drama: BUDJI+ROYAL’s M House

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4 | Built on Memories

by Leandro V. Locsin Partners

Leandro V. Locsin Partners reconstructs Casa de Nipa, an appropriation of vernacular architecture in the early twentieth century. Standing on a 845-square-meter footprint in the heart of an old sugarland, Casa de Nipa—as everyone in the community calls it—was a large thatched house. It was a structure with two wings wrapped around a central courtyard and a program that met modern needs for privacy and conviviality.

bluprint architecture tropical houses leandro v locsin partners
Casa de Nipa has been in Canlubang since the turn of the twentieth century. Its staggered roof profile is created by the media agua (canopies) above its windows. Below its top eaves are capiz (windowpane oyster) transom panels, which minimize the use of artificial light during the day. Surrounding trees provide additional shade during the day.
bluprint architecture tropical houses leandro v locsin partners
The living room as seen from the foyer of the side entrance. A courtyard straddles the kitchen wing (unseen) and the bedroom wing accessed via a hallway to the right of the genji screen mounted on the wall behind the sitting area. Instead of walls, the living room is partitioned by latticed wood arches, calados, between the structural columns.

Today, the house is under the care of the Locsins, grandchildren of Jose Yulo from his daughter Cecilia. The house had gone through innumerable maintenance cycles over the years and so in 2003, the family decided to reconstruct it using more durable materials. It was only apt that Leandro V. Locsin Partners headed the project. Temptations to alter the house’s configuration into something more contemporary were set aside. Locsin, staying true to his promise of “preserving the original intent and feel,” has safeguarded a prime example of the appropriation of vernacular architecture in the early twentieth century.

bluprint architecture tropical houses leandro v locsin partners
Left: The tukods, stays holding up the media agua, were original features of the house. “The old stays were much narrower and simpler but since the battens and rafters are now molave, three times the weight of the original lumber, we needed to beef things up. If you simply put a large tukod, however, it looks clunky so we took a little creative license. We reshaped it and injected a little flair. That’s part of the 5 percent that deviates from the original,” says Andy Locsin. Right: The side entrance on the north wing of Casa de Nipa is now the primary access point of the house. Closer to the access road, it was originally intended to be an entrance for those arriving by carriage, a porte-cochere. The steel trellis, retained from the original structure that covers the arrival is made of portions of the old railroad tracks of the sugar central.
bluprint architecture tropical houses leandro v locsin partners
A small garden gazebo overlooking a small pond and kids’ baseball field further down makes use of the traditional nipa roof. The lush landscape that surrounds the house is the masterpiece of the homeowner’s mother, who looked after the gardens since she lived in Casa de Nipa as a young girl. The ancient trees on the grounds are over a hundred years old.

READ MORE: The Emerson Coseteng House by National Artist Leandro Locsin

5 | Hugged by Nature

by BAAD Studio

BAAD Studio builds a house that thrives in its lush but challenging environment. The site is a dream for nature lovers but a challenge for builders. Located in a secluded village in Antipolo, a city on the slopes of a mountain range east of Manila, the lot and its surrounding lush with tall trees. The owners, a husband and wife with three children, gave BAAD a free hand with the design except for a few specific requests—they wanted a house that minimizes the use of electricity by making use of natural daylight and passive cooling.

bluprint architecture tropical houses baad studio
The owners wanted the house rich in texture, natural, and undisguised; nothing fake or contrived. Following the brief, BAAD Studio principals Benjamin Mendoza and An Bermejo chose beautifully rusting Corten steel panels to clad the streetside wall of the master bedroom on the second floor, and designed a sturdy perimeter gabion wall made of crushed Antipolo stones. They also conscientiously favored local construction materials for the house and native vegetation for the gardens.
bluprint architecture tropical houses baad studio
Teak-colored vertical fins measuring 2.85 by 0.45 meters were installed along the second-floor balcony on the north side. Meant to buffer high winds and flying debris during storms, the fins can be swiveled with a horizontal bar at railing height. BAAD initially wanted the fins to be made of solid wood but settled on lightweight hollow composite wood instead.

To preserve and enhance the accustomed lifestyle of the owners, BAAD strove to retain the site’s natural gifts and celebrate them in the design. The thick, tall trees on the north and west sides would serve as wind and sun barriers. The foliage on the south side is low in height, exposing the house to wind and sun. The street is on the east, making it the logical side for the front façade.

bluprint architecture tropical houses baad studio
The two wings are connected by a narrow massing on the south side, which contains the staircase with narra steps. The floor inclines upwards due to the western wing’s higher elevation from the ground. The family members get a kick sliding down the ramp in cloth slippers they wear indoors.
bluprint architecture tropical houses baad studio
As wind passes freely through the jalousie windows, the rooms in the upper level can get really cold in the evenings, eliminating the need for air-conditioning. Connecting the upper floors on the north side is a metal walkway shaded by two-meter eaves and wood composite fins to protect the rooms from rain, sunlight, and strong winds.

The house wraps around a young tree in a U-shape, opening up the north side of the structure with glass louver windows and gardens. Floor-to-ceiling jalousie windows line the tree-hugging sides of the house. Jalousies were also used as clerestory windows in bedrooms, bathrooms, the stairwell corridor, and other parts of the house to enable maximum airflow and for light to reach the interiors.

READ MORE: BAAD Studio designs a house that really, really breathes


Original articles first published on BluPrint Tropical Architecture for the 21st Century Vol. 1 2017. Edits were made for BluPrint online.
1 Written by Judith Torres. Photographed by Derek Swalwell, and Ed Simon of Studio 100.
2 Written by Miguel R. Llona. Photographed by Eiffel Chong.
3 Written by Judith Torres. Photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100.
4 Written by Angel Yulo. Photographed by Ed Simon of Studio 100.
5 Written by Miguel R. Llona and Judith Torres. Photographed by Ed Simon.