Conference PaperPDF Available

Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to thermal comfort

Abstract

Recent climate projections suggest that tropical regions are very likely to warm more than the average global temperature rise. For the 40% of the world's population in these regions, it is imperative the building industries come up with appropriate building design solutions for achieving thermal comfort. This study draws on the history of architecture, and the remarkable indigenous building techniques, which if properly adapted could make a great contribution to energy conservation and thermal comfort. This study conducts a review of the building morphology in four tropical regions (the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands). It includes a review of spatial composition, building techniques, forms and materials based on information ranging from early explorers to recent literature. Despite the diversity in continents, creeds, and cultures within the tropics, each region appears to have come independently to similar solutions in their struggle with similar environmental challenges whilst establishing basic regional characteristics. The paper concludes by adapting selected indigenous building solutions for improving thermal comfort in the tropical regions.
J. Zuo, L. Daniel, V. Soebarto (eds.), Fifty years later: Revisiting the role of architectural science in design and practice:
50th International Conference of the Architectural Science Association 2016, pp. 617–626. ©2016, The Architectural
Science Association and The University of Adelaide.
Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to
thermal comfort
Tamaraukuro Tammy Amasuomo and George Baird
Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
tammy.amasuomo@vuw.ac.nz, george.baird@vuw.ac.nz
Abstract: Recent climate projections suggest that tropical regions are very likely to warm more than the
average global temperature rise. For the 40% of the world’s population in these regions, it is imperative
the building industries come up with appropriate building design solutions for achieving thermal comfort.
This study draws on the history of architecture, and the remarkable indigenous building techniques, which
if properly adapted could make a great contribution to energy conservation and thermal comfort. This
study conducts a review of the building morphology in four tropical regions (the Middle East, Africa, the
Caribbean and the Pacific Islands). It includes a review of spatial composition, building techniques, forms
and materials based on information ranging from early explorers to recent literature. Despite the diversity
in continents, creeds, and cultures within the tropics, each region appears to have come independently
to similar solutions in their struggle with similar environmental challenges whilst establishing basic
regional characteristics. The paper concludes by adapting selected indigenous building solutions for
improving thermal comfort in the tropical regions.
Keywords: Tropical regions, Traditional and contemporary architecture, Thermal comfort
1. Introduction
The first consideration when addressing the architecture of the tropics is the climate and the prevailing
conditions that define the habitation in the region. The tropical climate zone is characterized by the
tropical rainforest, tropical monsoon and tropical wet and dry savannah. According to the Koppen-Geiger
climate classification, it is a region with a relatively constant temperature of 18oC and above throughout
the year with seasonal variations dominated by rainfall (Linacre, 1997). The building response to thermal
comfort within the tropics has evolved over time from the primitive era of natural conditioning to the
present day reliance on mechanical cooling systems. According to Fitch and Branch (1960) primitive
architecture revealed a commendable level of performance when judged in the light of modern building
technologies. However, traditional methods and materials had disadvantages such as low durability, poor
technology and fire risk in terms of their thatched roofs and wooden structures (Mariarty, 1976), but were
particularly successful in the terms of energy conservation and thermal regulation. While traditional
methods and materials are much better suited to the tropical climate than contemporary methods and
materials their durability needs to be enhanced. The comparative study presented below will review the
618 T. T. Amasuomo, G. Baird
architectural dynamics in the tropics, provide an insight into the thermal adaptation techniques from both
eras, and recommend potential building design solutions. In order to achieve this goal, the general
components, structure and methods in four tropical regions are analysed to provide an insight into the
building morphology of the sub-groups. The main purpose of this is to provide an explicit understanding
of the similarities that exists within the different tropical regions and the factors that influenced them,
including religious, colonial, socio-cultural and physiographical influences; and to better understand their
transfiguration and applicability in modern tropical architecture over the course of time. Reference will
also be made to hybrid modern buildings within the tropics that have adapted traditional methods. This
analysis will enable some implications to be drawn and recommendations made for optimal use of
relevant thermally responsive traditional methods in modern buildings.
2. The Middle East
Islam has always had a profound influence on the architectural morphology of the Middle East. The
traditional Islamic-Arab house had every form and space shaped by the people’s habits and tradition. The
spatial composition was strictly defined by the particular role of men and women, with the public areas
like the courtyard or sahn a domain for men and the private and family areas for women (El-Shorbagy,
2010). The symbolic religious and cultural emphasis on visual privacy was an essential element that
influenced the building morphology and how it adapted to the hot-arid conditions. The building
configuration had an inward-oriented composition with the courtyard as the focal point and plain external
walls to prevent people from looking inside, however the courtyard provided natural ventilation and
lighting into the building (see Figure 1). The resultant climate moderated and complemented the religious
need for privacy (Bekleyen, 2011). These religious principles also governed the way of life and affected
the built form in other tropical regions like Africa (Nigeria, Chad, Tunisia, Morocco, etc.) where Islam is
practised.
2.1. The spatial composition
The advent of Islam found the sahn or courtyard concept an appropriate fit for its religious and social
demands of privacy as well as providing a satisfactory response to the climate challenges of the hot and
dry climate of the tropical region (El-Shorbagy, 2010). The spatial composition with the courtyard as the
focal point permitted a layout that reduced the area of peripheral surface exposed to solar radiation with
the circulation space from the majaz (entrance) shaded from the sunlight. The rectangular area
(courtyard) is thus open to the sky, providing sufficient lighting and ventilation to the interior space as
well as create a pattern of light and shade (Omidreza, 2012). A large number of courtyard houses are still
in existence in the older districts of Cairo and in most regions within the tropics.
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Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to thermal comfort
Figure 1: A general scheme of the courtyard thermal behaviour (Author, 2016).
2.2. The building technique
The malkaf or windcatcher is an ancient architectural structure like a shaft rising above the building or in
some cases mounted on the roof of the building (see Figure 2) with directional openings facing the
prevailing wind often in combination with water containers for evaporative cooling as the air comes into
the interior spaces (El-Shorbagy, 2010; Sulaiman, 2012). It traps the fresh air from outside and channels it
down into the interior of the building. They were design and constructed to adapt to the local wind
direction. The hot air escaping from the interior spaces was replaced by fresh air coming through the
malkaf thus creating air movement regardless of the external air speed. In addition, the malkaf towering
over the building served as a visual screening device preventing people outside from veiwing into the
building (Scudo, 1988). This cognitive mode of cooling was based on a deep pre-scientific understanding
of the air movement by stack effect and by wind.
Figure 2: The Malkaf or Windcatcher system shown for wind direction from left to right adapted from
(El-Shorbagy, 2010).
620 T. T. Amasuomo, G. Baird
The salsabil, usually situated in the middle of the courtyard, was an early exemplar of what is referred
to in contemporary times as the fountain (Fathy, 1972). The salsabil basin depicted a geometrical
projection of a dome supported by squishes. It is important to point out the relationship between the
fountain and courtyard. The entire rhythm according to Gianni (1988) was a microcosm linking, in space
and time, land and sky through the symbolic representation of each component. The courtyard open to
the sky is drawn down into intimate contact with the interior spaces by reflecting it in a basin. Thus nature
and space are brought into the house by their transposition into architectural forms and through
symbolism (Scudo, 1988). The fountain not only served as a symbolic representation of culture and
religion but also functioned as an evaporative cooler during the day when solar radiation was profuse.
The Islamic-Arab culture disseminated this complex knowledge throughout the regions of Islam.
3. Africa
The complexity shrouding African architecture is due to the enormous variety of climates and
environments that influenced building culture and settlement patterns all over the region (Elleh, 1997).
This heterogeneity makes it impossible to speak of a typical African architecture. Even so, locally sourced
natural building materials and typologies are ubiquitous in the region. Folkers (2010) provides a cour and
case illustration to describe the typology the cour served as the heart of the compound with the cases
as the independent structures peripheral to the cour. The regional building culture is tailored to the
environment in ingenious ways, as a result of the distribution of natural building materials and climate
(Folkers, 2010). The morphology was a manifestation of spiritual beliefs, a balance with nature, and a
cognizance of community inclusion and centrality.
3.1. The building form
The spatial composition of the African house was a reflection of spiritual beliefs, community and family
life. This was made possible by integrating family assemblies and worship spaces, as well as sacred spaces
apportioned for deities. In most part of western Africa the shrines were open to the central courtyard,
with the sidewalls open to enhance visibility of the figurine (Denyer, 1978). The taxonomy of house forms
included round, oval and rectangular plans, free standing with diameters greater or equal to height, often
with verandas, and with building units arranged in clusters around the courtyard. The courtyard offered
a wealth of opportunity for seasonal and daily migration with the shady recesses serving as buffer zones
(DeKay, 2014). Folkers (2010) described the African house as organic and cosmogonic, designed to
accommodate the time cycle of generations all tied to the cour also known as the courtyard (see Figure
5). The emphasis on fortification and protection inevitably also had an effect of the spatial composition.
A paradigm is the Kasbah, the thick walls of which evolved out of defensive necessity, and insulated the
interior from excessive thermal variations (Elleh, 1997).
3.2. The building techniques and materials
Climatic conditions stimulated two basic necessities: thermal insulation and ventilation, each of which
was met by judicious selection of locally available natural materials. In most parts of equatorial Africa, the
thick-walled timber and mud houses were predominant. This technique produced a cage-like structure,
expanding as it sets and strengthening the structure (Beswick, 2010).
Indigenous builders developed ingenious ways of shading parts of the building façade whilst
simultaneously increasing the radiation of heat stored by the walls during the day. In most part of Africa,
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Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to thermal comfort
very thick thatched roofs were used to insulate the internal space from solar radiation. Ventilation was
provided by the erection of lattice like walls enabling air movement through the interior (Dmochowski,
1988). In northern Africa, the tent was preeminent due to its functionality and practical adaptation to the
climate and nomadism, however as nomadism died out, there was a need for more permanent structures.
As a result of these changes, the Kasbah an indigenous housing style in northern Africa was developed
during the mid-7th centuries. This was made of stone or earth (clay) with the interiors well furnished with
glazed stones and tiles (Elleh, 1997). The thick stone walls provided the desirable time-lag effect in
response to the low nocturnal temperatures. In the tropical rainforest regions, houses were built of
indigenous bamboo and decorative tied mats which were used for the roofs, doors and walls. This system
was an adaptation to the constant rainfall of over 2500mm/year (Denyer, 1978). The bamboo provided
insulation to heat gain, whilst aiding airflow due to its porous nature.
4. The Caribbean
In the Caribbean, architectural innovation was influenced by tradition, the availability of building materials
and the climate. The region had a particularly rich blend of West African, North and South American,
European and indigenous Antillian heritage (Edwards, 1983).
4.1. Early building materials and techniques
The earliest dwellings in the Caribbean were the huts of the Amerindians also known as the bohio, a
rudimentary structure made of posts, with either open woven walls or walls made of straight sticks or
reeds, interwoven together between the posts which was beneficial for thermal comfort. They were
generally round in plan, though occasionally oval and without foundations or proper floors. The roofs
were conical and made from palm frond thatch or reeds. The early huts were naturally conditioned from
the fierce solar radiation and provided protection from the wind. They were quick and easy to erect and
compatible with the climate and nomadic culture of the tribes (Gravette, 2000).
4.2. Evolved building forms and techniques
Early colonial structures were built of wattle and daub and palm thatched during the early sugar-slave
trade period. Later, the chattel house was introduced in a linear house form, based directly on its African
antecedent (Edwards, 1983). They were either square or oblong in plan and connected in multiple units
built symmetrically of timber clapboards on a coral rock base, with a ridged or hipped roof - the gables
allowed ventilation through louvers. They were simple to build and easy to move when a worker changed
employer. European influence brought a transition from the medieval huts to cabins. These cabins were
made of timber frames with masonry filling, lime concrete floors and corrugated iron roofing sheets (zinc).
The whole structure was often raised from the ground to allow air circulation, which both cooled the
house and protected the wood from insects (see Figure 3). Wherever possible, the houses incorporated a
veranda to provide shade and cool air circulation for thermal comfort. Other passive cooling methods
prominent in Spanish colonies included the cooler window (see Figure 4). This was an exemplary
ventilation method for it had a sash window with louvers at each side of the wooden diagonal-work
‘ventilator’ (Buisseret, 1980).
622 T. T. Amasuomo, G. Baird
Figure 3: Ventilation system in the traditional Caribbean house (Author, 2016)
Figure 4: Cooler window adapted from (Stinson, 2015).
5. The Pacific Islands
Despite distinct regional practices in the design and construction of vernacular buildings in the Pacific
Islands, a tradition of minimalist building construction comprised primarily of locally sourced vegetative
materials is the most common. Unlike some other tropical regions where resistance to heat flow was of
primary concern, buildings in the Pacific Islands were an adaptation to earthquakes and tropical cyclones
that occurred frequently (Taylor, 2014).
5.1. The Building techniques and materials
Possibly the most important priority of settlements was their resilience. In Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, the
traditional buildings (bure and fale) had a number of wind and thermal resistance characteristics. The
houses were built of palm thatch with relatively steep hipped roofs, well interwoven (using significant
amounts of sennit) with no windows and few doors. The porosity of the building materials prevented
excessive heat build-up within the interior spaces. In Samoa, the fale was a frame structure with no walls
623
Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to thermal comfort
and the wind could simply blow through the structure; mat walls were lowered down to seal the building
when required (Campbell, 2009). Across the islands architectural spaces were typically organized in a
regular compound system consisting of single cell huts (bure and fale) associated with open spaces
(courtyards) for daily living and ceremonial activities (Austin, 2001).
6. Observation
A number of common features have been found in the different tropical regions. These features are
independent of location, social organisation or religious affiliation. Though each tropical region is unique,
they are all inextricably linked through shared patterns of climatic adaptations and by surprisingly specific
but similar cultural forms and colonial influences that have evolved and diffused to meet their shared
requirements. Building construction is determined by the distribution of naturally available building
materials, one exemplar being palm thatch which is available and readily used in most tropical regions.
Table 1 provides a summary of building evolution in the four tropical regions, highlighting the common
features of traditional building and their modern adaptions. These modern adaptations provide the
recommended design methods and materials for tropical regions. One typical modern adaptation as
shown in Table 1 is the windcatcher system combining the concept of passive design and availability of
high-tech controls, the contemporary windcatcher (monodraught) transcends conventional borders. The
monodraught is designed in an aerodynamic form with the ability to convert the absorbed the wind power
into electricity (Omidreza, 2012). In some case, the modern adaptation provides good durability as well
as thermal comfort - an example is the thatch and aluminium roofing system, the aluminium roof had
better longevity and provided good insulation through its reflective surfaces (Amasuomo, 2016; Givoni,
1976; Mariarty, 1976).
Figure 5: An adapted image showing the evolution from the compound to compact housing system
adapted from (Mumagi, 2004)
624 T. T. Amasuomo, G. Baird
Table 1: A Summary of the building evolution in four tropical regions
Building form,
techniques and
materials
Regions
Influences
Thermal benefits
Recommendation/
Modern adaptation
Courtyard
compound housing
system
Middle East,
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Religious and
cultural influence;
Middle east and
African heritage
Enhances the
airflow through the
open layout into the
building
Adaptive space
migration, aids air
circulation
Atrium, courtyard
Veranda
Middle East,
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Response to climate
and culture
Openings to the
circulation and
transitional spaces
enhancing the
airflow through the
courtyards into the
rooms
Veranda, Lobby
Windcatcher
Middle East
Arab-Islamic
influence
Increases natural
ventilation
Monodraught,
modern
windcatcher,
chimmey/exhaust
cowls/roof vents
Evaporative cooling
Middle East
Climatic influence;
Arab-Islamic
influence
Ventilation air; In
hot regions, the
higher humidity is
beneficial
Indirect evaporative
cooler, evaporative
pre-cooling
Mud architecture
Middle East and
Africa
Availability of local
material and
response to climate
Low thermal
capacity; holds little
heat and cools
easily at night.
Reinforced and
stabilized adobe
bricks, clay/mud
hybrid composition
Brick and stone
Middle East,
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Response to climate
and colonial
influence
Thermal insulation,
time lag effect
Concrete hollow
blocks, adobe brick,
pre-
cast concrete
walls, veneer stones
Wood, reeds, sticks
and bamboo
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Availability of local
material and
response to climate
Thermal insulation,
improves airflow
Wood, bamboo
Thatch roof system
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Availability of local
material and
response to climate
Pores in roofs
improve airflow,
thermal insulation
Aluminium roofing
sheets, roof tiles,
roof vents
Window louvers
and shutters
Middle East,
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Colonial influence
Increases natural
ventilation by
directing the airflow
Wing walls, window
louver blades,
shutter windows
Cooler windows
Caribbean
Colonial influence
Increases natural
ventilation and
airflow
Wing walls, top
hung windows
625
Evolution of buildings in four tropical regions with regards to thermal comfort
Door shutters and
louvers
Middle East,
Caribbean, Africa
and Pacific island
Colonial influence
Increases natural
ventilation by
directing the airflow
Internal and
external louvers
above bedroom
doors, shutter doors
7. Conclusion
A close correspondence between architectural features and certain climate zones has been
demonstrated. Despite the contrasting physiography, there is a remarkable similarity in the building
morphology across the tropical regions. It is evident that this was not only a response to similar climatic
challenges, but most importantly the availability of local building materials as can be seen in the use of
thatch across the region (see Table 1). The mix of indigenous cultures (which were surprisingly similar in
most tropical regions), religion and colonial influences dictated the attention given to various aspects of
life and the way they addressed thermal comfort. One of the advantages of traditional building techniques
and forms was their flexibility and natural conditioning capacities. To fossilize traditional patterns for
contemporary times would be inappropriate, given current housing requirements, as would a disregard
for traditional building techniques. Our understanding of tropical architecture through the variety of its
morphology, building techniques, materials and settlement types has been greatly limited by the dearth
of studies of their performance. Currently there is no well-documented design framework for the tropics,
and the best way through which this can be achieved is by an adaptation of the traditional passive
mechanism of indoor thermal regulation. It is hoped that the summary provided on (Table 1) will prompt
further investigation of how these mechanisms could be adapted.
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Exploring Eye: West Africa's vernacular architecture
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DeKay, M., Brown, G. (2014) Sun, Wind, and Light : Architectural Design Strategies (4 ed.). New Jersey: Wiley. Denyer, S. (1978) African Traditional Architecture London, UK: Heinemann.