A green roof in Singapore. CHUTTERSNAP, Unsplash

What can tradition teach us about architecture?

Today’s buildings are highly carbon-intensive, but our past offers valuable lessons for sustainable architecture

The business world is growing ever more conscious of the climate crisis and sustainability, and architecture is no exception.

Solar panels and grass are increasingly popping up on roofs, disused industrial plants are being turned into universities, and creative materials like wine bottles, tires and cans are being repurposed to build houses.

And from ski slopes built on incinerators to office buildings that generate their own water and power, there’s no shortage of iconic projects that are pushing the boundaries of architectural innovation.

That’s because buildings have a deep impact on the planet – accounting for around a third of global energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. That figure includes not only emissions from construction but also temperature control, lighting and appliances.

As the human population grows and the world’s climate continues to warm, energy demand will likely continue to rise. But what if we could find the answers to today’s problems by harking back to the traditional building techniques used by our ancestors for millennia?

While there are far too many examples to list, here are three common principles shared by much of the world’s traditional architecture.

Yurts
Yurts in Yining, Xinjiang, China. Yang, Unsplash

Use local building materials

Long before air conditioning was invented and concrete became widely used, buildings relied on local materials and conformed to local lifestyles.

Igloos, for instance, are made from a specific type of snow found in the Arctic homeland of the Inuit. Pueblo Native Americans traditionally used adobe for construction, while kampung houses built from bamboo, wood or palm leaves still stand in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia to this day.

Similarly, old timber frame buildings and thatch roofing can be found in much of Europe, while yurts made of felt or fabric survive in Mongolia and Central Asia. In Iceland, locals adapted to a harsh climate and a lack of wood by constructing houses from turf.

Many of today’s buildings are built from concrete and steel, which account for roughly 15 percent of global carbon emissions and remain difficult to decarbonize. In comparison, materials like wood tend to be far less energy-intensive to make and can also be obtained from renewable sources.

Biju and Sindhu Bhaskar
Biju and Sindhu Bhaskar working on natural pigments. Courtesy of Thannal

And although traditional building techniques have often fallen to the wayside, some advocates are consciously trying to revive them. In the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, one organization has been teaching natural construction methods to locals for the past 13 years.

“Mud is the basic material,” says Biju Bhaskar, an architect and founder of Thannal, which also researches Indian building traditions and constructs turn-key building projects.

“The other material that we use is lime. If you use it, you will see the lime cycle and understand the beauty of lime.”

Bhaskar and his family have traveled across India to learn to build earthen buildings, often from very old master artisans. They now lead workshops on techniques like Chettinad plastering, which involves adding thin layers of material including sand and egg whites, and Madras terrace roofing.

Some roof constructions incorporate local materials like karingotta leaves, which aim to prevent termite infestations while allowing moisture to escape.

“We can use many parts of plants, like the roots, bark, leaves, stems, fruit, pump, seeds – all this can be incorporated into architecture,” says Bhaskar. “That is the beauty of natural building here. There are thousands of varieties of plants that can be used.”

Santorini houses
White houses in Santorini, Greece. Margaret Barley, Unsplash

Harness the elements

Once buildings have been built, another major source of emissions is keeping them running. More than a quarter of global energy-related emissions are derived from building operations, including heating and cooling.

Despite advances in insulation technology, emissions from cooling have nearly tripled since 1990 – and they’re only expected to grow as the planet gets hotter and extreme heat becomes increasingly common.

And yet, people have been living in very hot and cold parts of the world for millennia – long before air conditioning and gas heating were developed.

In warmer climates, homes would be built underground to prevent exposure to the heat, or near a fountain to reap its evaporative cooling effects, or even painted white to reflect the sun’s heat.

One ancient cooling technology that has made its way into modern buildings is the windcatcher. Commonly found in Iran, windcatchers are typically towers built on the tops of buildings with openings that allow air to travel in and out, improving ventilation and cooling buildings by up to 10 degrees Celsius.

Windcatchers
Two windcatchers and a tower of silence in Yazd, Iran. Julia Maudlin, Flickr

“Windcatchers are a good example of how ancient people in the Middle East used the wind as a renewable resource for cooling and ventilation inside the building,” says Payam Nejat, a researcher at Bauhaus-University Weimar who studies windcatchers.

Windcatchers can come in a variety of styles, some with wetted surfaces to allow for evaporative cooling, and others channeling cooler air underground and into the building’s interior. After the cool air enters the building and absorbs heat, it can exit either back through the windcatcher or via the windows.

Nejat points out that windcatchers are catching on in countries such as the U.K., and he believes they could play a major role in reducing building emissions and improving indoor air quality.

“The other advantage of windcatchers compared to mechanical ventilation systems is the cost,” he adds.

“We don’t have moving parts, we don’t have complicated systems, so the installation, maintenance and all general aspects of the cost is much lower.”

Floating houses
Houses built on stilts in Ko Panyi, Thailand. Jamison Cameron, Unsplash

Blend into the natural environment

Traditional architecture doesn’t just aim to get the best out of the elements and locally available resources. It’s also about being an integrated part of the landscape and forming ourselves within nature, rather than imposing ourselves upon it.

Some communities, like the Tujia people of China, live in flood-prone areas encircled by steep mountains. How did they adapt? By building houses on stilts, some of which can still be found outside the city of Chongqing.

Centuries ago, what is now Mexico City was the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, located on an island surrounded by five large lakes. Faced with a shortage of farmland, its natives built a series of artificial islands called chinampas, which served as floating gardens that fed hundreds of thousands of residents.

Today, only about 2,000 hectares of chinampas remain, and Mexico City’s lakes were eventually drained by Spanish colonizers – but some of the city’s residents are working to revive them.

For many Indigenous Peoples, architecture is an important element of traditional knowledge, and even seemingly mundane features like a building’s orientation can hold plenty of spiritual significance. By preserving this knowledge, they’re fighting back against the cultural erosion wrought by centuries of colonialism.

And for all of us, there’s no shortage of inspiration that we can draw from our ancestors to guide us through the climate crisis – one building at a time.

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