Before air conditioning, people kept cool with vernacular architecture

by Lloyd Alter

Local building is like local food: Adapted to the climate, the local environment, a product of the local culture developed over time. Thanks to the refrigeration revolution, now you get McDonalds in Osaka and sushi in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, thanks to the air conditioning revolution, local building has gone the same way, with our houses becoming homogenized. In many cases, the vernacular architecture is disappearing completely, even though, as Bernard Rudofsky wrote in Architecture without Architects, “vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles. It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection.”

On ArchDaily, Ariana Zilliacus does a wonderful post, looking at 11 Vernacular Building Techniques That Are Disappearing. She writes:

These local methods are far more sustainable and contextually aware than much contemporary architecture seen today, despite ongoing talks and debates about the importance of sustainability. As a result of these trends, a tremendous amount of architectural and cultural knowledge is being lost.

seaweed houseSeier + seir on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Some of these vernacular designs have been discussed on TreeHugger, such as seaweed roofs in Læsø, Denmark. (No, they were not killed by air conditioning.)

Ab AnbarWikimedia user Zereshk/CC BY 2.0

We have also looked at the amazing Iranian system of cooling and storing water; this even popped up in our recent posts on radiant cooling.

Malay House Flickr user tukangkebun/CC BY 2.0

Malay houses built on stilts were so well adapted to the climate; Ariana writes:

To deal with the humidity and heat, traditional Malay Houses were designed to be porous, allowing for cross ventilation through the building to cool it down. Large overhanging roofs allow for open windows in rain and sun, both of which occur on nearly a daily basis. Building on stilts was another way to increase airflow and prevent damage to the house in the event of heavy downpours.

Most of these houses were built of teak, and in fact are far more valuable today for their wood than they are as houses. Their owners are offered as much as $ 50,000 for the house and replace it with a concrete block box with an air conditioner on the side.

Ariana also shows mud huts from Cameroon and reed houses from Iraq, all adapted to climate, local materials and resources. But air conditioning and urbanization changed everything. Now everything looks the same wherever you go, and everyone has a little box on the wall sucking away.

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