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Elements of the tropical house design

Malaysia is located in a tropical zone, which means its climate is vastly different from countries such as the United States and Europe, from where most architectural movements and innovations originate. Should foreign architecture designs not be adapted to the Malaysian weather conditions, homes may not be comfortable throughout the year. This may mean paying a high cost to control the temperature within these homes.

The traditional Malay house is built on raised pillars, homes being of wood. Knowledge regarding these structures can be incorporated into modern homes that meet the needs of a modern lifestyle. This is important, a tropical house being simply a reaction to its environment. In addition, a tropical house may either be constructed taking a passive approach: unwanted climatic elements such as rain and heat are kept out. At the same time good elements: ventilation and illumination are increased. An active approach aims to harness some climatic elements for energy, increasing the efficiency of the home. Although a modern tropical house would be best hidden away in the Janda Baik rainforest, there are some aspects of this building style that may be translated into a home located in an urban space.

What does the term ‘tropical house’ mean?

Simply put, a tropical house aims to attain thermal comfort with the use of architectural elements such as sufficient airflow, overhangs, roof and wall insulation, and using foliage to shade the home. The ultimate design may be either traditional or modern. The focus here is on modern tropical houses that use passive design elements instead of mechanical systems.

What are the key elements of a modern tropical house?

Sufficient airflow

One key feature of tropical design is efficient airflow. In tropical areas such as Malaysia this may be a challenge, with its extremely high temperatures and high levels of humidity; the average temperature ranging from 20°C to 30°C. Maximising the airflow is important to make the home liveable. Modern urban dwellings are required by the Uniform Building By-law of 1984 to have at least 10% openings. However, this is not really sufficient for making the living space comfortable.

There are various techniques for deploying proper airflow. These include building the dwelling on stilts, orientating the property to face the prevailing wind, having large windows on different sides of rooms to allow cross-circulating; as well as having slits in walls and in the roof to allow hot air to be released so that cool air can enter. Proper airflow minimises issues of mould and other fungus growing within the house. Walls are not a necessary: they are complementary.

Unlike houses in cooler climates, tropical houses function better with fewer walls. Walls are only there for privacy; otherwise, the open-plan living is applied. Louvered walls, windows, and doors are used to ensure a flow of air. Showers are found outside, with screens and plants used for privacy.

In an urban environment in which houses are close to one another, an internal courtyard becomes useful. Having the rooms facing inwards can increase privacy. Large roof overhangs

A typical tropical house will have long overhangs to give shelter against the elements of rain, heat and the glare, and to cool a house. For instance, Peninsular Malaysia, on average, will have 2500mm of rain, with the eastern part 5080mm of rain, annually. To add to that, the daily solar radiation in Malaysia is 4000 to 5000 Whr/m2, this with 4 to 8 hours of sunshine daily.

More than simply protecting the dwelling from the elements, from a family home to a villa, especially during Malaysia’s wet season from November until February, overhangs provide cover for patios and yards, which utilises exterior space as much as inner space.

Steep-pitched roofs and high ceilings
As hot air raises, the higher the ceiling level, the more air dissipates, and the cooler the living space will be. Flat roofs do not work in the tropics, as there is a 100% chance of their leaking at some point. Therefore, especially during the rainy season, a steep-pitched roof works better.

Use of water features

A tropical house will be lost without a water feature. This may be a swimming pool or a pond. Such features act to cool the house as air moves over and into the house. A tropical house provides more than merely shelter: it makes the most of outdoor living. The swimming pool becomes part of this extension, turning the area into a semi-outdoor area.

Use of cement or wooden floors
A modern tropical house will have either cement or wooden floors in species such as nyatoh, kampas, Burmese teak, or merbau. The price for a 100% solid wooden floor can be around MR 22 per square foot, and RM 20 per square foot for engineered flooring, installed by a professional floorer.