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Cultures, Climates, and Buildings

In warm regions people spend a lot of time outside. Designers from different places may not realize how important these outdoor spaces are to them.

Buildings should be a series of interconnected indoor and outdoor spaces. And these spaces must be aimed in the right directions to make use of sun or shade and breeze or shelter from the wind.

In warm climates washing outside.

Temperature and humidity may be more comfortable outside, but people do not only seek physical comfort.

People continue traditional ways and places of living because these shape social interactions, involvement with nature, and the subtle but vital cultural messages that we read in different types of space. 

How do we say welcome? With a pot of flowers near narrow steps to the front door? With a wide porch across the front of the house enclosed by grill-work?

In many parts of Asia a gateway opens to face a blank wall, and one enters a couryard before seeing the house. In some villages in Africa  one is welcomed when they greet the elder seated in a shaded booth outside the compound walls. In the town of Djenne, guests traditionally passed under the structure of a massive two story entry porch. 

Each different ethnic group has special meanings connected with their spaces. These meanings form a complex language that makes life rich and enables healthy interactions.

We shape buildings, but they also shape us.

We are not aiding anyone if we give them spaces that do not work for their lifestyle or cause them to lose meaningful parts of their culture.

Many cultures are in flux today, so it may be appropriate to offer a variety of building shapes.
Politeness can influence the people of many cultures to accept aid in shapes they would never choose for themselves. Don't ask what they think of your plan. First ask what shape of building they would like. Then ask if they can tell you more about it. And listen. Listen hard so you can think outside your box.

 Hot Climates

Many think of the tropics as one type of place. Yet there is perhaps more difference between humid and dry tropical regions than  between very cold and temperate areas.

I have personally written about hot and humid regions because it is shockingly easy in these places to create uncomfortable or moldy buildings.

All hot climates need shade. Shorter walls without windows should face east and west. Many kinds of louvers and blinds can cast cooling shadows on porches or walls. Living spaces are seldom solidly enclosed.

Slat hallway for shade & breeze.

Massive, heavy walls provide an important flywheel effect for warm and dry places. Thermal mass warms and cools slowly, evening out daily high and low temperatures to a comfortable medium range. Windows may be small, and rooms dim. In the driest places, partly or fully enclosed courtyards can be humidified and cooled by shallow pools.

In hot and humid regions ventilation is primary. And since breeze is invisible, it is too frequently ignored. Wise builders take the time to ask about normal and storm wind directions at the site.

Analyzing Climate

Plans usually are drawn for one sort of building material. It is important to know which materials will be good or bad for a place, and why.  

A family building a self-help house may not realize how uncomfortable a poorly planned building can be. I have developed a graph to compare climate in terms of human comfort. Designers can use it to define the degree and timing of sun or shade or breeze needs for a location. 

Examples of Climate Information   A 6 p. paper with graphs from hot humid and hot dry cities. Explains the difference and discusses building for each.

12 Month Black & White Comfort Chart   This graph requires minimum and maximum average temperature and average humidity for each month. It is fine-tuned for hot and humid regions. It is not quite as accurate but can also be helpful with hot dry and warm humid regions. 

Climate Responsive Design  More than 300 pages of  ebook  (downloadable in portions) SKAT, 1993


Simple Earth Buildings for the Humid Tropics   A 17 p. pdf full of sketch examples of houses of earthbag shaped for different cultures

Shaping Buildings for the Humid Tropics: Cultures, Climate, and Materials   A 28 p. pdf

Planning Buildings in Warm Humid  Regions: Hints for NGOs   36 p. pdf with information about site evaluation, working across cultures, designing for climate, and choosing materials.

Design Tips for the Hot Humid Climate  A simple introduction from the Australian government. 

 Information about Climate Responsive Design


Links to Weather Data

Gaisma provides very helpful sun path charts and number of rainy day/ total insolation charts for much of the world.

BBC weather information includes humidity levels for many cities in the world.

Graph shows comfortable months.
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