Tropical Architecture: Natural Materials for a Calming Ambience

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Tropical homes made from natural materials reduce our exposure to harmful gases, safeguard our health, and can calm us emotionally. Image: Maria Orlova

For the past two years, our pandemic house-ridden life has taught all of us one thing: our homes must be able to make us happy, sane, and centered. That can be achieved through the presence of organic natural materials in our spaces. Such materials can calm and center us emotionally and mentally, simply because they reminisce of the peace and tranquility of the natural world.

Living in a tropical country provides us with many more opportunities to use natural materials than in other parts of the world because the tropics are the source of a vast array of natural building materials that are time tested, strong and durable. There are many vernacular building techniques associated with these materials that can enable us to fully utilize the potential of our tropical locations.

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As well as using natural building materials, houses can be designed to have fresh air passing through without any temperature control other than what may be achieved by the architect with features such as roof overhangs to provide protection from the sun and rain, and open walls and internal spaces positioned to facilitate the free flow of air.

Tropical homes should blend with their natural surroundings. The lush greenery, with the romantic, drizzling, and enchanting rains, are something to fall in love with. But living in a concrete home with chemically treated finishes and standardized market furniture is not the best way to enjoy this beautiful experience. It is a mood-kill for that fresh, rich, tropical boho vibe.

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Houses built with large roof overhangs not only protect the materials used in the construction but provide shady verandahs that become a welcome retreat on hot days. Image: Bernard Hermant

That vibe is what you feel in luxury resorts in the tropics because they are designed to have a calming influence through the introduction of natural textures into their spaces. This is the reason your industrial raw finish coffee table brings a smile to your face. And those terracotta pots and exposed bricks create a serene envelope around you.

And their chemical-free makeup reduces our exposure to harmful gases, safeguards our health and makes for a healthier planet. Natural buildings are durable, trendy and they heal. Plus, they age like fine wine. The older, the better.

Whether you are renovating a house or constructing a new one, there are four principal types of natural materials that you should be asking your architect, builder or renovator to consider using. Some of these may change your perception, dreams, and imagination of your abode forever.

Tropical regions are full of varying types of clay and sand, which are the essential ingredients for a mud house. A mud house and have solid formed walls or it can be built with mud bricks or blocks. Those hand-carved, loving walls with niches need not be a dream. The best part, there is no one rigid way to achieve it. Mud is the most flexible and thermally comfortable material to build with and the most calming of all.

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The interior of a mud house in Villa de Leyva, Colombia. This type of construction is particularly suited to drier regions of the tropics. Image: Jose Artavia

The most important factor in building a mud home is to ensure that the design keeps heavy wet season rains off the exterior walls, and this is usually achieved with verandahs with large roof overhangs all around the house. Think of the traditional plantation style houses. In the dry season these also provide a welcome respite to relax out of the hot sun.

Stone is another gem. Whilst stone is not used as widely in the tropics as in cooler climates, it’s just as capable as keeping people cool in hot weather as it is in keeping people warm in cold weather. That’s because it has superior insulating properties like mud. It can be used to build solid walls, included in the design as a feature wall, or used for ornamentation.

Tamed or untamed, it represents strength but also emits a reassuring gaze. With such a wide array of colors, textures, and patterns available, it is an exciting natural building material to use. But whether it is practical to use will depend on how easy it is to gather and source in your region, and the cost.

The third wonder material is bamboo. We are all familiar with this magic grass called bamboo. Even though this material has been used in construction for a long time, technology and research today have brought it a long way ahead.

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A beautiful house built with bamboo in Tentena, Indonesia, which was designed by architect, Effan Adhiwara, who specializes in bamboo structures. Image: © Elena Odareeva

We can now use this amazing ‘strong as steel’ natural material to support our roofs and do away with ceilings. This helps to improve air flow because warm air rises. We don’t need ceilings to trap that warm air. Using bamboo as a roof support brings this natural material right inside our home as a cathedral ceiling feature which can be quite mesmerizing with its shiny skin and strong nodes.

In the past, the disadvantage of using bamboo has been its comparatively short life compared to other natural building materials, which could only be lengthened with treatment by chemicals to protect it again termites and wood borers. But technology is coming to the rescue with many non-toxic treatments now being developed which will surely see bamboo being more widely utilized as a building material in the tropics.

The last natural material is, of course, timber. A very large number of tropical homes are already built out of timber, so this needs little explanation other than to emphasize that all timber used in house construction should be from sustainable sources. The same technological developments that are producing non-toxic treatments for bamboo are also being applied to extend the life of timber used for house construction.

Although these are the four principal types of natural materials available for house building in the tropics, they are not the only ones. Other materials such as lava and vetiver have been used in some tropical countries – not necessarily to build a whole house, but to provide features within an ‘organic’ building. And, of course, many natural homes in the tropics use a combination of these different types of building materials.

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Cathedral ceilings made from timber or bamboo help to keep tropical homes cool as well as providing an interesting internal architectural feature. Image: Inno Kurnia

These are just a few examples to hopefully inspire and awaken the spark of natural buildings within you. Explore which of these materials and techniques are the most accessible in your region and start planning your dream abode and enjoying that tropical vibe within the envelope of your own home.

With the world reliving and reinterpreting the green revolution every day, and the increased rate of mental health issues, the current pace of our lifestyles needs to be complemented with a calming ambience in our homes. To make it your healing space and fully utilize the potential of your location, try to introduce as many natural elements into your home architecture as you can.

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