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May 27, 2012

Are we learning right from past?

Back to bit of a regional talk. Always tried to explore (and respect) the wisdom accumulated over years (in all fields and architecture, in particular) an thus thought of sharing a few thoughts on vernacular residential architecture in Kerala.

One of the most talked-about and debated issue in the construction industry today is Vastu. Vastu (Thachu-shastram, its regional application) and its principles along with the danger of its over-commercialization may be discussed later(deserves separate post(s)!). What one ignores in the noise is a highly evolved vernacular construction method in Kerala, perfected over years. The attempt is to find out the reasons and conditions which might have resulted in this evolution which might in turn help to adapt these principles in present day scenario. 


The climate of the region is tropical hot and humid with rain received on a minimum of 8 months a year. Being tropical evergreen, wood was readily (and cheaply) available resulting in construction with wood as the primary building material. Soil types varies from south to north of Kerala. The central area (central travancore) has a very loose soil. Malabar area has laterite which is hard. Laterite is used also as a building material in those areas and has resulted in the evolution of regional variation of building type.

Agriculture was the main occupation and thus the most important part of the building became the storage part (ara). Rooms developed around it gradually. The intense rain demanded a sloped roof which resulted in the prominent roof form. The need for cross-ventilation (being tropical hot and humid) resulted in the arrangement of rooms around a central courtyard. Wood was used to make a framed construction at the central travancore areas which helps it to with stand failures due to loose soil.

Construction followed an approach of pre-fabrication where all components were made at the house of carpenter or at some convenient place and were transported and assembled at site. The techniques were so perfect that the whole house can be dismantled and could be relocated without losing practically anything (adopted by many, today). There were Planning modules and Structural modules. The tolerance required for assembling the sub-modules inside a main module was solved by introducing two different scales for the two where the scale for building had 24” as the basic module and the scale for the site had 25” as the basic module.

The prominent roof form resulted from the need for a sloping surface for the rain water to drain off. Eaves helped ward off the heavy driving rain and the mid-day sun. High Plinth helped in damp proofing and prevention of reptiles (which were a cause of concern) from entering the house. Gables were the real nose of the house exhaling the hot air which reaches the top due to stack effect. Louvers were used to screen off the harsh sunlight.(To mention a few elements)

In warm humid climate, buildings ideally should have single rows of rooms to allow easier cross-ventilation. It was achieved by laying out the rooms linearly against the wind or by arranging them around internal courtyard. Courtyards also enhanced the various activities that happened inside. Trees were carefully placed and selected so that it helps in reducing the adverse effects of climate and bring in enough comfort. Almost each of these houses had their own private ponds helping in rain water harvesting and recharge.

Though the built forms were evolved from the prevailing geographic conditions and lifestyles, it seems illogical to blindly apply all these principles/techniques today. Lets examine a few factors which ought to be considered before adapting.

Joint families invariably broken down to nuclear families changing the space requirements altogether. The mainstays of the houses are no longer agriculture (in most cases) and thus the importance given to the storage space is diminished. Considering the modern building materials and techniques, one need not limit himself with the restricted structural spans which were derived from the load-bearing capacity of the wooden supports available those days. The changed lifestyle bridging the gap between the various communities along with the global  ideas and concepts, impacted greatly the way house is planned. People no longer sleep and dine on the floor which was the earlier practice, defining new spaces and furniture arrangement in turn leading to new room dimensions. Electricity brought in the luxuries of modern living. Wood is no longer a cheap material and its availability is reducing day by day. Thus the construction based on wood is not a practical solution(and definitely not greener).

One should try and adapt the existing practices evolved in response to climate and location, which remains practically the same (not ignoring the recent climatic changes!). Once we start identify and adapt relevant techniques and methods based on logical thought process and not upon its nostalgic value or imposed vastu norms, we head towards a better built environment tomorrow, responsive to context as well reflecting the contemporary lifestyle.


  1. Hi...
    Just thought of sharing my views..:)
    As I understand from what I have read, Vastu was only a construction manual and not a design manual. It was basically dependant on Land (site conditions), Climate, Material, Technology and People (society). So, when any of these or all of these changed, respectively, the science of construction had to change. But as mentioned above, we still hold on to the imagery and the older principles to continue what we call as the Kerala Architecture.