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Design for Tropical Climates: Overview

The design of buildings in any location should take into account the local climate and this is even more important when designing buildings for hot and humid tropical countries and especially important when designing low-cost buildings for education and health in the tropics.

In most countries located in the tropics, there are traditional, passive methods that have been developed over long periods of time for keeping buildings cool and comfortable but unfortunately, with the wide-spread use of air-conditioning, many of these methods have been disregarded or fallen into disuse.   However, with the growing world-wide climate emergency it is now time for the designers of buildings to reduce the carbon footprint of the buildings that they design and the use of passive measures of climate control will go a long way towards doing this.

In my experience of working in the hot and humid tropics there are a few basic rules that should be followed: 1) buildings should be oriented with the main elevations to face north – south in order to reduce the amount of exposure to the sun’s rays to the main elevations; 2) buildings should have large roof overhangs or other shading devices to stop the sun’s rays from penetrating windows or striking the walls to reduce solar gains; all buildings should if possible be one room deep with large, opening windows to both sides to provide maximum cross-ventilation. Other measures that will help are using lightweight materials that do not store the heat for walls and roofs; providing insulation to roofs and walls; using reflective surfaces to walls and roofs and providing external verandas and/or circulation areas that will provide further protection to walls and windows.

In the buildings that I have designed and built in the tropical countries that I have lived and worked in, I have always tried as much as possible to use passive measures of climate control to ensure comfortable conditions for the users of the buildings and to avoid the use of air-conditioning.

Examples of these measures can be seen in the projects section of this web-site.  The schools that I designed and built in Zambia for instance were all orientated to face north – south; all buildings were single-banked and had large roof overhangs to protect walls and windows from solar gains (and which also reduced the amount of rain reaching the walls thus reduced maintenance costs) and large areas of opening windows to both sides of rooms providing good cross-ventilation (see Zambia Schools Project).  The house that I built in Sierra Leone had very large roof overhangs (approximately 2 metres!) and was only one room deep with louvred timber shutters to both sides of all rooms ensuring good, cross-ventilation.  We lived very comfortably in the house for five years without air-conditioning even though Freetown is only 8° north of the equator and has temperatures in excess of 30° for much of the year together with very high levels of humidity (see Sierra Leone: House at Red Pump). It was not possible to provide large roof overhangs to the clinics that we constructed in the Solomon Islands because of the need to protect the buildings against cyclones.  In these buildings ventilation was provided by large areas of openable louvres to both sides of the clinics and protection from the sun was provide by waiting verandas and solid timber louvre blades (see Project in Solomon Islands).

I have scanned a number of documents (some very old but the climate does not basically change, apart from getting hotter that is!) that I will attach and that could be useful when designing buildings for the tropics.  These include: Overseas Building Notes No 158: Building for Comfort; Design Guide for Government Buildings in the Caribbean; Passive Cooling in Tropical Architecture; Climate and School Building Design in Java; Aids for the Design of Shading Devices for Latitudes 4° N to 12° N; Climate Data for Architects in Zambia; EBR 2: Sun Shading Devices for School Buildings; EBD 12: Thermal Comfort Index for Hot, Humid Asia; Physiological Objectives in Hot Weather Housing and Solar Charts for Daylight Planning.

Two other very useful reference books if you can find them are: Manual of Tropical Housing and Building; Pat 1, Climate Design by Koenigsberger, Ingersoll, Mayhew and Szokolay and Troppo: Architecture for the Top End by Philip Goad about the brilliant, eponymous firm of architects based in Darwin, Australia.

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