Tropical Architecture and Design: The Anatomy of a Modern Filipino Home

In the Philippines, where temperatures can reach a scorching 42.2 degrees Celsius, the traditional concrete/plywood house is no longer enough. Between the rising threat of climate change, and the increased purchasing power of the average Filipino, more and more homebuyers are seeking sustainability — as well as beauty and practicality — in the places they call “home.”

To that end, architectural designs in residential areas are being tailored to the Philippines’ hot and humid climate.

But first, what is a tropical house design? It means the strategic arrangement of elements in buildings so they can provide defense against the specific conditions of weather in the tropics. Keep in mind that Filipino design style emphasizes having an airy, bright, and open living space. It would be best to pick a neutral color scheme for a soft and balanced feel inside the home.

The goal of tropical architecture is to achieve thermal comfort through the use of passive design elements. These houses would then be designed with sunshades, overhangs, cavity walls, and light shelves in order to block the sun. Roof and wall insulation would also be installed as added protection.

The word “tropical” often conjures up images of the quintessentially Filipino nipa hut or bahay kubo; indeed, the nipa hut is arguably the simplest and purest example of tropical architectural design. 

However, the bahay kubo is not a common architectural style in areas like Metro Manila and its surrounding regions. For one, its usual materials are not durable enough to withstand extreme weather conditions like typhoons—not to mention fires that are a common occurrence in cramped, stuffy places in the city. 

Trava model house. Photo via Greenfield Residences

Fortunately, tropical architectural designs aren’t only about leafy roofs and beachfront views. One need not look far beyond Metro Manila to find homes that are, at the very least, inspired by the nipa hut in functionality, if not in looks. For example, Trava—a premier residential development in Sta. Rosa, Laguna by Greenfield Residences which is conveniently located along SLEX—is currently building a community that will cater to homes that are not only breathtaking to look at, but also leave the smallest environmental footprint possible.    

However, there is no single aesthetic that can be unequivocally considered “tropical.” A tropical house design can be traditional (like the nipa hut), modern or even cutting-edge. Nonetheless, homes with a tropical architectural design do have some functional elements in common.

  • Light-colored exteriors. The first thing one would notice about tropical-inspired houses is that their exterior walls always come in pale colors like white, gray or beige—a characteristic that is reflected in Trava’s model houses. That’s because colors on the lighter end of the spectrum cause heat waves to bounce away from a house’s walls. In contrast, dark-colored walls absorb heat, giving way to rising temperatures within a building. 
  • External shading. Another distinctive feature of the tropical house design is the shading outside the house. Whether it’s in the form of the brise-soleil (sunshades), overhangs, or plants and trees, external shading also helps to lower internal temperatures. Also, the brise-soleil, in particular, adds a nice aesthetic touch to even the simplest-looking residence.   
  • Insulated building envelopes. Low-thermal conductive materials (such as clay for roof tiles) reduce heat gain, meaning the house will cool faster and lessen the need for appliances such as air conditioners. The insulating material can be purchased separately, though there are houses that already have it installed, to begin with.  
  • Long, wide eaves. “Eave” refers to the part of the roof that sticks out beyond the wall and over the house. The longer and wider it is, the more easily it can protect a house from the elements. Luckily, this is a common feature in tropical houses such as Trava’s concept houses.
  • Open plan layout. Tropical homes are characterized by open-plan layouts, though the savvy homeowner would not necessarily want to leave everything ajar. Aside from security concerns, having too many open windows would invite excess heat into a house. Instead, the openings should be positioned in a way that optimal airflow is achieved.   
  • Optimal ventilation. A well-designed tropical home lets airflow in such a way that, rain or shine, its interior would remain comfortable. This is achieved through strategically placed openings and partitions that allow air to move throughout the house at just the right velocity and temperature. 
  • Easy ventilation control. The beauty of houses with a tropical architectural design is that the ventilation can be adjusted depending on the time of the year and what direction the wind is blowing from. For example, if the wind is coming in from the north, its velocity can be increased by simply opening the window on the opposite side.   
  • Green (or Green-inspired) surroundings. Last, but certainly not the least, is the feature that is most closely associated with tropical architectural designs: Greenery. If the house isn’t already in an area filled with lush, native vegetation (as is the case with the model houses in Trava), it should at least have trees and plants within its radius that facilitate the exceptional cooling properties of a tropical home.          

A tropical home is what happens when traditional ideas and modern sensibilities combine. These kinds of houses offer beautiful, comfortable places to live, while also being conscious of their environmental footprint. Whether your priority is a home that is nice to look at, a place that offers a refuge from the Philippines’ unforgiving climate, or a way to make a difference in the world, consider buying a house that’s all of the above. 

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