India, located on the Tropic of Cancer, boasts of a range of geographical and climatic conditions that each pose a unique set of challenges to a design. Every region has its own socio-cultural and topographic influence on architecture. These, along with historic traditions and availability of resources, have dictated how local techniques have evolved and been perfected over decades. As regional climate can vary from extreme snowfall to scorching desert heat, indigenous materials and vernacular practices play a huge role in shaping forms and functions.

Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet1
Enveloped in its environment_©Madrona Passive House, SHED Architecture & Design

Indian climate can be broadly classified into 5 zones:

  1. Hot and Arid
  2. Warm and Humid
  3. Temperate
  4. Cold
  5. Composite 
Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet2
Climatic zones of India_©National Building Code of India, 2005

Architecture native to an area differs vastly from zone to zone, with the same material being used diversely in different climates. Recently, the architectural tone in the country has been of a revival of innovation in sustainable concepts; with growing awareness of ecologically responsible construction, architects are re-interpreting traditional methods in unique & unusual ways. If you’re wondering how to adapt your design to its natural habitat, then read on to know some distinct features that will help you get the best out of your built space.

 

Hot and Arid Climate

Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet3
Cities in hotter climates are dotted with closely packed earth brick houses with flat terraces & balconies_©www.journeytoexplore.com/jaisalmer

Characterized by: Sandy & rocky savannas, sparse vegetation, low humidity, high daytime temperatures, harsh sun, perennial hot & dusty winds, scarce water sources (Think desert). 

Extending across: Most of Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat & Maharashtra. 

Best suited local construction materials: Mud blocks, stone, and timber. 

Local design & planning methods: 

  1. Rooms placed around a central courtyard ensure good cross ventilation & natural cooling of interiors.
  2. Using buffer spaces like corridors or storage spaces towards South and West faces shelters livable areas from maximum heat load. 
  3. Less street frontage minimizes surface heat gain. 
  4. Thicker walls made of earth bricks, which are poor conductors of heat, provide insulation from heat.
  5. Window openings towards exterior faces should be smaller and of a lesser number. Instead, openings facing into the courtyard work better. 
  6. Windows shaded with Chajjas (sunshades) or Jharokhas (intricately detailed stone bay windows) prevent direct sunlight from heating interior surfaces.
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Traditional Havelis of Jaisalmer adorned with detailed Jharokhas cast ample shadows to cool the streets_©Sophie Pearce, Third Eye Traveller
  1. Ventilators at higher levels allow hot upper air to escape.
  2. Jalis (latticework or screens) in semi-open areas like balconies and passages block heat while allowing light and air to filter in. 
  3. Flat roofs finished with white broken tiles reflect heat and at the same time offer ample surface area for ancillary terrace activities. It is common to sleep on Charpais (a local bed made of light materials) placed on the terrace or balconies at night. 
  4. Water bodies & greenery in and around the building are excellent solutions for passive cooling.
  5. Exterior surfaces of the building are painted in light colors that reflect light. Dark colors are avoided due to their absorbent nature. 
  6. Neighborhood buildings benefit from being closely packed as they can shade each other.
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Vernacular construction popular in the earthquake-prone region of Kutch, Gujarat are the circular one-roomed, mud walled Bhunga huts that are climate-responsive as well as disaster-resistant_©Retlaw Snellac on flickr

Warm and Humid Climate

Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet6
Typical South-Indian coastal home with oxide floor, sloping roof, courtyard and spread out rooms_©Seemantini

Characterized by: High humidity & rainfall, warm temperature, dense vegetation, moist winds at low speeds, diffused glare from the sun, hurricane or cyclone-prone (Think coastal regions). 

Extending across: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa and parts of Karnataka, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal & North-Eastern India.

Best suited local construction materials: Laterite stone or mud blocks, granite, timber, thatch or coconut leaves, bamboo, and Mangalore tiles.  

Local design & planning methods: 

  1. Similar to hot areas, courtyards are integral in providing relief from humidity as they allow the breeze to cross-ventilate inner spaces well. While central courts are common in Kerala or Chettinad homes, houses in Assam are raised on stilts to catch cool air and also protect against natural disasters that are common in these regions. 
  2. Rooms are placed in a line to ventilate them from two sides & accessed through corridors.
  3. Kitchens & bathrooms are usually separated from main living areas with buffer passages as they generate more heat.
  4. Shaded verandahs (entrance porches) & breezy porticos offer perfect daytime habitation potential.
  5. While window openings being more in number & large in sizes let cool air in, they need extended shading devices that protect from the sun’s glare.
Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet7
Goan villas tend to follow architecture of humid climates but, owing to their Portuguese influences, add a dash of vibrancy through use of bright colours or patterns_©Netraa Dave
  1. Pitched Mangalore tile or thatch roofing supported on bamboo or timber framework allows rain to runoff conveniently or be directed into wells/ ground pits that harness the water. Overhanging eaves that extend well beyond walls shade from maximum heat.
  2. Latticed or louvered window shutters protect from the harsh sun while allowing air to pass through.
  3. Local stone or oxide floors are cost-effective and reduce the indoor temperature.
  4. External surfaces are painted white to reflect heat.
  5. Due to lush landscape growth, insects and critters are common; bug mesh in window & door frames are a good solution to tackle them.
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Northeastern vernacular has its own independent interpretation of tropical architecture_©geringerglobaltravel.com/tours/wild-orchards-jungles-northeast-india-itinerary

Cold Climate

Climate Responsive Architecture of India: Diverse Weather, Diverse Techniques - Sheet9
House in the town of Kashmir built with local materials_©Koshur Mukhbir

Characterized by: High altitude, low temperature, dense vegetation, brittle & direct sunlight, occasional strong winds, seasonal rain or snowfall depending on the altitude (Think mountains & hill stations).  

Extending across: Ladakh, Kashmir, Sikkim, parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh & Uttaranchal, and few hill stations in West & South India.

Best suited local construction materials: Stone, mud, timber, thatch or slate, and mud or cow dung plaster.

Local design & planning methods: 

  1. Buildings are generally 2-3 stories high, with most habitable rooms faced towards South & West to receive maximum sunlight.
  2. Lower floors can be used for cattle, poultry, storage, etc while the upper floors consist of living spaces like kitchen, dining, etc due to the above floors being warmer. Minimal partitions between rooms keep heat uniform on the entire floor. 
  3. Thick walls made of local stone or mud are plastered in multiple layers to insulate against the cold and trap heat indoors.
  4. Openings are majorly found on the South with other walls protecting from cold draughts.
  5. Pitched roofs of timber/ bamboo frames, finished with slate or thatch prohibit rain or snow from collecting on the roof. Attics formed below the pitched roof are well insulated against the cold.
  6. Only in the cold & arid weather of Ladakh, flat roofs are used as the probability of rainfall is less and this space can be used for drying fruits & vegetables in summer.
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Flat roofs of houses of Leh, Ladakh present maximum surface area for sunlight in a dry, cold weather_©McKay Savage on flickr
  1. Wooden floors keep the floor cozy.
  2. Strategically planted tall trees can act as windbreakers. 
  3. Timber balconies act as solariums. 
  4. Due to the rugged appearance of the surroundings, vibrant colors in elements such as windows or columns add a welcome detail.
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Small cottages in hill stations across the country are a modest typography of spacious Himalayan bungalows. They are popular as homestays_©Nabakov cottage

Temperate & Composite Climates

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Typical Wada house of Pune_©Badwe Sowani Kalamdani Architects

The only 2 cities of India having temperate (comfortable temperature throughout the year) would be Pune & Bangalore. The vernacular of these regions imitate their neighboring coastal towns, with the courtyard becoming the prominent feature around which other spaces revolve. With architecture seeing swift modernization, contemporary concrete buildings are replacing traditional Wada & Gutthu houses.

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Gutthu house from Karnataka_©Travelophillic

Most Central Indian states experience a composite of hot-dry and warm-humid climates with few months of each. Their architecture features elements taken from both regions, like courtyards, large overhangs, water bodies, landscaping, neutral colors, etc., that focus on withstanding heat as well as rain. Built from locally available materials & resources, these showcase the versatility of Indian vernacular that has withstood the test of time and continues to reflect in some form in the contemporary buildings being designed even today.

A modern courtyard & Jali screen_©Kochhar Residence, Tropic Responses

References:

  1. Bera, Ar. Tania. (2019). An Overview Of Vernacular Architecture In India. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341100086_An_Overview_Of_Vernacular_Architecture_In_India [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  2. ANAND JIBHKATE (2015). Hot and dry climate. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/AnandJibhakate/hot-and-dry-climate [Accessed 18 Sep. 2021].
  3. ‌Ronak Dhupia (2015). Hot and dry climate architecture. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/ronakdhupia/hot-and-dry-climate-architecture [Accessed 18 Sep. 2021].
  4. ‌kutchblog (2015). Traditional Bhunga Huts of Kutch | Blog. [online] Kutch Tour Guide. Available at: https://www.kutchtourguide.com/blog/traditional-bhunga-huts-of-kutch/. [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  5. Safiyudheen A Safiyudheen (2017). Warm and humid climate. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/SafiyudheenASafiyudheen/warm-and-humid-climate-78596547 [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  6. Sonakshi Bhattacharjee (2017). Vernacular architecture of north east india. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/SonakshiBhattacharjee/vernacular-architecture-of-north-east-india [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  7. Vartika Sharma (2016). Vernacular Arch. in Cold and Dry Region in India. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/VartikaSharma10/vernacular-arch-in-cold-and-dry-region-in-india [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  8. Sunayana Miglani (2017). Cold and dry climate. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/SUNAYANAMIGLANI/cold-and-dry-climate [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  9. Nehal Patel (2017). cold climate architecture. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/NehalPatel62/cold-climate-architecture [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  10. Sharon Sudheer (2019). Temperate Climate India. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/SharonSudheer1/temperate-climate-india [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].
  11. anjali s (2018). Composite climate of India. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/anjaliposy/composite-climate-of-india [Accessed 19 Sep. 2021].

Author

As an architect, designing gives Varsha an insight into what she truly enjoys - observing people & the complex, interwoven layers of society. She may be a sceptic, but has the soul of a wanderer. She reads (mostly Harry Potter) to escape the mundane & is now exploring her writing.

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