Tropical Modern houses are becoming one of the most popular residential architectural styles in many tropical regions.
Houses using tropical modern principles are more responsive to their climate. However, they reflect the time and current construction technologies that exist today.
Whether it is perched on a cliff, looking over the beautiful ocean or nestled in a grove of lush coconut trees, these homes can be stunning and are often the envy of many.
If you find yourself admiring beautiful homes with a clean aesthetic and tropical, functional charm, perhaps a tropical modern house is right for you.
What is Tropical Modernism
Tropical modernism is the style of architecture that emulates the minimalist aesthetic of Modern architecture while responding to the climatic and environmental conditions of the tropics.
Like modernism, it focuses on functionality and avoids forms of ornamentation. It also uses techniques required in tropical architecture, such as sun shading and cross ventilation.
A tropical modern house combines the contemporary aesthetic with a high-performing climatic response. This combination creates a home with an international influence but a familiar regional charm.
The History of Tropical Modernism
Tropical Modern architecture has its origins in Sri Lanka. Architect Geoffrey Bawa was the leading pioneer in tropical modernism.
His architecture combines the fundaments of modern architecture with climatic and cultural references to tropical Sri Lanka.
He started using the concepts of tropical modernism around the early 1960s, a few decades after the origins of modernism. Hence, though tropical modern houses are seeing a resurgence in popularity in recent years, their ideas are not new.
The Influence of modernism On Tropical Modern Architecture
To better understand tropical modernism, perhaps we should know what modernism is.
The principal modern movement started around the 1920s in Europe.
A group of architects started to become opposed to Neoclassicism and Beaux-Arts architectural styles. Hence, the idea of pure forms was the driving force behind the style they were moving towards.
It focused on architecture that was dictated entirely by its function.
You may have heard the phrase “form follows function”.
This movement soon spread across the world and grew into what was known as the International Style. It eliminates all decorative elements and unnecessary treatments to facades. Hence, reducing the architecture down to its purest form and expression.
However, the International Style also came with a sense of “placelessness”. This issue was because it was not identifiable with any specific region. Hence, it could be built anywhere in the world and have a similar expression.
Creating a comfortable indoor environment meant using mechanical ventilation systems.
Modern architecture also disregards the natural terrain of the land. Clearing and levelling the site is necessary before construction.
How is Tropical Modern Different Than Modernism?
Unlike the modernist style, the characteristics of tropical modernism have a regional approach. It came about from architects wanting to adopt the clean aesthetic of modern architecture while addressing the hot, humid climate of the tropics.
Therefore, pitched roofs with large overhangs often replace the simple horizontal lines of a flat roof.
Large, glazed openings carry shading in the form of screens or brise-soleil.
Blank facades use large open patios and terraces to break them up.
Plain white interiors often incorporate warm wooden tones and stone textures.
Photo: Shamanth Patil J | House of Voids | BetweenSpaces
Therefore, a tropical modern house is not simply a modern house in the tropics. It requires deliberate intentions to incorporate characteristics and strategies used in tropical architecture.
Hence, the homeowner does not have to rely on using air conditioning to make their living conditions tolerable. You can make provisions for an air conditioning installation, but hopefully, you will not have to use it very often.
Tropical Modern House
A tropical modern house typically has a contemporary look or style but uses tropical architecture strategies.
These characteristics allow your home to take advantage of the tropical climate. They let in plenty of natural ventilation and light. However, they also provide shade from direct sunlight and shelter from the rain. Nature and the outdoors also play an essential role in a tropical modern house.
Recently, I am noticing a turn toward modern house styles in the Caribbean. I also see them popping up in several residential neighbourhoods in Barbados.
I think this is a step in the right direction. It allows our residential architecture to move forward into the current times.
However, I believe architects and designers could consider more strategies that address the tropical climate and environment.
In addition to the standard techniques of orienting rooms towards prevailing winds, they are additional actions that are useful.
Here are some examples, ideas, principles and characteristics you can consider when designing your tropical modern house.
1. Pitched Lightweight Roofs With Deep Overhangs
Flat concrete roofs are usually the go-to option for any self-respecting modern home.
However, these can be a significant source of heat gain in the tropics unless adequately insulated. Concrete roofs will slowly heat up during the day and release the heat into the home at night.
Photo: Grant Pitcher | The Reserve House | Metropole Architects
A lightweight roof, such as timber framing with metal cladding, will cool a lot faster.
Pitched roofs will also shed water off much faster.
This issue is a problem that flat concrete roofs often have in the tropics unless they have a proper slope and are weathertight.
Some traditional waterproofing systems for flat roofs can also have a below-average performance because of the heat and UV exposure in the tropics.
Large roof overhangs help keep the rain away from window and door openings. In addition, these overhangs also assist with shading walls and openings from direct sunlight. This method is most suitable for north and south-facing walls.
Reinforced concrete flat roofs do have some benefits. They offer excellent protection against strong weather systems like hurricanes.
In addition, they are not susceptible to termites and other similar pests, unlike timber-framed roofs.
They can also offer additional outdoor spaces like roof decks, and it is easier to facilitate vertical expansion in the future.
Therefore, I believe your tropical modern house could benefit from a combination of lightweight sloping and flat concrete roofs.
2. Timber Screens Or Brise Soleil For Shading
Large expanses of glass are the hallmark of modern architecture. This glass allows tons of natural light into your home.
Having sunlight enter large portions of glazing is good in temperate countries during winter. The sunlight can enter the home, warm up the spaces, and thermal mass materials like concrete floors. That heat re-enters back into the room at night, reducing the need for mechanical heating.
However, sizeable unshaded glass in the tropics is not cool, literally.
The heat passes through the glass and heats internal surfaces. It then builds up on the inside, creating a greenhouse effect.
Large, glazed windows and doors that open the entire wall are popular and valuable. However, these openings should have some shading strategy.
Timber screens or brise soleil are great ways to provide shade from direct sunlight. In addition, they allow indirect light as well as natural breezes to pass through.
Photo: Rungkit Charoenwat | U38 House | OFFICE AT Co., Ltd.
Using vertical timber screens or a brise soleil is a popular shading strategy in tropical modern homes. This strategy is ideal on east and west walls but is also popular in other locations.
Timber screens come in various styles. They include slatted, louvred or latticed. Also, screens can be fixed or moveable like bi-fold, swinging or sliding.
Photo: Mansyur Hasan | Griyoase | Andyrahman Architect
Photo: Mansyur Hasan | Trapezioma House | Andyrahman Architect
Using a brick brise soleil is popular in South and Southeast Asian countries like India, Vietnam and Indonesia.
The clay and bricks often come from regional sources. However, a brise soleil made from concrete blocks, wood or even metal is not uncommon.
3. Maximise Operable Windows And Doors To Outdoor Spaces
Human beings have a natural love for the outdoors. Nature has a positive impact on human emotions. Many tropical countries can boast of an idyllic environment, which creates the opportunity for usable outdoor spaces.
Photo: Hiroyuki Oki | Thang House | VTN Architects
Open plan living/dining areas or bedrooms can flow out to exterior terraces, patios and courtyards, creating a greater sense of wide-open spaces common in modern homes. Hence, they are great for your tropical modern home as well.
Openings and outdoors spaces should try to look out for views of nature. These could be to a private garden or a scenic view.
Courtyards are also a great way to inject some nature into the middle of your home.
Photo: Rungkit Charoenwat | Panoramic Villa | OfficeAT
Natural Ventilation and Light
Adding a lot of operable windows and doors can also be a way to allow air to pass through your home.
Natural ventilation is a crucial part of a tropical modern home. It ensures that you and your family are cool without the need for air conditioning.
Large openings in multiple walls will help promote air movement.
Courtyards can also be beneficial for bringing additional natural light to the interior spaces of your home. They also encourage more natural ventilation.
Photo: Mansyur Hasan | Griyoase | Andyrahman Architect
4. Blend Natural Materials With A Minimalist Aesthetic
One of the main characteristics of modern architecture is its minimalist aesthetic. It avoids any unnecessary clutter or busy decorative elements. In addition, they often consist of plain white walls or unfinished concrete.
Tropical modern architecture also follows this principle, but it blends it with the use of natural materials.
Photo: Shamanth Patil J | House of Voids | BetweenSpaces
Materials such as stone, terracotta clay and natural timber complement its white walls. This combination adds a lot of warmth to a tropical modern interior and exterior.
These materials not only add warm, natural tones but also introduces texture to your home.
Stair treads, railings, screens, doors, ceilings and feature walls often use wood, stone or terracotta clay.
Furniture, as well as some furnishings, use natural materials as well.
Tables, chairs, beds and other furniture tend to be made of wood. Other plant-based materials like bamboo or rattan are also popular in some regions.
Another benefit of adding natural material is its sustainability.
Natural materials like stone, wood and clay are more sustainable.
Typically, these materials come from local or regional sources as well. Hence, reducing the environmental impacts of transportation.
Do not be afraid to add a pop of colour to your home. It is not uncommon to see accent colours in tropical modern architecture.
Photo: Shamanth J Patil | Ha House | BetweenSpaces
Many cultures in tropical regions are familiar with colour. Vibrant colours form part of carnivals in the Caribbean and South America and the festivals of Indian and Southeast Asian cultures.
Adding colour to your tropical home can serve as a cultural reference to its region.
5. Open Plan And High Ceilings
A wide, open-plan arrangement is another characteristic of a tropical modern home.
Open spaces with high ceilings can make rooms feel larger. This effect is even more remarkable when these rooms open out to outdoor spaces with large openings.
However, open plans and high ceilings also have climatic benefits in the tropics.
Passive ventilation strategies work best when there are little to no obstructions in the wind’s path. Hence, open-plan homes allow breezes to flow further inside the house.
It also lets natural light penetrate deeper into your rooms.
Hot air rises. Therefore, high ceilings help keep the warm air away from the lower levels you occupy.
Blending the clean-line aesthetic of modern architecture with the functionality of tropical architecture can create a stunning, high-performance home. With its wide-open spaces and passive ventilation strategies, a tropical modern house can be an excellent fit for your project.
Using the principles necessary for designing a house in a tropical climate does not have to translate into traditional forms and aesthetics. It can reflect a style and quality that is indicative of the technology and characteristics of the time.
Featured image: YNE House by Metropole Architects
Photographer: Grant Pitcher (Instagram)