The Return of Regional Architecture
Adobe. Stilts. Concrete walls and ember-catching roofs. To adapt to a warming world, design has to relearn how to be local.
Blame architecture. Unreinforced buildings crumbled in Turkey’s earthquake. Heatwaves across the U.K. and India turned steel and glass high rises into greenhouses literally cooking people to death. One-size fits all architecture — a fallout of the industrial revolution and increased globalization — took advantage of inexpensive mass-produced materials, like concrete, steel, and glass, to standardize structures everywhere without consideration for local climate conditions.
From Mumbai to Tokyo to Vancouver to New York City, concrete tower blocks sprung up everywhere over the last century. Built without courtyards, natural air flow, or landscaping, the apartment blocks were vulnerable to extreme temperatures and created heat islands — increasing temperatures in these blocks by several degrees and requiring air conditioning when inhabitants could afford it.
Air conditioning is both a blessing and a curse for a warming planet. A blessing because it can literally save lives when temperatures spike. And a curse because millions of people cranking them up during heatwaves can push electricity grids past their breaking point, a problem that will only worsen as the world gets hotter. Air conditioning also literally warms outside temperatures by another 1 degree Celsius, creating a vicious cycle of heat.
Recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres predicted that rising seas would affect more than a billion people and create mass exodus on a biblical scale. Is there a version of this climate narrative that results in a rebirth of adaptable, resilient, and habitable housing? Will the threat of climate migration and extreme weather herald a return to regional design, a trend that better tailors engineering, materials, and technology to local conditions?
Pioneering efforts to merge architecture and climate resilience into a form of regional design is 2023 Pritzer Prize winner David Chipperfield. He launched Fundacion IRA in Galicia with the city’s government and urban planners in response to the scale of challenges presented by global warming. In his acceptance statement for the award, Chipperfield said, “We know that, as architects, we can have a more prominent and engaged role in creating not only a more beautiful world but a fairer and more sustainable one too. We must rise to this challenge and help inspire the next generation to embrace this responsibility with vision and courage.”
And we already know how to do this.
Tropical Modernism is an architecture style that elevated the indigenous traditions of the tropics. Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka and Vladimir Ossipof in Hawaii both connected indoors and outdoors, used overhanging roofs, local woods, and even lava to create structures in harmony with the tropical climate and way of life.
Like Tropical Modernist architects, Le Corbusier tempered climate extremes in Chandigarh, the planned city he designed in northern India, with architectural and landscape interventions — tree canopies, roof overhangs, shutters, verandas, and reflecting pool. The structures could protect from storms and bring in cooling breezes; invite in the daylight, but not the heat. But he also considered Chandigarh a living biological entity and designed the city to facilitate “breathing” in the region’s extreme climate. To do this, he prioritized thermo dynamic performance: prevailing winds, evaporative cooling and convection currents to maximize cooling and promote air circulation.
Pueblo-style adobe homes have historically responded well to harsh conditions — namely heat — but are also proving resistant to fire, hurricanes, and even earthquakes. Built typically in desert environments from Morocco to Spain to Central America to the U.S. Southwest, adobe homes have morphed into styles that include modern earthships made of clay, dirt, old tires, (and whatever else is laying around) and also the amorphously shaped cob homes. Conrad Rogue, who has taught earthen design for 20 years at House Alive in Oregon, insists adobe and cob homes are beautiful, not just for hippies and a good solution for the climate crisis, “Earthen homes, made of local clay soil and straw, have survived thousands of years and can be built in all climates in all parts of the world.”
There is no refuting the climatic benefits of clay and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Francis Kéré’s approach to regional adobe design is refreshingly modern. He combined recent engineering principles with traditional building techniques to create the stunning Gando Primary School in Burkino Faso, which stays cool without air conditioning even though temperatures are in the 90s year round.
A few other ways architects are responding to extreme weather beyond heat include building homes to withstand fire, flood risks, and even hurricanes.
Northern California-based Faulkner architects build in wildfire-prone zones and are gathering expertise in construction with non-combustible materials and using landscaping to limit the risk of igniting as well as providing "defensible space," by limiting the amount of highly flammable vegetation around it. One Faulkner project, a family house near Lake Tahoe, was only 25 miles away from the Caldor fire in 2021. After, they reinforced the home in a “fire-resistive shell” of concrete walls and a steel roof coated with an ember-catching membrane. They also installed window glazing that can withstand temperatures of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit and gives the house a real chance of surviving a wildfire.
And it’s becoming more and more possible to live in a flood zone. Stilts protect houses built on floodplains and from rising tides. The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety says, “There’s no real substitute for elevation. It's your best bet." U.K. architect Lisa Shell’s beach house is a great example. She built it out of cork on stilts over an estuary where high tide flows under the house.
More and more, architects are designing with climate in mind:
• Genzler Architects built a photovoltaic canopy that shades an entire office building.
• Copenhagen-based Snohetta partnered on Harvard HouseZero to experiment ways to maximize energy efficiency of an old house. They recently completed Under, an underwater restaurant built to withstand rough seas and destined to become part of the seabed.
• BIG architects, famous for Copenhill, their waste-to-energy ski slope in Copenhagen, completed the first fully sustainable factory that doubles as a public park in Norway for outdoor furniture company Vestre.
• Land on Water is a transportable floating housing community developed by Danish Maritime Architecture Studio MAST
• Cosmic pre-fab houses are built for climate extremes with heat pumps and solar panels.
• Buhaus prefabs are made with fire-resistant aluminum facades.
• London-based Hugh Broughton Architects designs for both Antarctica and Mars. His Halley VI remote mobile research station was in a movie with Cate Blanchett and has moveable hydraulic legs that can be raised over snow drifts and slid to a new location if the ice melts. The Martian house explores new ways of living resourcefully here on Earth or on Mars. But architecture will need to do more than just return to regional design to create habitable structures that will withstand the environmental volatility coming our way.
It’s probably more instructive to look to the work of Shigeru Ban who has been constructing disaster housing in response to earthquakes, wars, and floods since the Kobe earthquake in 1995. He invented a system of recycled paper tubes that allow for quick construction of emergency shelters that can transition to permanent housing. (His latest prototype for Ukraine is a flat-pack, lightweight, easy-to-assemble house.)
In her book, Atmosphere Anatomies: On Design, Weather and Sensation, Harvard Professor and architect Sylvia Benedito explores habitats and communities that have learned to live with extreme weather in a resourceful way.
She believes Le Corbusier’s approach at Chandigarh is even more relevant today, “Chandigarh budgets were low and they could not afford air conditioning and they had to find inventive ways to tackle the climate challenges. Operating just as an architect doesn't help us think about climatic amelioration. Landscapes are vehicles for transforming punitive and inhospitable environments into spaces capable of accommodating and nurturing human life.”
“That’s why it is so frustrating,” she continues, “to see architects cut down trees, put in glass. I believe the next decades will see a revolution in landscape management.”