Climate Action

6 traditional architectural solutions that can help us adapt to extreme weather

View of turf homes.

Turf homes are starting to rise in in popularity. Image: Unsplash/capyvara

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Extreme weather is one of the top two threats facing the world in the next two years, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023.
  • The race is on to make our homes able to withstand the effects of the climate crisis.
  • Could these innovations from the past be part of the solution?

As the climate crisis makes weather increasingly extreme around the world, architects are rediscovering traditional building styles which have proven their ability to withstand today’s harsh conditions

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 found extreme weather is one of the top two threats facing the world in the next two years. Failure to take sufficient measures to mitigate climate change was rated the most severe risk for the coming decade.

Here are six examples of innovations from the past which are helping us adapt our living environments to survive in an uncertain climate future.

1. Cooling chimneys

View of a traditional windcatcher.
Could traditional windcatchers help cool modern homes as temperatures rise? Image: Unsplash/Amirhussein Hooshangi

Summers can be very hot in Iran. Although in an average year they range up to 36C, in August 2022 the temperature in Abadan hit a record 53C. Traditional Iranian homes stay cool thanks to wind catchers, tall decorated chimneys with openings on at least two sides.

Breezes are funnelled in through one side and hot air escapes through the other. They can lower indoor temperature by up to 12C. Now architects say modern versions using advanced technology could prove a sustainable alternative to energy-hungry air conditioning.

2. Flood-proof homes

Lari OctaGreen shelter at Pono Colony, Mirpurkhas.
Emergency housing: Yasmeen Lari’s modern take on the traditional chauhra. Image: Heritage Foundation of Pakistan via Instagram

Pakistan architect Yasmeen Lari turned to traditional techniques to mass produce homes for people who lost everything in the disastrous floods that hit the country’s Sindh province in 2022. Her design, based on chauhras – local one-room huts, can withstand flooding.

Constructed using prefabricated bamboo frames, the chauhras sit on metre-high raised platforms and are octagonal rather than round for strength. So far, 5,000 have been built and Lari’s work has been recognized by the award of Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

3. Ultra-reflective paint

Xiulin Ruan holds up a sample of the whitest paint on record.
Professor Xiulin Ruan with the perfect heat-reflecting shade of white developed by his team. Image: Purdue University

People who live in hot countries have traditionally used whitewash to help keep their homes cool. Scientists at Purdue University in the United States say they have discovered the perfect heat-reflecting shade of white, so effective it may one day replace air conditioning.

Traditional white-painted surfaces reflect sunlight but also heat up. The Purdue team says their paint reflects 98.1% of sunlight and cools walls by almost 8C. Painted onto a 94-square-metre roof, the paint produces 10kw of cooling power – more than many air conditioners.

4. Storm-protected homes

View of a traditional turf house.
Safe from the storm – a modern take on the traditional turf house Image: Wikipedia

The insulating properties of soil have long been appreciated. Turf houses, homes that are either covered in soil or roofed with turf, have been a traditional feature of cold countries like Iceland for centuries. In fact, they were the norm for Icelanders until the 20th century.

But as well as being sustainable, they also offer storm protection as one homeowner in Oklahoma found when a tornado swept over theirs without causing damage. And they are gaining in popularity. Luxury “earth house” architect Peter Vetsch has built over 70 around the world.

5. Skywells to reduce heat in homes

View of a skywell in a temple.
A skywell in a Fujian temple. Image: Wikipedia

Smaller than a courtyard, skywells, which allow cooling air in and hot air to escape, have been a feature of many buildings in China since the 14th century.

Scientists who have studied the effects of skywells say that in hot and humid climates they reduce indoor temperatures by between 2.6C and 4.3C. Thanks to the heat-retaining qualities of traditional homes, skywells improve ventilation in winter without making people cold.


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6. Aqueducts instead of air conditioning

Another ancient solution being explored for cooling today’s buildings is the aqueduct. In Seville, Spain, which reached temperatures of 42C in July, a grid of underground aqueducts could help to lower temperatures of the buildings above it by as much as 10C.

The network of pipes and tubes under Seville’s CartujaQanat is based on a 1,000-year-old Persian agricultural system called the Persian Qanat, which utilized the cool air from the canals to reduce air temperatures up above.

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