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January 1, 2018

What traditional buildings can teach architects about sustainability

Long before foam insulation and concrete tower blocks, humans were finding ingenious ways to address their needs through architecture. Using local materials and inherited construction techniques, societies have ensured that buildings provide protection and comfort.
In Tonga, traditional curved roofs offered aerodynamic protection against storms and cyclones. In the Uros islands of Lake Titicaca in the Andes, reeds were used in houses due to the insulating properties of their hollow stems. And in southern Taiwan, the alleyways of traditional settlements were built on an east-west axis to harness the cooling power of the island’s prevailing winds.
But in recent decades, technology has disrupted millennia-old building traditions. From steel skyscrapers in the Gulf to concrete apartment blocks in China, a global push to urbanize, modernize and, arguably, Westernize has created new architectural ideals.
Conservationists believe that the global reliance on imported materials and unsustainable construction techniques could pose long-term problems for the environment. Alternatively, so-called “vernacular” architecture — buildings designed in direct response to the local climate, materials, geology and traditions — is often energy-efficient and protective of surrounding eco-systems.
With this in mind, architects and urban planners are increasingly looking to the past, according to Sandra Piesik, editor of the new book “Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet.” Featuring dozens of case studies from different climate zones, the book aims to highlight lessons that can be learned from traditional forms of architecture.
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