Sustainable Design: A Glimpse of the Vernacular Design Approach

Annie Sim

Our newest Senior Sustainability Consultant, Annie Sim, has written an article on examples that showcase the importance of site microclimate and computer-aided optimisation towards Sustainability in the Built Environment:

Growing up, I spent many school holidays at my late granny’s place. An independent woman from a generation that cooks without measuring tools, when everything went by intuition, taste and feel. When her room was installed with an air-conditioning unit, she placed a bowl of water in the room. Only much later in life did I understand that it was her way of managing humidity control. Occasionally, she would assign me the task of sun-drying her anchovies and I would instinctively shift the tray for maximum sun exposure. Looking back at those days without the modern conveniences of today, I believe our predecessors possessed a greater awareness of what nature can control – the sun, wind and light (the microclimate). Examples of this can be observed in the many vernacular architectures of the past and a few in present day.

Vernacular design is heavily driven by the understanding of site microclimate condition. Today, this can be achieved through the skillful use of computer-aided design optimisation and validation.

The Church of the Holy Apostles; a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Greece is an example of vernacular design. It features a large dome with windows in a cross-in-square ground plan, where daylight is used for occupants’ visual comfort to create a mystical luminous environment. Key considerations include:

  • Orientation: East facing entrance allowing first light of the day into the church sanctuary (Antonakaki, 2007)
  • Sunpath: Main entrance is oriented for August the 15th – a day of celebration for the Saint of the church; morning sun is aligned with the central window and the altar (Potamianos, 2000)
  • Visual comfort: Strategic window positioning allowing visual adaptation with the dome being the main source of light for the centre zones (Antonakaki, 2007)

Moving forward to the modern vernacular design of the 20th century, the Church of Light in Japan is one of the most prominent sacred structures. Key considerations include:

  • Orientation: South facing cross aperture allowing consistent daylight penetration throughout the year to achieve the intended contrast
  • Sunpath: Strategically positioned windows and apertures maximising daylight penetration during the winter months and the reverse during the summer months
  • Visual comfort: Horizontal slots between the roof and angled wall allowing the combination of direct and diffused daylight to achieve the desired luminous environment

In summary, a few of the early approaches that can be considered towards sustainable design are:

  • Understanding design requirements vs. occupants’ needs
  • Evaluating potential opportunities from the site’s microclimate
  • Considering opportunities available from the on-site wastage
  • Adopting skillful utilisation of computer-aided tools for design optimisation and validation

The above, if adopted during the early design stage would allow greater flexibility in design while creating opportunities for reduced dependency on active solutions and assist to lower the building owner’s financial burden over the long run.

To discuss your sustainability needs please contact Annie Sim at 


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