by Juhani Taylor
Many aspects of how climate and geography affect architectural styles seem obvious in hindsight. As worldbuilders, the challenge comes in thinking ahead and planning these often-subtle cues into the design of our settlements. A thatched roof would seem unusual in the middle of a desert, for example, unless there was a water source nearby where reeds grow.
In this article, both the direct and indirect effects of climate on architectural choices are examined, followed by an exploration into how the “rules” can be broken and what that means for our worldbuilding. By the end, this article will have offered an idea of how architecture tells a story about its location and how we might build this into our worlds in a way that conveys depth and meaning to our audience.
At its most fundamental level, architecture is about fulfilling one of the basic human needs: shelter. Throughout nature, the desire to protect one’s self from predators and the elements is innate to almost all animals. This should come as no surprise; after all, if a group of apes do not protect themselves from the cold rain or the tiger nearby, they will produce fewer and less healthy offspring than their savvier cousins. In this way, architecture can be viewed as a result of natural selection itself.
Fending off predators is perhaps the easier of the two requirements; sturdy doors and walls will see to that. However, climate and weather are the real drivers in the design of buildings.
Two main themes emerge when considering protection from the elements: heat and water. Humans typically want to keep their homes somewhere between 64°F and 70°F (18°C and 21°C). In colder climates, buildings attempt to retain heat inside, while in hotter countries, buildings might keep the heat outside. In both cases, the transfer of heat between indoors and outdoors is the critical aspect to be controlled.
When exploring how one might build a home in locations far hotter or colder than the 64–70°F range, common trends emerge. One such trend concerns what architects call the “Window-to-Wall Ratio,” or WWR (sometimes termed the “void-solid ratio”). This value is calculated by dividing the total surface area of all external windows by the total surface area of the external walls and windows of a particular building. Thus, a WWR of 0% indicates a windowless hut, while modern, glass-fronted skyscrapers approach 90% WWR. Modern building design guides discuss WWR’s as a factor in “daylighting”: the amount of sunlight that enters the building and its impact on the occupants’ visual comfort and mood. Typically, as the amount of light increases, the well-being of these buildings’ occupants improve, but older windows had more than aesthetics to contend with.
Before the industrialization of modern glass production and the advent of double- and triple-glazing, windows were expensive, fragile, and extremely poor thermal insulators. The infamous Window Tax was first introduced in England and Wales in 1696 as an explicit method of taxing the upper classes by charging them proportionally to the number of windows in their residences. Only the wealthiest nobility could afford to heat large homes filled with expensive glass windows.
This tax had two main effects on the social perception of wealth. As the tax rates were public knowledge, the general public could glimpse the level of wealth on display in a stately home simply by the number of windows. Conversely, there are many examples throughout the British Isles of buildings dating back to this time with bricked up windows. This simple solution allowed homeowners to avoid a tax calculated on the number of windows in their abodes. However, what message did this send to neighbors? In a time when social standing and appearance among the landed gentry was of paramount importance to a nobleman, an admittance of being too poor to pay the fee might have been devastating. Or, perhaps, it was an act of defiance from a crafty lord, outsmarting the taxman at his own game?
In countries that see temperatures close to the range for the ideal home, there is more freedom in design choices. The city of Venice in Italy sees a year-round average temperature of 63°F (17°C) in a pleasant, coastal Mediterranean climate. Combined with a history of extraordinary trade wealth in the Late Medieval and Renaissance eras, these factors resulted in buildings like the Procuracies of St. Mark’s Square, in which near-countless windows are separated only by narrow columns. The average WWR here is enormous compared to other pre-industrial buildings simply because little temperature control is needed.
Nine-hundred twenty miles (1,480 km) southeast of Venice lies the volcanic archipelago of Santorini. Here, where summer temperatures exceed 84°F (29°C), the famous whitewashed stone buildings sit low and embedded into the sides of the caldera. From these houses, hypóskapha (hypó- = “under,” skapha = “vessels”) tunnel into the pumice hillsides. These building extensions provide additional shelter from the heat of the southern Mediterranean sun, and they crucially self-regulate building temperatures to stay in a comfortable range year-round. These buildings lie just 9° south of Venice, yet the windows are tiny by comparison, sunk into the thick stone walls to keep the interiors cool.
Conversely, 9° north of Venice is the Danish-German border, where the opposite problem is found: traditional architecture keeps the windows small to keep the heat inside. Just by looking at the windows of a building, we can learn something about the climate in which they are located.
There are other architectural features that are used in controlling internal temperature—overhanging roofs and balconies are common in hotter countries, as are windows that are recessed into deep alcoves. These features serve to limit the incidence of direct sunlight on the windows and thus reduce the heat transfer to the inside of the building. Water is mostly a complementary factor to temperature. It is an excellent thermal conductor, which means if a building is not watertight, it will transfer huge amounts of heat in or out. There are other issues that can arise from water ingress; mold, for example, can cause respiratory health problems if left unchecked.
There are also significant design choices made in response to precipitation. In locations with higher rainfall, snowfall, or even hail, flat roofs are shunned in favor of sloped roofs. If this choice seems blindingly obvious, perhaps it is. However, as with windows, there is nuance in roofs. With heavy snowfall, a sloping roof might accumulate an abundance of snow and hold it in place until disturbed, say, by a door slamming shut. The person who has just left the building then becomes the victim of a mini-avalanche as the snow dislodges from the roof. This incident can be avoided by making the roofs steeper, so less snow can accumulate before it slides off in smaller amounts. Alternatively, small fences or rails can be installed at the lower edge of the roof to catch the snow, though special attention must be paid to how the snow is cleared before the weight becomes excessive. Where hail is commonplace, brittle roof tiles might be replaced with tougher metal, wooden panels, or thatch. Windows might also be sheltered with shutters or larger overhangs above them.
These ideas can be expanded further. While temperature control and waterproofness are decisions in basic building design, we can also consider whole structures designed with specific solutions in mind.
In some hot countries, tall towers can be found jutting above the adjacent low roofs with huge openings in the sides near the top. These are bâdgir-hâ, “windcatchers” or “windtowers” in Persian. They provide natural ventilation throughout buildings that are otherwise isolated from the outdoors for temperature control. Different combinations of these towers function in various exacting ways, but their purpose is to create a flow of air. This cool breeze (without the accompanying sunlight) expels the hot air from inside. If we introduce water to the hot room, perhaps by deliberately capturing rainfall, this effect is amplified through evaporative cooling. Some of the room’s heat goes into evaporating the water, and this vapor is then drawn out of the room by the airflow.
The ground, too, can offer solutions for temperature control. Geothermal power generation is a popular renewable energy source in the modern age, but it is not a new innovation. Ground-source heat pumps rely on the temperature difference between the surface and the soil some distance below it. In the winter, the surface will be colder; in the summer, hotter. This difference can be harnessed as a heat exchanger, allowing heat to be “moved” and used to heat a home or refrigerate food. In areas with more tectonic activity, such as near volcanoes, the temperature difference may be much greater too, allowing for efficient heat exchange with magma that is near the surface. Iceland famously uses geothermal heat to keep its roads and sidewalks ice-free in winter by pumping 95°F (35°C) water just under the surface.
The last major point we must consider of the direct drivers can be summed up in one word: resources. It is difficult to build a stone cathedral in grasslands without some mountains or quarries nearby, and a wattle-and-daub house would be out of place in polar tundra. There are too many combinations and factors to list here. It suffices to say that the resource availability for building is a logical continuation of climate-dependent building. Consider the core materials required—stone, wood, clay, etc.—and what quantities and varieties of each are available in a given region.
In the northern reaches of what are now Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia’s Kola peninsula live the Sámi. They are an indigenous people distinct from Finns and Scandinavians in culture, language, and tradition. Most notably, the majority of their ancestral homeland, Sápmi, lies north of the Arctic Circle and thus sees midnight sun in the summer and polar night in the winter. In Kárášjohka, where the Norwegian Sámi parliament sits, winter temperatures regularly drop below -8°F (-22°C).
The majority of modern Sámi are urbanized, yet some still live in temporary tent shelters (lavvu) in the wild northern plains. Why? Aluminum and modern fabrics may have replaced wood and hide, but are these materials still inadequate for the cold climate?
The 3,000 or so Sámi who live like this are boazovázzi, or “reindeer walkers.” The Arctic landscape does not make for green pastures, so in winter, the herders must wander the countryside to feed their reindeer on lichen. This semi-nomadic lifestyle is not as necessary in the summer when leaves and grass abound, so they relocate to more permanent log cabins and cottages.
The Sámi are just one of many examples of how climate can affect architecture indirectly. The cold, unforgiving climate of northern Fennoscandia demands sturdy, thick shelter, yet its effect on local resources overrules that and necessitates the lavvu. This can be used in our worldbuilding to consider how direct drivers might affect other aspects of life, including the resource requirements of the occupants’ profession. The Sámi are one example; another example would be fishermen who build their homes on stilts on the water’s edge, allowing them to fish while keeping their home safely away from the water.
The salient point here is that incredible depth and richness can be achieved in our worldbuilding by simply asking the same questions one level deeper. These people live here because their food source is here, but what resources does that food need to survive? Food chains exist everywhere. The web of needs includes sunlight, water, warmth, and many other things.
Breaking the Rules
The design of buildings can tell a story about the environment in which they were built. But, like many good stories, a particular interest should be paid to structures that buck the trend. So far I have focussed on pre-industrial architecture, and not without reason. Modern technology frees us from many constraints and allows for seemingly paradoxical design choices in architecture, many of which would have been nonsensical a mere century ago.
In Doha, Qatar, the traditionally styled Souq Waqif marketplace sits in the heart of the capital’s old commercial district. It has the hallmarks of a pre-modern Middle Eastern marketplace: small shops in densely packed, rough-plastered mud-and-bamboo buildings with a maze of narrow alleyways connecting them. At one end, a wind tower helps to catch the breeze and waft the aromas of shisha and spices through the bustling crowds.
Less than two miles (3.2km) away across the West Bay Lagoon, the thirty-five skyscrapers of modern downtown Doha tower over the seafront. They defy logic with their glass façades in a country that sees 113°F (45°C) on an average summer day. And yet, they are not oddities. Why? The answer is obvious to us in the twenty-first century, but the notion of a fully air-conditioned building made of steel and glass is as alien to a pre-industrial society as a sailless ship. While it comes with its own challenges, technology frees architects from the constraints of resources, temperature control, and shade versus insulation.
Much of East and Southeast Asia lies near the “Ring of Fire,” a collection of volcanoes and earthquake-prone regions encircling the Pacific Ocean. In many of these countries, traditional carpentry and architectural techniques have allowed older buildings to withstand earthquakes for hundreds of years. The vertical growth of buildings in the last century presents a new problem: specialist wooden joints or masonry cannot protect a skyscraper from being shaken apart. Enter Taipei 101, so-named for its 101 floors and its location in the capital city of Taiwan. At over 1,640ft (500m) in height, it needs to protect itself not only from earthquakes, but the wind as well. Suspended between the eighty-seventh and ninety-second floors is a 728-ton steel sphere. Its job is to act as a tuned mass damper: a pendulum designed so that it naturally swings against vibrations and oscillations (such as those caused by high winds and earthquakes) and cancels them out. On stormy days, occupants can see the sphere move up to one meter to counteract the building’s sway. New challenges require new solutions.
But what happens when progress continues unchecked and is not controlled in a sustainable way? Perhaps we want to build a post-industrial city, a scene where the downsides of technology have finally caught up after failing to be controlled.
Jakarta is just such a city. It is the capital of Indonesia, and it is sinking—literally. After securing independence in 1950, the new Indonesian government had ambitions to turn their capital into a great international city. They poured funds into the construction of highways, national monuments, shopping centers, government buildings and other projects. Homes were built, and citizens were encouraged to move to the city. However, the underlying driver in these plans was more political than economic. So, corners were cut. Building standards were guidelines, not rules. Anything to meet the deadlines set by an increasingly authoritarian president’s vision of an emerging nation.
Sixty years later, these cut corners are bearing rotten fruit. Many of then-President Sukarno’s projects involved setting thousands of tons of concrete atop Jakarta’s swampy marshland; as a result, the city is sinking by up to ten inches (twenty-five centimeters) per year in some parts. Combine this problem with rising sea levels due to climate change, and here is a perfect storm of failing urbanization. Experts predict that by 2050, ninety-five percent of Jakarta will be submerged.
What is one to do in this situation? Indonesia’s current president has announced plans to move its administration to an entirely new city that it will build, from scratch, over the coming decades. The new capital will be located approximately 760 miles (1,223 km) northeast of Jakarta on the eastern reaches of the island of Borneo, ready for the government’s relocation by 2025.
This is not the first time a move like this has been attempted: Brazil, Burma, and Ivory Coast have all built new capital cities when they outgrew the old ones. We can use these settlements as templates in our worldbuilding. When a country industrializes, its people inevitably flock to the cities. These urban centers must expand and adapt to the growing population, and they must do so sustainably or risk becoming overcrowded slums. This possibility is important to consider if we are building a world undergoing a technological revolution.
While technology is the cause of such problems, it can also be its savior. Transport infrastructure allows for fast travel between cities. Telecommunications remove the need for many people to live near their employers. The mobilization and miniaturization of many technologies mean production lines no longer need to be based in industrial centers. And if all else fails, one can just start again with a new city.
It is said that one of the most sobering realizations of growing up is that everyone around you is living through their own stories, just as rich and complex as yours. So it goes with architecture.
Architecture tells a story, and that applies to any and all buildings. Within these stories are glimpses of design choices. We can invent stories for buildings just by asking questions like:
- Where are they built? Is the region hot? Cold? Humid? Arid? How might this climate affect the size of the windows, the shape of the roofs, or the thickness of the walls?
- What is the local landscape like? Cliff-side homes have different requirements than those in flat grasslands.
- What natural resources are available for construction? Wood? Clay? Stone? Metal? If there are none nearby, how might residents source them?
- Similarly, what resources are there for the residents? Do they need to be mobile hunter-gatherers, or pastoral farmers? Or neither? How do they get their food, warmth, and money?
If we ask these questions when we are worldbuilding, we can soon find that every structure has a history as rich and meaningful as any character.
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