How to Adapt Traditional Sustainable Practices to Today’s Buildings Design?

The world over today, nations are gunning for more green building design practices for development. This bid stems from the need to ensure that they don’t further handicap the generations of tomorrow by stripping them of the natural resources that today’s world has so unsparingly consumed and, in some cases, depleted.

While the term ‘sustainable practices’ is fairly modern, one need only take a look at our global history to see how sustainability has always been an inherent and indispensable quality of older settlements that were more aware of the environment. In these indigenous techniques, one can find evidence of how our ancestors were more conscious of the effect their development had on their surroundings and made an effort to adopt sustainable solutions that would reduce their ecological footprint.

Here are some useful tried and tested design methods that practising architects can learn from older cities to implement in their designs of tomorrow.

1 | Humanity

Human centric planning: A happy person makes for a happy society- it’s as simple as that. This is why ancient settlements were built for people and not cars. There were safe travel networks and social gathering points that promoted healthy and habitual interaction between people of a zone or neighbouring zones.

In a human-focused development model such as this, infrastructure is used as a means to user satisfaction as opposed to being perceived as the primary goal with the actual objective lost amongst the technological jargon.

Moreover, at times, what is required is through a city’s infrastructure is a visual reassurance of safety. Ancient cities propagated safety and orderliness through fortifications and patrols. An orderly neighbourhood, today, would mean clean and well-maintained surroundings, easily navigable layouts and an approachable governing or policing body.


Mixed use planning: Older cities were planned in such a manner that everything of possible need to an inhabitant was within walking distance, no matter which part of the city they were in. This, as opposed to the recent urban planning method of separating zones based on function, can be grouped under productive sustainable practices and is far more efficient in terms of pooling and conserving resources and in reducing traffic congestion that would otherwise stem from the long, daily commute to and from one’s place of work. The time, thus, saved could be more effectively spent on other character building and leisure activities and the capital and energy that would otherwise have been used lugging material across the city and building transportation infrastructure could instead be used to better the services essential to the smooth functioning of the society.

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was an example of an efficient mixed use plan with functions such as housing, retail and workshops falling within a common zone. Interestingly, one also observes how integrating all functions into one common zone essentially eliminates social and economic barriers that are otherwise figuratively reiterated by practicing physical segregation.


Conserving water: One common feature of a lot of cities built in the ancient times is how they were judicious in their use of water and capitalised each drop to further propel development, without polluting it. For instance, though the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala had natural springs, they weren’t enough for the entire population, so they paved quarries to form reservoirs that would store rainwater in addition to the springs. This collected water would then see them through droughts and the dry season so they could continue their agricultural practices.

A similar sustainable practice of rainwater irrigation can also be seen in the 12th century Cambodian temple complex Angkor Wat and 12th century Sri Lanka ruled by King Parakrama Bahu who believed that not even a drop of rainwater should meet the sea without first benefitting man.

We cannot talk of traditional water reservoirs, without mentioning the stepped wells of Gujarat. These ‘Baolis’, were both a communal water source as well as a cool retreat during the summer wherein the sunken ponds were approached via descending flights of steps that led one deeper into the earth and away from the scorching surfaces of these towns during the day.


Achieving thermal comfort: An energy efficient and sustainable building must always be designed in the context of its climate and never isolated from it.

Warmer regions across the world reveal forms of constructions such as earth-sheltered houses that were built completely or partly underground to make use of the earth’s quality to moderate the temperature. Thus, these houses remained sheltered from the elements and sustained a favourable indoor air temperature without much energy usage.

Another climatically relevant style was the traditional courtyard house where the rooms were arranged around a central open space- a void, if you may- called the ‘courtyard’. This allowed sufficient lighting to all rooms and also maintained a cooler temperature within the house when the lighter hot air rose from the courtyard to be replaced by heavier cool air.

When it comes to maintaining thermal comfort, one must also take into consideration the building’s orientation. A thorough study of the site is imperative before one begins to design in order to understand where the different functions and elements of the building should be placed. For instance, in India, the sides of the building that face North and East should be made more open as opposed to the Western side, which attracts a lot of heat.


Choosing the right materials: In addition to employing sustainable practices while building, it is also our duty, as an architect, to read the earth and understand our site because the materials that we find within a close radius are those that are suitable to the climatic and physical conditions of the respective site and will also prove easier when it comes to being recycled. Thus, ancient builders believed that their buildings must be a natural outgrowth of the very environment and that the materials they used must be locally sourced.

For instance, in South India, local stone was the principal material employed in the construction of temples. This proved most effective in maintaining a favourable indoor temperature given how stone absorbed heat throughout the day and released it at a slow pace, thus ensuring that the interiors of the temple during the hours it was occupied in the day remained cooler than the hours in the evening when the stone would then release the heat it had absorbed into the empty interiors. The intricate carvings and ornamentations on these stone facades cast shadows on the surface throughout the day, and this increased shade on the walls further contributed to cooling the interiors.

Another material that can be cited as an example here is Bamboo, which is found in a lot of regions in Southeast Asia. Its high tensile strength rendered it extremely useful, and it withstood storms and earthquakes. Its rapid growth made it an economically viable material and it could be easily harvested and transported due to its lightweight. What adds to bamboo being sustainable is the fact that it produces no waste, is adaptable, and requires the simplest of tools to fashion into members.

Today, glass facades have certainly become a popular and appealing choice. However, a designer must understand that using glass in such a manner is a western concept where the property of the material to absorb and trap heat into the interiors is desirable given the cooler outdoor temperature. In India, however, this proves counter productive when we factor in the country’s hot and humid climate. Further trapping heat into the interiors only leads to an excessive consumption of energy to power the air conditioners that will prove indispensable in this case, to maintain an ambient indoor temperature.


Contrary to popular belief, modern development need not necessarily eclipse tradition, or even completely surrender to it, but instead can imbibe it and learn from it. The right way to ensure our profession remains relevant and responsible is by studying and revisiting our roots and subscribing to the marriage of environmentally sustainable practices that have stood the test of time and modern technological advancements that promise to better these practices by adapting them to the changing times.

It’s time to learn from the past and lead the future of sustainable design. Learn the essential skills required of green building design from Oneistox sustainable design workshops

It is only then that we can begin to undo the damage we have inflicted on the earth that manifests as pollution, rising sea levels and global warming. Thus, the future must be guided by history while it embraces growth to become energy efficient and environmentally agreeable.

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