Building & Renovating

Building 101: 25 Tips for a Tropical Home

Decorating your own home? Here are 25 things to keep in mind

Original Article: Coni Tejada

A tropical home is best suited to our climate, but it seems a lot of Filipinos want something else—Mediterranean, European, American Country, even!

Before blaming it on colonial mentality, maybe it’s a misinterpretation of the style at worst; unfortunately, the words “tropical style” are two of the most abused (and misused!) words when referring to home design. Do you really know what it is? Four Filipino architects—all with expertise in tropical design—give us the skinny on what “Tropical” really means. 


Joven Ignacio is a professor of Tropical Design at the College of Architecture in the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

Joel Paul Muñoz is an architect at Leandro V. Locsin and Partners.

John Pangilinan runs his own architectural company

Vincent Martin Pinpin is architect/designer of VMBP Architecturals, and is a lecturer on Asian Vernacular Architecture at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Read the original article ("25 Tips for a Tropical Home") in the April 2009 issue of Real Living Magazine. Download your digital copy of Real Living on the Real Living App now! Log on to for more details. 

1. Aptly put by architect Joven Ignacio, “ATROPICAL HOUSE BELONGS IN A TROPICAL ENVIRONMENT.” This type of house is immediately appropriate for our climate, which Joven relates, is all in extremes. “We have high humidity…strong winds, we have a lot of sunlight, [and] we have pests because of the high water content in the air.” Architect Joel Muñoz shares the same view, “I would say tropical design responds and addresses the climactic requirements of the tropics.” All these environmental factors should be addressed by creating the right kind of tropical home, which is to…

2. CREATE A CONTEMPORARY BAHAY KUBO. For all architects, the bahay kubo is the model of a perfect tropical home. “The house-on-stilts form, while perfect for hot/humid climates…is our most economical answer to the environment. It is cheap, it is fast [to build,] it is easy to re-locate or even replace,” explains architect Vincent Martin Pinpin, who affectionately refers to the traditional bahay kubo as “TBK.” 

But before you snap up sawali and bamboo to build your hut, take heed. “It’s certainly impractical however to build a bahay kubo in the metro, for fire safety and durability issues,” warns Joel. “But a modern tropical house may take off from its practical design. Materials may also be substituted with more modern and durable ones available today.” 

3. BE CULTURE-SENSITIVE. Make your tropical home apt in the province or area you are in, says Joven. “Culture of a people is very important…look at the behavioral patterns of the ones who will be living in it, the historical background of the family. If your family grew up in Metro Manila, iba ang kultura, mas harassed, yung nasa labas ng Metro Manila, medyo laidback.”

4. PLAN WITH RAIN IN MIND. Admits architect John Pangilinan, “rain is a part of tropical design…we have six, or even seven or eight months of rain, and that has to be incorporated into [the] design, and use it for sustainable purposes. [I] like using rain water for watering the plants, creating storage for it.”

5. DO PROPER SOLAR ORIENTATION. Where your house is located in a lot and the location of its openings is crucial to having a cool and comfortable home. Vincent explains; “The proper siting of the structure [lessens] the radiant heat…and encourages natural airflow into the space. Orienting the structure on the north-south axis [where] wall openings face it and keeping the east-west facing walls closed (where the sun rises and sets—Ed.) ensures that [harsh] sunlight will not enter the space.” 

Architect John also suggests “[having] more openings towards the north and south, if you want to have more openings at the east and west, you have to put more vegetation.” 

6. DISCOVER THE BEAUTY OF BRISE-SOLEIL. Simply put, brise-soleil means “sun shades,” exterior architectural elements made out of wood or metal placed over window openings. “Basically, [it] blocks out the sun’s rays and helps lower temperatures,” says Vincent. 

7. GO FOR WIDER EAVES. Longer and wider eaves (that part of the roof that hangs over the walls of your house) shield parts of the house from sun and rain. But it also helps if you…

8. …HAVE A STEEPER PITCH. “A steep roof slope allows rainwater to flow down faster, and creates a larger void between roof surface and ceiling. The air [in this void] circulates, and cools the home,” explains Joel. The recommended pitch is 30 to 45 degrees. 


10. …CLAY ROOF TILES. Why do we always end up using GI sheets for our roofs? Joven explains: “It’s a technology that was imported from America during the war. Nasira ang mga building natin, [and that was the] easiest material to use. Our Asian neighbors, they’ve been using clay tiles, malamig yung mga bahay nila.” 

So nix the GI sheets and go for the cooler option of clay. “Right now for the city, a clay tile roof or cement tile roof might be best,” says Vincent. “It’s the least thermally conductive and it lasts longer.” 

11. HAVE AN OPEN PLAN LAYOUT. “Considering that most Filipino properties are small, the lesser walls you have, the better the ventilation, and better communication in terms of interaction,” says John. “You can actually open everything.”

12. UTILIZE PASSIVE COOLING. Passive cooling simply means cooling the house without using artificial air conditioning. This is the trademark of a tropical home, and this means having wide window openings, and employing the next few techniques. 

13. HIGH CEILINGS ARE THE TROPICAL NORM. Hot air rises, so a higher ceiling means that hot air has space to circulate, and the space would be less humid and stuffy. 

14. BRING BACK VENTANILLAS. According to John and Vincent, ventanillas (sliding panels located beneath windows in a traditional Filipino home) should still be utilized in cooling a home. Conversely, openings located near the ceiling also help. “Clerestory windows or vents above act as an egress for hot air,” says Joel. 

15. HAVE AN OUTDOOR SPACE. Tropical homes always have a connection with the outdoors. “The idea of bringing the outdoors in is very Asian,” surmises Vincent. “It is good for the soul, calms the nerves, heightens the senses.” So even if you live in a small condominium, add a seating area and lush plants to your balcony, or have your townhouse’s dining room open up to a pocket garden. 

16. EMPLOY ALL METHODS OF ENERGY EFFICIENCY. Tropical homes are by nature energy-efficient, as they do not need artificial air conditioning or lighting during the day. “Noong unang panahon ang mga vernacular houses natin, hindi energy-guzzlers,” relates Joven. Vincent also suggests going further by building “a turf roof. This is literally…a ‘green’ roof since it is planted with ground cover over soil and other layers, and lowers interior temperatures.”

17. CUT DOWN ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING IN THE DAYTIME. Wide window openings ensure proper lighting during the day.

18. MAKE IT A MONOCHROME PALETTE AND LIGHT, REFLECTIVE COLORS. “A monochromatic color scheme brightens the space, gives the illusion of it being bigger than it actually is and cool to the senses—more maaliwalas,” explains Vincent. Light colors reflect heat, and thus can be used on any surface—from roof and walls to floors and furniture upholstery—to make an area cooler. This is why the trademark colors of a contemporary tropical home are white and beige. 

19. GO NATURAL. “We want to keep colors to a minimal level, because we want it [to look] natural,” avers John. “If you look at nature, they [have] simple colors—greens, browns, beige, whites—and we would like to complement the environment.” 

20. USE INDIGENOUS MATERIALS. “Houses should be allowed to breathe,” says Joven. “The materials used should also be allowed to breathe, para matuyo kaagad [because] we have a humid environment.” He recommends not only using traditional bamboo and nipa, but other sustainable and fast-growing materials like rattan, and jemelina wood.  

21. MAKE YOUR FURNITURE AND ACCESSORIES GO TROPICAL, TOO. Unless you want to make an eclectic statement, furnishings should be related your tropical home and the region it is in. In more contemporary tropical spaces, as suggested by John, modern furniture pieces in indigenous materials by the likes of Kenneth Cobonpue (or other Movement 8 designers like Milo Naval and Ann Pamintuan—Ed.) are perfect in such homes. 

22. TRY A CLEAN, MINIMALIST LOOK.  Scared of going rustic? Vincent explains that a tropical home can be as modern as you want it to be. “It can be as modern as you want, very sleek, sparse, simple, uncluttered, and clean, yet still be perfectly tropical just by using the techniques of our vernacular heritage.”

23. LANDSCAPE WITH TROPICAL GREENERY. One of the trademarks of a tropical home is the presence of plants, inside and out. “Of course tropical plants are best suited to our climate, we have a lot of beautiful indigenous plants around us,” says Vincent. He suggests soft barriers (in lieu of fences) such as bamboo hedges, violet Ti plants, popular croton or San Francisco, or dramatic gabi plants. These plants can also help cool the area, and provide shade. “[A] trellis is also key in controlling the influx of direct sunlight,” says John. 

24. CREATE A WATER FEATURE.  “Water features (such as ponds, pools, fountains, waterfalls) do decrease the temperature, especially when air passes through these,” explains Vincent. Joel on the other hand, suggests placing water features outside window openings since “evaporating water helps cool the air.” 

25. BAMBOO IS THE BEST. Regarded as one of the most versatile (and readily-available) plants in the tropics, bamboo serves not only as a decorative plant, but also as a sturdy building material or surface finish. “There are studies that bamboo is a very resilient material for building…with an even greater tensile strength than steel,” explains Vincent. “This is perfect for light house construction.”


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