Tuesday, 5 April 2011
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Bhutanese Architecture: Vernacular and Sustainable
January 14, 2011

As the Buddhist kingdom ushers in a new era of development, it faces the challenge of keeping its traditional architecture sustainable, beautiful and sacred.

Whenever people ask me, what is the one place I want to visit in my lifetime, I always say Lhasa – you get the kingly feeling as you sit at the top of the roof of the World and you feel like the whole creation is just flourishing right underneath it.


Lhasa, Tibet


As unique as our culture, our architecture has also been the one of the most unique identities we have. It stands out so much, not just superficially and theoretically, but also in its practicability of usage. These dzongs, otherwise known as fortresses, are the living monuments that do not just embody our long run of historical events, but are the direct answer to how sustainable our architecture is without forgetting how beautiful and glorious they are, as they overlook the valleys that flourish beneath them.

In the past, they served as the capital place of protection and the sit to the head of the valley. The piousness has now increased to these fortresses being used as not just administration offices to the direct representatives of our noble king, but it is also the place for young monks to get educated; it has become nothing less than an abode of the religion of which we are all the ardent followers. Do we need any other evidence of sustainability of Bhutanese architecture then? And even our house, the traditional houses are closely built to be sustainable and they house ultimate sustainability.

The idea of sustainability is still a luxurious term in the world of architecture. Architects still see it as some fashionable subject at the moment.

There is another indifferent approach towards making architecture environmental friendly and that’s making it Green. The challenge is that while sustainable architecture can be green, it’s never the same when we reverse the equation. The greenest building which rotates, and adjusts its orientation with conditions of climate and dweller’s choice, can never be sustainable if it costs more money and if the embodied energy into its production can be can never be acquired at the equal rate at which it is used. Sustainability takes into an account of conserving while it serves and saving while we can use it. It goes with the idea of using what we can produce, thereby keeping the future intact and, if possible, creating more for the future generation of ours.

traditional architecture in Bhutan


Most of the traditional architecture is sustainable to a certain extent or more. They embody the idea of long sustainability and true vernacularism through usage of locally available materials and techniques which tell many stories of our culturist approach in design. Our farmhouses have withstood the force of nature, our bridges do not just carry the exquisite details of painting and intricate elements, our temples aren’t merely guarding the beliefs of our sect; they also have evolved so much and politically upheld the sacred architecture of ours not to mention how these architectures, even if it’s a small farmhouse, it’s built with strict accordance to orientation of sunlight, wind and the our ever-long superstitions.

Mud and the wood are perhaps the most eco-friendly materials to build the houses. They not only are pollution-free, but also cheap and reliable resources. The mud mortars, stone boulders carved manually, hand planed wooden members, and above all the nail-less architecture make very inexpensive sustainable houses. We don’t have just the sustainable buildings but we also have the luxury to do it almost cheaply.


traditional architecture


In Bhutanese architecture, traditionally we never used metal nails to fix our doors or windows. Even these days in rural areas, doors either hang on something or they rest on a hole with an extra wooden member. Such hinging techniques prove so much of our beautifully expressed architecture, not to mention how our huge dzongs are also jointed by such delicate (or durable) piece of technique. They are innovative as well. The sliding on windows also do not use any other mechanised channels. The window sills are low so that they fit our way of sitting on the floor. The cornices are perhaps one of the most beautiful combinations on our buildings – they carry such a load of trusses over them due to the free nature of movement and agility. These are also responsible for distributing the strong wind forces and earthquake forces equally throughout the building skeleton. Perhaps one drawback our traditional farmhouse has is sanitation. Of course, it serves to protect domestic animals from dangerous predators, but it is so much a hazard to the sanitation with cows and pigs shedding right under the floor where we sleep.

The time when whole villages gather and start building a house is way over except in few rural areas.

Now the era of concrete and steel has majorly dominated the market. The new techniques have conquered over the traditional due to easy and fast construction. The time when whole villages gather and start building a house is way over except in few rural areas. Even the facades, which used to have a wonderfully crafted ekras made out of wooden frames with beaten bamboo pieces fixed over it with mud, are now concrete ones faking such details with falsifying paintings or with an elevated line of cement plasters. Wooden shingles are very much out of sight with iron sheets replacing them. Window sills have been raised to a meter or less, which doesn’t really allow the usage of natural light to a monk who is reading to our religious sects, sitting on the floors. Well, as for the materials’ adverse effects on the environment around, one can be a witness to how harmful waste cement mixtures are to the vegetation and the soil. However, with certain innovation, the use of such materials is also considered sustainable though.


a modern building in Bhutan


Our country needs infrastructures in almost every field to usher a new era of development, and we need builders and architects on a larger scale to play a pivotal role. It is no mystery that tomorrow when we would have our country built using the same materials and techniques like others in the world do, we would by then think of innovating the global ideas of keeping buildings and spaces sustainable. It would be blessing if we would have not lost the real originality of our architecture then.

Of course going by the norms and by-laws of our City Corporations, there are so many restrictions on architects even trying to change the facade design of our architecture. It might restrict the innovation of architects, but there can always be more fascinating and beautiful ways to cross the river if not by a bridge. It can evolve, though, in a way it doesn’t deviate from the way it is and it upholds the same value and uniqueness. It’s a challenge to keep our traditional architecture sustainable, beautiful and sacred.


This post was originally published on And there’s more to life in December 2010.


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