Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Thailand and Huan Yoo Yen
July 24, 2008
The house is called Huan Yoo Yen.
This name, literally translating as “Cool Living House,” is also a reference to a local Isaan (Northeastern Thai) blessing in which the elders of the village instruct others to live contently. But the name is not the only tradition incorporated into this house. The design was inspired by research on traditional Isaan home layouts and observed patterns of living of the Isaan people during three weeks of living and research through the Center for Vocational Building Training (CVBT). By introducing and providing training on local building technology to the agricultural region’s villagers, the CVBT is creating new employment opportunities that keep parents from having to seek work away from home when there is no rice to plant or harvest. Also, the earth blocks they produce are providing an alternative to both traditional wood building that has been made costly and difficult due to deforestation, and to newer concrete block homes introduced by the Thai government.
To inform the design of the home, I visited several villages, where I held informal discussions with visitors and observed living patterns of the locals. In addition, several professors specializing in Isaan architectural tradition and modern sustainable design gave input on the design concepts and layout in the early stages of conception. During the design development, villagers were consulted and their opinions were incorporated into the final design. At the CVBT, I had the pleasure of working as a team with CVBT director Geoffrey Wheeler, as well as a civil engineering student from Cal Poly, Mark Fischer. I also had the wonderful opportunity to stay with families in the villages on Ban Thin and Ban Su Kha, getting to know the villagers and trying to incorporate a sensitivity for traditional living patterns into the design of a new home to be constructed of interlocking compressed earth blocks produced at the CVBT.
A traditional Isaan home was constructed from locally available wood and raised above the ground on wooden posts. The regional variations of a steeply pitched roof covered in baked clay tiles has become a distinct aesthetic associated with Thai traditional architecture. It is immediately obvious that there is a fundamental conflict between the construction capacity of these traditional materials and that of Interlocking Compressed Earth Blocks (ICEBs). For example, many people accustomed to traditional post and beam structures have a hard time accepting the concept of load bearing walls. In order to reconcile the fundamental differences between traditional building and the materials generated by the CVBT, I decided to focus on the fundamental patterns within the houses, as opposed to the visible aesthetic of the houses. A traditional home is a very social place, where family members and visitors can share in cooking, chatting, craft making, and other traditions. The relatively open plan of the home provides for a flexible space, divided by varying levels between the entry, living spaces, kitchen, and storage areas.
There were a few main motivations behind the traditional construction of a raised structure, which had to be addressed in the new design. One was the issue of security, which turned out to be mostly related to the sleeping space, which was traditionally one of the only fully enclosed spaces within the house. Another was protection from water during the rainy season, a function now fulfilled by the roof overhang, site preparation and use of more durable materials. Finally, the space created below the house could be used for storage, whether animals or other goods, and for a shaded place to sit and work or relax. The Huan Yoo Yen keeps that connection with the environment, providing space to sit and work that is not entirely shut off from the outdoors.
Cooking in Isaan culture is traditionally done out of doors, a practice which has been observed to be often continued in modern dwellings. In traditional homes, kitchens were separate from other living areas, and enclosed with a woven screen, if enclosed at all. Additional cooking was sometimes carried out below the house or on a verandah, using a sand box to protect the wood from potential fire hazards. Even in the more modern homes of Isaan, you will likely see many people gathered around preparing or eating food sitting on mats on the floor, even if they have a proper indoor kitchen. In the Huan Yoo Yen, the kitchen is designed to be a partially open structure, enabling storage and placement of a stove, refrigerator, and other kitchen implements, while preserving the culture of outdoor cooking. For security concerns, a locked storage area could be incorporated. The half walls are set at the sill height of the windows in the rest of the home, so that if a family decided that they preferred a closed kitchen, they could close off the remaining openings with screening, windows, and door as they saw fit.
One thing that is very important to the villagers is the tradition of building in stages, expanding as a family grows and has resources to do so. Because the value of land for agricultural use is so great, vertical expansion is an important option, and one that is possible with the load bearing earth block walls. However, we also discussed the role of this house as a core, to which could be added additional bedrooms or other homes that could make use of the open home as a central family space.
While a traditional Isaan home did not have a proper toilet or bathing area, sanitation has become important in modern Isaan culture, and most modern houses include a bathing area with a septic toilet. We took the opportunity of this design project to introduce a composting toilet, which would decrease water consumption, threat of groundwater contamination, and add nutrients to the weak soils of the region. Introducing something new and different will obviously take time and must begin with a few examples that can demonstrate the appropriateness and benefit of new designs or technology. In order to communicate a design such as the Huan Yoo Yen, there is a need to discuss the perception of modern living in contrast to actual use and needs of people whose lifestyles are still strongly connected to tradition.
The Huan Yoo Yen is destined for construction by a team from Engineers Without Borders this September, although finding all of the necessary funding is still a challenge. The intended recipients of the home are a family of rice farmers who have been trained in earth block production at the CVBT. Hum, Lumpang and their son are currently living in a shack made from old wood and metal sheeting. I have had the pleasure of working with these generous people throughout the research and design of the home. To see their eyes light up when they spoke about the possibility of getting a new home was an incredible opportunity, and I hope that the Huan Yoo Yen will become just that.
The day I left the village, my new friends and family there held a traditional Isaan ceremony, followed by a delicious traditional Isaan lunch (no snake this time!). Much like the blessing for which the house was named, these people expressed kind words and well wishes while tying a piece of string on to my wrist. I arrived home to California with a wrist covered in these strings, reminding me of good friends, traditions not to be forgotten, simple pleasures, and all of the experiences I have brought back to share.