Traditional Thai House Design.
By Jack Miles
Traditional Thai house design has, in the most part, been dictated by hundreds of years’ of weather patterns that haven’t changed to this very day. A marked rainy season that brings heavy down pours and an equally harsh hot and dry season that brings with it strong sunshine, very high temperatures and high humidity have both played their part in the perfection of traditional Thai house architecture.
Thai houses are famous for their high and sharp pointed roofs, a fundamentally functional design for the rainy season to help dissipate heavy down falls of rain that may come suddenly. The acute angles are in place such that rainwater can quickly be evacuated from the roof and so that no leaks can be allowed to form. Wide overhanging eaves that are porous in nature form an awning at the base of the roof that is in place not only for the sake of extending the spill area for the rain but also to protect inhabitants from strong sunlight. The roofs are made of hard wood to weather both rainwater and sunlight without degrading over time. High-quality hardwearing rosewood and teak from the North of Thailand are not uncommon construction materials for upmarket houses. Traditional Thai roofs are often decorated with pointed décor at the ends which is a throw back to times past when people would hang animal horns on their roof to ward off evil spirits.
Yet, it is not just the roof that defines a traditional Thai house. Columns that form the main structure of the house are tall to allow the main floor to sit far above the ground leaving an empty space in between. This is because the ground itself can become flooded during the rainy season. It is why many traditional Thai houses are built on “stilts” even today. For houses that are built in areas that are deep in the jungle the elevated living space also helps to protect against wild predators. In the dry season the space between the ground and the living areas can be used for storage.
The floorboards of the living area are usually assembled such that there are gaps between them so that they can expand and contract during the wet and dry seasons. The gaps also serve as a drainage system in case the floor gets wet. It is common for the people to sit and eat on the floor.
The main columns are typically not vertical but slightly inclined inwards to give the house extra strength. Again this design aspect is functional allowing the base of the columns to remain strong in flooded or soft ground.
The high roofing and the often open style architecture used below are in place to provide good airflow in the hot and dry season. Manually operated fans are often also installed at mid height to increase the cooling effect.
Nails are not used in a traditional Thai house design. Instead the wooden columns and joists are fitted together using wooden joints and dowels. This enables the house to be stronger as weather patterns change. Nails can rust in wet weather and may need replacing after a few years and so by omitting them the house has a longer life.
Thai houses can be extended as families grow. The extensions take the form of additional houses built next to the ones before. Houses feature a terrace, which can connect all of the newly built dwellings.
Often a Thai family will buy more land than is required for the first dwelling so that they will have room to expand the compound with extra houses all interconnected to each other. The common areas of connected single houses usually form a large hall space, which can be used for social and official functions. Smaller children’s houses are often also built and connected to the main residence.
Within a single house, the terrace is the biggest part and can sometimes take up to nearly half the floor area. Arranged around the terrace are several separate rooms. These are designed from the outset and once the house is built the rooms are never re-arranged.
It is not uncommon to see a tree growing right through the middle of the terrace. This is often by design with the tree providing shade during the hot season. A scented tree is commonly chosen and the house has cut outs to allow the tree to remain in place throughout its lifetime. A tree growing through the structure is seen as a very desirable part of a traditional Thai house.
Thai houses are typically made from prefabricated wood panels that are built ahead of time and the assembled by a master builder. They can be constructed in as little as a single day.
Windows frames are of a rhombus shape and in a traditional design don’t have glass fitted in them. Shutters on the outside of the window frame are a common feature as are ornate carvings below the window frames on more opulent buildings. A roofed entrance portal is also a common sight on a Traditional Thai house as a symbolic element separating private and public spaces.
A Sala Thai is a pavilion with all sides open. They protect inhabitants from sun and rain and can be found as an adjunction to a Traditional Thai house or as part of a temple within its compound. A Sala within a housing compound can be used for sleeping, reading, leisure activities and socialising with guests. They can also be found as stand alone structures providing shelter at public places such as at ferry piers and bus stops.
Traditional Thai houses are often just sparsely furnished with sometimes a dining table in one of the rooms and simple beds in the sleeping areas. Beds are aligned with the shortest dimension of the room and the house is constructed so that when sleeping, peoples' heads never point West as this is the direction that people are laid prior to being cremated. With this in mind the stairs leading up to the living area are also not positioned on the west side of the house for fear of ghosts entering. An odd number of stairs in the staircase is said to bring good fortune.
Surrounding most traditional Thai houses is some sort of water feature such as a river or creek. Whether natural or man-made it is very popular for Thai people and developers to create their projects around a body of water.
With the advent of concrete and air-conditioners and with the decreasing amount of space afforded by urban living, traditional Thai houses are disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate, especially in the cities. Yet, some modern developers are embracing the beauty of the original architecture and a renaissance is occurring of late. Although concrete and iron is now used for structural integrity, look for even modern dwellings to have some traditional design features inspired by craftsman from long ago!