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International

Green architecture in Vietnam

One man’s manifesto for building Hanoi out of traditional designs and natural materials.

21 Feb 2017

V-Architecture founder Ngoc Luong Le has been fascinated by Vietnam’s classical buildings of bamboo and local brick since his teens, when he spent summers in the mountain regions north of Hanoi, sleeping in temples.

This early interest was nurtured during his architecture studies, which he began at the age of 16. His enrolment may have been motivated by nothing more than wanting to be around a girl he liked, but his passion soon turned fully to pagodas. He’s since pursued a belief that the city of his birth needs to rethink how its modern buildings are designed.

Ngoc’s summers in the mountains became central to his development as an architect. Although the school taught technical drawing and architectural theory, he was restricted to a single textbook, a Soviet publication from 1967, provoking Ngoc to look around him for other influences. Uninspired by the 20th-century buildings in Hanoi, he began studying how ancient temples were created.

University days

‘Vietnam was very poor at the time. In the school they taught us design and how to draw in the Russian style. I didn’t know anything about western architecture, so I looked at temples and pagodas,’ he says.

This obsession has stayed with Ngoc ever since. His first house, which he began working on in 1997, after a brief stint at Vietnam’s ministry of construction, allowed him to bring to life his ideas of fusing traditional building styles and methods with modern living.

The resulting house has a big central courtyard, allowing light and fresh air to flood the entire property. A large tree, meanwhile, provides protection from the rain. Living in the house while it was being built around him, the project provided Ngoc an opportunity to learn about construction methods he had not been taught at university.

Cost of boom years

By the time Ngoc set up his own practice in the late 90s, Vietnam was going through a period of intense economic transformation. The ruling communist party had set in train a process to embrace free market economics in the mid-80s, triggering a boom in growth which opened up Vietnam’s workforce, consumers, companies and, of course, construction industry.

Prosperity came and the built environment was changing fast. Softer natural structures gave way to more muscular towers. Air conditioning systems were becoming ubiquitous.

Ngoc was especially conscious of the twin casualties of tradition and sustainability.

‘Development is good for the country, and a strong economy brings a better life for poor people, but development and urbanisation can destroy nature. In Hoi An we are losing the beach; the resorts are an ecological disaster. This is the bad face of development,’ he argues.

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Old style AC

Influenced by famed Australian architect Glenn Murcutt’s ‘touch the Earth lightly’ philosophy, Ngoc champions the architect’s role in conservation and preservation of the surrounding environment. He summarises the practice’s main aims as ‘less energy consumption, no air conditioning, fewer materials, preserve nature, preserve the local culture’.

Targeting air conditioning systems has been a primary focus. Ngoc has been studying how temples and pagodas keep cool through air flow and wide openings and has adopted many of these techniques in the buildings he creates, often covering entire walls in vents that can be opened and closed.

‘Many years ago, Vietnam had solutions for the climate, but now we use fans and air conditioning. With economic development more people can afford this tech that isn’t needed. We need to use sustainable ways to keep cool,’ he says.

History and nature

He goes further, saying buildings could avoid their often large and clunky environmental footprints if they took inspiration from the traditional Vietnamese home — often small, but using the space intelligently for multiple purposes.

But while Ngoc cannot always convince clients to build smaller houses, he has devised methods of using fewer materials in order to reduce a building’s footprint on the land. Ngoc attributes his record on this front to his appreciation of nature. Instead of using a large number of supporting columns, for example, he creates roof structures that overhang from one central pillar. The extra strength needed is provided through joints inspired by the banana tree.

This ability to use fewer materials than others has become an important factor in winning contracts due to the budget slicing it enables, especially when it comes to constructing hotels. ‘Sometimes clients like that the building is sustainable, sometimes they are just attracted to the cost savings,’ explains Ngoc.

What clients say

Taking on exclusively sustainable projects inspired by tradition has, however, meant growing slower than his practice may have otherwise. Ngoc says clients are often sceptical of V-Architecture’s methods, with some taking time to convince, and others not subscribing to his philosophy.

It has, on the other hand, allowed V-Architecture to carve out a niche that is now paying off as damage to the environment and erosion of culture and customs have become growing issues in Vietnam.

As a result, Ngoc has been working with the local government and private developers in Hoi An, Vietnam’s best preserved and most impressive ancient city. Private companies and individuals are attracted to the idea of producing buildings that blend in with their surroundings; Ngoc is currently working on a hotel and three houses in the city. The local government has meanwhile asked him to look at ways to reduce the environmental impact of the city’s resorts.

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Next: upcycling  

Ngoc currently employs eight young architects in his practice, all fully signed up to promoting traditional practices and sustainability. He’s also set up a second space near his office, dedicated to investigating upcycling, where architectural students are invited each week to experiment with salvaged materials.

‘I believe all young Vietnamese architects need to have an understanding of traditional buildings and how they have a place in modern architecture,’ he says.

‘If we don’t continue to have an understanding of this, modern houses here will be same as in the UK and the rest of the world — we will lose our tradition.’

 

Green scene

Sustainability has been of growing importance in architecture, with designers around the world exploring how best to make as small an environmental impact as possible.

Plus House, Larvik, Norway

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The roof of this house is tilted to face south-eastwards, so solar panels mounted on top can make the most of the sun’s rays. Underneath, geothermal wells provide another source of energy. Not only does the building generate enough energy to perform its basic functions (switching on lights, cooking and heating), it can also charge an electric car year-round. Any surplus power is used to repay the ‘energy debt’ from building the house.

The Edge, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

A plush office space in Amsterdam’s Zuidas district  which has been handed the highest sustainability
score ever given by British eco ratings agency Breeam. The solar-powered building uses low-energy LED lights and sensors that track motion, light and humidity, tweaking the environment to an optimal setting. It’s also a ‘smart’ building, with an app that helps workers find parking spots and available desks, as well as locate colleagues.

P.S. 62, New York, the US

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This school in Staten Island claims to have a ‘net zero’ energy output, generating its own geothermal and solar energy. It uses around 50% of the energy of a typical school building, achieved through a variety of features which let in natural light and conserve warmth. Sustainability is woven into the students’ curriculum while stats about conservation are projected from interactive displays throughout the school.