Homes of Kerala
Updated: Mar 10
The traditional houses of Kerala, built in the 1900s were climate-responsive and sustainable. Historically, nearly all construction in the region was based on an underlying belief in Vasthu – the idea that every structure built on the earth carries a soul and personality shaped by its context. By extension and in light of the easy availability and heavy use of timber, Thachu-shastra (the science of carpentry) became one of Kerala’s most important and purely indigenously developed sciences. Both these systems played an important part in the development of Kerala’s domestic architecture as well. Additionally, it also evolved largely from functional considerations and was highly influenced by economic factors, climatic factors, and the social system that prevailed during the time of their origin.
Built in the first quarter of the twentieth century, these houses had high pitched and steeply sloping roofs, gables for proper ventilation, a high plinth to adapt to floods, and pale colours to go well with lush green around. Locally collected wood and laterite were the major building materials used. ‘Salas’ was a common typology existed. They were differentiated as ‘Eksalas’ - the one with a single block to, Salas with 4, 8 to 16 blocks with courtyards inside. Even though from the same state, the built forms varied from north to south based on the availability of construction materials.
God's Own Bungalows
The houses before the 1900s were of pure Kerala origin whereas the houses built between 1900 and 1960 had a colonial influence in their form. They had large openings fitted with glass and the span of the building also started increasing. Guided by the British officers and engineers whose knowledge of architecture was essentially based on renaissance architects and executed by indigenous knowledge of traditional masons and carpenters recruited for the work, it was a product of traditional craft and neo-classical construction needs. This trend was however moderated very much in Kerala owing to the limitations of materials and climate.
For the masonry work, the media of Indo-European work remained the laterite and lime plastering. The old pantiles were replaced by Mangalore pattern tiles and flat tiles. The roof frame of the traditional type was changed to trussed roof-using King post and Queen post trusses, making it possible to span large areas.
The adaptations of European style to traditional style are best seen in the bungalow architecture. The comfort requirement in the hot humid climate prompted the European settlers to go in for buildings with large rooms with high ceilings with verandah all around. Balconies for upper floors were adopted as a necessary feature. The solid wooden shutter of doors and windows underwent a change to ribbed elements – Venetian blades – permitting air circulation and providing privacy simultaneously. By 1800 glazed panels came into vogue. Brick arches, terracotta pieces, and exposed brickwork in various bonding patterns became popular. With the larger numbers and bigger sizes of windows, pediments or projections supported by ornamental brackets and column decoration for protecting the window opening from rain and sun also were introduced. Cast iron fences, stair balustrades, and iron grills, made in England, were used to complete the bungalow architecture.
After 1960, a sudden change in the built form started to appear. This change was a sudden replacement rather than an adaptation. A major cause for this change was the migration of unskilled labourers from Kerala to different Arab countries.
Before the Gulf boom, the tradition of building homes was normalized to usual ‘Salas’ with either one or more wings based on the financial or social status of the family. However, many of the houses resided by the common working class were very small huts. The living condition inside most of these huts was extremely unpleasant and this turned out to be a solid reason for the poverty-ridden society to migrate to Gulf countries.
But this turned out to be a catalyst for the development of the so-called ‘modern architecture’ in Kerala. The overnight millionaires who returned to their homes for vacation started building colourful, huge houses influenced by modern architecture. By then, cement started to gain popularity among Keralites. Experiments were done with the new material, leading to the advent of refined built forms. Entirely new buildings, as well as the old ones added with modern additions, started appearing simultaneously.
Some of the traditional features were imitated in the new style. The sloping roof, high plinth, and sloping sunshades paved with Mangalore tile were widely used. Sunshades were introduced as a means of adaptation to climatic conditions. The buildings were mostly coloured in bright shades of different colours.
The Modern 70s
By the 1970s, people started experimenting with the available building materials to produce new forms. Sit-outs appeared as a space to welcome guests. Arches started to appear as a common element. Sunshades were made to arches, door – window openings, and large spans were made as an arch. On a gradual process of evolution, many slow changes started to appear. Square tubes as a grill to the sit-out, parapets, breakers, etc were introduced and on a gradual passing of time, all these elements were stylized to new forms. The door width was mostly 80cm, but by the 1980s, it became 100cm to 150cms.
Of Curves and Carparks
The following decades saw the addition of the car porch as a visual element in the elevation of a home. By the late 1980s, with the return of professionals from the gulf and other countries, highly refined versions of modern houses started becoming popular among the elite class. They introduced new materials and styles based on their financial and professional status in society. Single curves, hexagons, octagons, etc were added to one side of the building as a representation of the social status.
By the1980s, buildings with horizontal character were another trend among the upper class. Such houses were mostly painted white and had newer elements like planter boxes and hedge walls. Natural stone walls and exposed brick were common in these residences. The form was usually a play of masses and voids. Residences followed the attributes of modern architecture such as open floor plans, windows as design elements, focus on materials, etc.
The Adapted Vernacular Aesthetic
With the advent of the 1990s, most houses copied several components of vernacular architecture in form but not in function. Design details like gable roofs that were originally constructed to aid natural ventilation now served a decorative purpose only. Windows got smaller and ventilation was restricted making the overall building look massive.
Kerala's Homes Today
Towards the end of the 20th century, the introduction of new materials and technology started revolutionizing the practices of vernacular architecture that had been around for thousands of years. The sloping roof construction with timber which is a unique style of the architecture of Kerala is now being done with steel truss which is less time-consuming and economical. The integration of space adaptive qualities along with the usage of new materials has started to appear these days.
Hence an evident transformation can be observed in the characteristics of residences. The arrangement of spaces in the house is now following the geometry, climate, and topography of the plot in which they are built. Also, the replacement of extended families with nuclear families has led to a change in the concept of big mansions.
Today, houses are built to not only accommodate the needs of the people but also optimize climatic and economic constraints. With the advance of technology and globalization, new construction practices can be adopted from one country to another that is halfway across the globe. This has allowed for far more flexibility and variation in design than ever before. However, it is important for both construction professionals and their clients to be mindful of the context of their projects and not blindly adopt design practices invented for an entirely different region. Building a home is thus a delicate balance integrating new building materials and structural systems while also being context specific, suiting the client’s aesthetic aspirations, and being environmentally responsible.