• Benny Kuriakose


Laurie Baker used to say, “we should be thinking and designing as Indians for Indians in India. The buildings I see have nothing to do with the normal life of the Kerala individual or with the climate or with the materials available.”

We have a rich and varied kind of vernacular architecture which is beautiful and interesting. Unfortunately, there is no ‘Indianness’ in most of the buildings we do. I will say we are more western by our way of thinking than our way of living.

The traditional architecture had developed according to the climate, local materials, and socio-economic relations. Bamboo. mud, lime, timber, stone, bricks, thatch etc. were used according to the needs and availability.

Sloping Roofs

The most prominent feature of traditional buildings in Kerala is the sloping roof. The roof overhang protected the mud or timber walls from rain. The carpenters considered the roof design as the most important and difficult part. It comes down very low and protects the walls from rain and sun, thus keeping the interior cool. In Malayalam, we even used to say that I want to make a roof (koora).

Traditional Kerala buildings
The roof is very predominant in traditional Kerala buildings.
Traditional Kerala Buildings
The roof comes very low to protect the timber or mud walls from heavy rain

In many of the flat-roofed residences and apartment buildings, the roof is not seen at all. But during the last two decades, the sloping roof has come back in the case of residential buildings.


The rich people in all the communities in the olden days lived in Nalukettus. They have an internal courtyard and when there are two courtyards, they are called ‘Ettukettus’. The size of the house depended on the size of the courtyard and the number of courtyards. In the case of the Nair houses in which a joint family system existed, courtyards were added as the size of the family increased.

The internal courtyards had an interior verandah on all the four sides of the courtyard. The courtyards ensured that there are enough ventilation and natural light in all the rooms.

In all the old houses, the kitchen is invariably in the north-east corner of the houses. This is because in Kerala, the prevailing winds blow from the south-west and the smoke is blown away. Most houses had thatched roofs and if the roof in the kitchen caught fire it would not spread to the other parts easily. Usually, there will be a well close to the kitchen. In a courtyard house, the main living area was in the south-west portion away from the fireplace. In North Kerala, where two or three-storied courtyard houses were common, the northeast portion was single storied because of the kitchen. The bedrooms are upstairs in the south-west portion.

Traditional Kerala Buildings
In North Kerala, two and three-storied houses were quite common in the old days.
Traditional Kerala House Courtyard
Internal courtyard in one of the traditional houses.

Cattle sheds and the gatehouse were located based on the principle laid in ancient texts. Trees were also planted on each side of the house according to the Saastras.

Problems in Conservation of Old Buildings (Nalukettus)

The layout and planning of the old houses depended on social and religious customs rather than technology. The houses of each caste and religion differed according to the customs and relations prevailing at that time. This has lost much of its relevance today because of the changing social relationships and lifestyle.

Old buildings are considered as ‘old-fashioned’. The room height is low and they do not have large window openings. The modern style of living is very different. The joint family system has given way for the nuclear family system. The old buildings do not have attached bathrooms.

In large courtyard houses, the light and ventilation depended on the internal courtyard. The female members of the family had an internal community life, while the males spent their time in the front portion of the house. Such houses will have an entrance hall where the men sat during daytime and received the visitors. The bedrooms were meant purely for sleeping, hence the darkness.

The status of the women has increased and the literacy rate has gone up (now people want to read in their bedrooms). Instead of putting in more windows, the tendency is to demolish and construct a concrete roofed house, which gives the family more status. If the old building has rich woodcarvings, they will probably be sold and the money used for new constructions.

The younger generation is not interested in conserving their ancestral house which does not bring any income for them. The majority of the buildings are not demolished for structural reasons.

Influence of Colonial Architecture

Colonial architecture also had its influence on the traditional buildings.

Although the 'Colonial Architecture' led to some changes in the residential buildings, the changes were gradual and suitable to the climate. Many buildings designed by the British had vernacular features and they had respected the traditional architecture of the region.

Traditional and modern architecture began to go parallel. The engineers and architects learnt from western textbooks. They had no regard for the traditions. They are more western, not because of their style of living, but by their way of thinking.

The status of the craftsmen has been very much lower during the last two or three decades as a result of the changes that have been taking place.

Heritage Building in Trivandram
Napier Museum

Napier Museum in Trivandrum designed by British architect Chisholm has many traditional features.

People have begun to realize that something has gone wrong with the new flat-roofed concrete buildings. They know that these are unsuitable for the climate. They often say, "This is not good”. Although there were some inconveniences, the old house was a better place to live in". People know that the old buildings are beautiful, but to build correspondingly is beyond their reach because of the high costs involved. At the same time, they are unaware of the alternatives.

But unfortunately, many of the present-day architects and designers do not know that their work is hated by the people who live with it. They may accuse the public of lack of taste for not appreciating the formal qualities of the so-called architecture which one can only assume to have been built for the admiration of other architects and for glossy magazines.


Traditional architecture is not a style, but it is knowledge. There were a concept and logic for doing everything. They would have lost quite a lot of relevance over a period, but still the response to climate, local materials etc. could be very relevant.

There is a definite requirement for taking the good aspects of traditional architecture and apply it in a modern context.

Traditional Architecture & Modern Homes

Many of the clients want traditional features to be incorporated in their modern homes. One can have all the modern conveniences in these houses, but people may feel more homely with these ‘ethnic style’ houses. The liking for these kinds of houses would have occurred more as a reaction to the concrete roofed buildings which are there in our cities

and towns.

There are many clients who told me that they are more interested in building the house with natural materials, “I do not want much concrete. I do not want large sheets of glass. I do not want the marble to be used. Think about an unconventional house. I do not want an expensive house. People should say that I have built a beautiful house. People should not say that I had spent a lot of money, but the house is not livable. I want to relax at the house. The house is very private to me. I will not bring many people to my house.”

I start asking them about the requirements of the house. Most of the houses will be two-storied with three or four beds. They would like to have a courtyard inside the house, but in some cases, where the plot is narrow, this requirement will have to be compromised.

Vishram House

The plan of the “Vishram House” by the side of the beach is very simple, looking at the plan, one cannot imagine that a building like this will be created. Initially, when the plan was done, the first floor was not there, but later on, we decided to add the first floor to capture the better view of the sea. The client had some old windows and doors, which was demolished from one of the buildings and we decided to use in the house. The two windows used in the staircase area were the leftover one after she used in her city house.

The doors which are being used came from one of the houses which were pulled down to way for the office complex. These were eight feet high doors with a ventilator and had double shutters – one which was panelled and one which was with iron rods.

The client had two sets of Chettinad pillars – one timber set and one set. I decided to use the stone set, because the timber pillars were too decorative which will not go with the style of the house.

Traditional Kerala House
Roofs can become a predominant feature in the elevation of the buildings.

The roof in this typical Kerala style house with good overhang protects the walls from the sun and rain. Maximum cross ventilation is given to most of the rooms.

The above bedroom in the house is finished with athangudi tiles, niches and traditional Chettinad windows. The windows coming to the floor level will facilitate cross-ventilation when one is sitting at the floor level.


Large verandahs suited the requirements of the client of the above house so that we can put all kinds of mixed furniture style. One can even put a bed and a writing table and do whatever she likes. If necessary, it can be divided into smaller spaces. The verandah can be so relaxing. The spaces in a house should be designed very carefully and there should be spaces which one can choose depending on their mood.

The roof in this typical Kerala style house with good overhang protects the walls from the sun and rain. Maximum cross ventilation is given to most of the rooms.

The Chettinad columns, athangudi tiles and granite stone along the edges, eave boards, timber rafters etc. add character to the above house.


The courtyard in the Vishram houses with timber roofs with good overhang ensured very good cross ventilation. There were some rafters leftover from the same building in Chettinad which was demolished. We decided to use them, we decided to go with timber roofs. The carpenters from Kerala were brought to do the roof of the building. We thought that thatch will be one of the best options, which can be used in the large L-shaped verandah. We found the cost to be very high since we were working on a tight budget, now we have to do one additional room on the first floor also to capture the view of the sea.

Built-In Furniture

The built-in seat is a feature in most of the traditional houses can be there in contemporary houses as well. The style can change – one is a traditional Tamil style while the other one with timber is found in many of the houses which are built these days.


The ethnic style has become more stylish and more common. Many of the things pulled out from an old building is having an antique value, which was not the case earlier. The bulk of materials such as rafters, doors (if they are not carved), windows (they are mostly small in traditional houses), bricks etc. have an only scrap value.

These days I am trying not to use these carved columns and doors because they in an indirect way leads to the destruction of the old buildings which should be conserved. The changes that have been happening in the architectural scene during the last two decades have been rapid. An architecture that suits the environment, climate and the people is a major aspect of any strategy that is to be evolved to get out of the present "crisis".

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Architectural Designers & Conservation Consultants

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