Traditional houses of the ethnic minorities of the mountainous north– one type of green architecture.

( - Coming from the countrysides of Vietnam, nobody can forget the traditional houses of our ancestors build with straws, coconut leaves; pillars made from wood or bamboo; large doors and windows with flexible bamboo awnings to prevent the sunlight from coming in. When being moved or demolished, this kind of house does not leave any trace as all the materials that the house is built of are organic. On the exact place of the old house, a completely new house or a garden can be built without causing any harm to the environment. Thus, it is a kind of “green architecture”. The houses of ethnic minorities have a lot of these “green” attributes. This article will analyze some “green” aspects of traditional architecture from houses of ethnic minorities living in the northern mountainous area of Vietnam.

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1. Knowledge about green architecture:
1.1. General summary:
There are many definitions of “green architecture”, According to Briand Edwards, green architecture is made up of three components: energy, environment, ecological. According to proffessors at NWS University in Australia, green architecture means architecture that emits no carbon. According to the Taiwan standard system, green architecture consists of 9 criterias, out of which 4 criterias are considered rudimentary: electricity saving, water saving, environmental friendly and minimised impact on human health. In Vietnam, the concept of “green architecture” is not a new one but it is surrounded by controversy. Most noteworthy is the fact that Vietnam has yet not seen any regulation or compulsory guideline to follow in terms of construction work. So far there have only been discussions on how accomplish a sustainable and green architecture, in fact not a single construction so far can be considered “green”.

1.2. Recommendations for green architecture criterias in Vietnam.


Figure 1: Green Architecture Model

- Using recycable materials, and materials that consume little manufacturing energy.
- Saving energy, recycle water.
- Ensure people’s health.
- Reduce carbon emission.
- Ensure that less is wasted and always recycle when possible.
- Reduce impacts on the ecological system.

2. Traditional house of ethnic minority living in Northern mountainous areas: An example of Vietnamese green architecture.

2.1. Materials:

Most of the houses of ethnic minorities make use of organic materials. Previously the use of raw material was closely associated with ruinous impacts on our ecosystems and issues such as deforestration were attributed to practices involving the use of organic material. In fact more than 80% of the deforestration in the area could be attributed to the practices of the Kinh minority. However, deforestation due to the construction of traditional houses happened before there were any regulations provided by the government to protect the environment. Currently, ethnic minorities such as: Tay, Thai, Muong, Nung, Dao all have a very traditional way of building houses. One tradtion is to plant trees whenever a new child is born, and later use those exact trees to construct a house for the child when they become older. Some trees will be left untouched for 7 – 10 years time and they can be used to make the founding pillars of the house. The covering materials require trees with much shorter mature time (2-3 years). Thus, eventhoug the construction of traditional houses may have a small negative impact on the environment. When the house is removed, all the materials can be reused and only clean soil is left behind.


Figure 2. Houses of Muong and Ha Nhi ethnic minority people use only natural and recyclable materials.

2.2. Energy saving and renewable energy sources:

Most of the minority houses are located in the middle of large forested areas surrounded by ample space. The most suitable way to utilize natural energy is thus by making use of the natural sunlight and use plant oils and branches for cooking and heating. The doors and windows of the houses are built as to fully utlize the sun for heating during cold periods and the winds for cooling effects during summer. Additionally, the house is built to sustain the humidity and avoid mould infestations by having raising the floor level to create an air-pocket underneath. In the winter, the tightly closed door system combined with the fire (often located in the middle of the house) creates a very effective and cost-saving heating system. Besides, each house often has a garden full of trees that provides shelter from the heat in summer, whilst protecting the house from storms and provides some humidity during winters. The garden-pond-cage system is very suitable, compatible and cost-efficient with this type of house. There is a modern electricity system in the village, however, most residents are engaged with the traditional lifestyle, in which they only use electricity under curtain circumstances to for example listen to the radio or watch television. If there is a good strategy on how to use solar energy, the house could be completely sustained using renewable energy resources.

2.3. Water processing and usage.

Ethnic minorities from mountainous areas in the north consider water to be one of the three most important factors when it comes to choosing a settling location. Thus, the proper and sustainable use of natural water resources has become their speciality. Water is being used in a cyclical process where water is taken from the stream  used in daily activities absorbed into soil goes back into the stream … Owing to the fact that ethnic people have to collect water by manually, they do their utmost to save water –research has shown that amount of water used by ethnic people on daily basis accounts for 25-30% of the usage of Kinh people. Diseases steming from lack of sanitary measures pollution have been minimized. After ethnic people having a shower in the steam, it can be able to clean itself by using the water circulating system. Some ethnic minorities utilize the force of the current to enable them to operate spinning machineries for the purpose of grinding rice. Some ethnic minorities utilize topography to lead water from streams directly to their houses and fields; this can be seen amongst Pa Then people and Muong people to mention a few.
The use of rain water in daily activities is also typical amongst ethnic people. The rain water is collected from roofs through waterspouts into large barrels and is filtered from natural soil and sand after being used in daily activities.

Taking advantage of the sloping terrain to conduct water to their homes (Pa Then people)


Digging well to get water (Dao people)


Using reel to bring water to fields and villages (Tay people)

2.4. Maintaining heath and comfort.

Traditional houses of ethnic minorities, sustain a high living standard although it may not be compared to that of Kinh people. In fact, the simple and practical way of living of ethnic minorities’ is often considered a “green” way of living. For example: a family of 4-6-people only needs a house with 50-60m2 living space (it means each person will have an area 10m2, in average, to live on). The flexible use of space of the ethnic minorities is something we can truly learn from and apply to our own houses. This way of living also helps preserve the Vietnamese cultural aspects, which is the closeness and caring between family members. The fact that the house is located in the nature protects its inhabitants from: industrial dust, city noises, traffic, harmful chemicals from household appliances and allergies associated with modern lifestyle. Moreover, the garden around the house can provide unlimited fresh air while effectively absorbing carbondioxide. The “open-to-community” architecture of the ethnic houses is truly worth careful consideration from us.

From left to right: House of Muong people – House of Thai people




The inside of a house used by Muong

2.5. Reducing carbon emissions

The traditional houses are built in a completely natural way so it’s hard to analyse the extent of carbon emission it generates. There is no large source of carbon emission as the trees surrounding the house aid the binding of the carbon particles generated by cooking activies.
The common carbon-emitting-sources which are associated to various production techniques are not applicable in this context as all materials are organic and the labour is manual. Currently, some traditional houses are built using industrial materials; however, it can still be directed back to the traditional way of building. More specific we can see that the wood used to build the foundation of the house is often taken from the surrounding gardens or forests, while the material used for the roof often comes from unburned soil, tree leaves and straws. The construction work is mainly done by hand without the use of any machineary.

Here is a small summary of the steps and components involved in the construction of a traditional house:
- Do not use materials, technological equipments that emit carbon gas.
- Frame, pillar, floor are made from bead-trees.
- Beams are made from wood, roof structures are made from bamboo, disparated wood.
- The roof is covered by straws, rattans or coconut leaves
- Walls and doors are made from bamboo.
- The layout of the house is very open allowing lot of natural light in.
- Completely made by hand.


San Chay house composed of only natural materials completely made by hand and serves all the purposes of daily life without the use of carbon-emitting technologies.

2.6. Waste
City residents are currently dumping an average of 2 killograms of waste everyday as a result of their luxurious lifestyle. However, with the simple lifestyle in an environmentally friendly house, ethnic minorities generate approximately 40% less waste in comparison to the Kinh. Moreover, the waste that traditional households generate is usually easily degradable as they are mainly composed of organic material. Today, waste is mostly buried, decomposed to be used as fertilizer or used in biogas production.

2.7. A natural ecosystem
In periods, the construction of traditional houses has caused deforestation and burning fields to make garden. However, even in the 1980s, when environmental degradation was at its worst it still only corresponded to 20% - 25% of the damage that stems from the practices of the Kinh people. Because of the fact that ethnic minorities build houses compatible with the ecosystem that surrounds them this causes little impact on the surrounding environment.
From the very beginning, the most special attribute of this traditional house is the integration with the environment. Currently, when ethnic minority people understand more about science, the negative effects on the environment caused by constructing process of the traditional house have been considerably minimized. Houses are often located strategically to prevent degradation of the surrounding terrain. Bedies, their practices have also led to a better preservation of the gardens, forests and fields which they depend on for their livelihood provision.

House of H’mong people
House of Muong people
Living location of H’mong people
Living location of Muong people
Some houses, villages integrate well to the natural ecosystem and contribute to the diversification of nature.


In the process of developing our country’s architecture, we struggle to find a “national character”. The “green architecture” of the traditional houses is an example of this “national character” of Vietnam that needs to be preserved and developed. We are facing an era were we must chose the sustainable and environmental friendly solutions – and needless to say eliminate those practices which opposes these ideals. It is important that we build houses while baring in mind the importance to counteract deforestration and preserve our environment.
The green practices are something that should not only be considered and adopted in the rural communities of Vietnam but also in the urban areas. By mainstreaming the use of green-techniques will contribute to creating a unique opportunity for Vietnam’s future architectural development.

                                                                                                                                                 (MA, Architect Phan Dang Son)