An old Filipino children’s song, known by most local households inspired me to write this article. Its lyrics start off like this: “Bahay Kubo, kahit munti, ang halaman doon ay sari sari.” Simply translated, “There is a Nipa Hut, although very small, there are various plants that grow around it .” And then it goes on to enumerate various vegetables that grow around the ‘Bahay Kubo’. The Bahay Kubo has been the subject of folk songs, legends, short stories and of children’s drawings. I was one of those children that drew the Philippine countryside with two mountains and the setting sun in between them as a backdrop to a rice field (with a scarecrow) and a small ‘bahay kubo’ on one side. Growing up, the bahay kubo was all too familiar with me as we’d visit provinces and sleep in one of those. During my university years, it was a topic we’d dissect throughout my ‘History of Philippine Architecture’ subject. Up until today, a visit to our tourist destinations and provinces will not be complete without a sighting of a cluster of these houses. Even at the onset of modernity, these Nipa Huts still serve as a take –off point and is truly a part and parcel of Philippine Architecture and Design. The Bahay Kubo remains to be one of the most common examples of Philippine Architecture and a lot of architects have pitched designs on their take of “The Modern Bahay Kubo”. In retrospect, what makes the Filipino Bahay Kubo so unique in our tropical country and what are the useful principles extracted to come up with a Modern Bahay Kubo? Let me share with you some of these ideas:
1. Passive Cooling
Living in a tropical country has its pros and cons. We have extreme heat and humidity and strong winds especially during the peak of the monsoon seasons. Our architecture has to deal with these types of extreme conditions too. Passive Cooling is harnessing these types of energy to work for the house by means of design and construction methodologies rather than using energy from artificial appliances. The Bahay Kubo exemplifies this through the presence of wide windows from strategic locations of the house for natural ventilation. Other fenestrations that allow wind to flow through the house are over-sized windows, ventanillas or louvers, and an exhaust route for hot air at the top of the ceiling to name a few. Furthermore, wide eaves and overhangs provide shading for the entire house as well as its surroundings. Proper orientation of the house to open up to the wind directions (Amihan and Habagat) may also be helpful when site allows. When this is achieved, heat is deflected away from the house but light is still welcomed. The same principles can be applied to a modern house and I promise you, you will also get the same wind flow and heat protection.
2. On Stilts
Conditions in the Philippines also range from rainy and sunny. Lifting up the house on stilts is also beneficial not only to allow wind to enter and circulate from under the house but also to protect the house from floods. In the case of the Modern Bahay Kubo, if the house is raised on stilts, the lower floor acts as a social space for family and friends to come together forming an interstitial space. In the older times, this space also served as the extension of the family space or a storage for livestock or harvest. Moreover, a house on stilts also reduces the building foot print and has a very minimal ground disturbance during construction.
3. Sustainable Materials for a Sustainable Environment
Building materials also play an important role in the construction of a bahay kubo. These include bamboo, sawali, anahaw, rattan, among others. Bamboo is actually a type of grass with utmost strength and flexibility. It is also one of the fastest growing plants in the world, hence its sustainability. A typical Bahay Kubo is 80-90% bamboo. The leaves act as cladding for the ceiling and the roof. Concrete may also be used but only recommended for the foundations of the house and so that insects are not able to eat into the house’s foundations. Today, the Modern bahay kubo uses more modern materials that are still sustainable and environment friendly. Certain materials are also certified to be sustainable as they are eco-friendly or made from recycled products, or those with low volatile compounds, etc.
4. The Family as a single unit
A unique trait amongst Filipinos is that we consider the family as a single social unit rather than an individual as one unit. The family plays an important role in Filipino society. This is something designers and planners must never forget. The spaces inside the typical bahay kubo are limited but big enough to accommodate a whole family living together. The social space adapts to the Filipino family values of being together and sharing their lives with one another. The idea of a family as a single unit dictates that the common spaces of the house are bigger than i.e. their rooms. Usually, the bigger rooms are the dining areas (Filipinos consider eating as a hobby and a past time) or Family areas. This is also evident in the “Modern Bahay Kubo”. Filipinos love to entertain and have friends and extended families over thus, spaces have to be designed to accommodate large or small groups and spaces have to be able to open up to each other. One might notice that the dining room opens up to the living area and the living area may open up to the garden or an outdoor patio. Heck, in a traditional bahay kubo, the community lives so close to each other that they share their big common space with their neighbors opening the house not only to their family, but also to the community. That’s is how social Filipinos can get.
There are still a lot more principles I can extract from a small bahay kubo but I will stop here and leave the rest to the imagination. The Bahay Kubo is not just a ‘small’ house, it is a home, that is full of history and in it lives the heart of the family. It is very functional given the limited material choices in the provinces but with the right choice of materials and the right construction methodology, the bahay kubo can withstand the strong storms and remain standing. Its elements are sustainable and its principles are still extracted, studied and translated into modern day thinking.
“Bahay Kubo, kahit munti, ang halaman doon ay sari-sari’” (Even if the bahay kubo is small,) it is still used for so many purposes with each space designed and well-thought of. The concept of the bahay kubo will never die, it is just transformed into something modern perhaps due to the rise of more modern materials but its soul will always be there in the hearts and minds of each and every Filipino – young or old.