The Culture of Traditional Korean Architecture

During my time in Korea, I was able to visit and stay in traditional Korean homes, or Hanok. This was the first time that I had experienced housing that differed significantly from Western style housing – it really made me reflect on how cultural values and traditions both influence and are influenced by the style and development patterns of housing. Traditional Korean architecture exhibits many principles of sustainable design. Partly, this is true of most vernacular architecture. People built houses out of the materials that were available to them. Korea is blessed with a diversity of natural resources, and their homes were built from a variety of materials including stone, wood, earth, and either straw or clay for the roof. Windows were made of paper. Most vernacular architecture is also heavily influence by the climate. Hanok has four distinct characteristics that control for heat, cooling, and ventilation. First, the layout differs depending on the part of the country. In the cold northern regions of Korea, houses are built in a closed square form to retain heat better. In the central regions, houses are ‘L’ shaped. Houses in the southern-most regions of Korea are built in an open ‘I’ form. Second, the roof eaves that are so characteristic of Hanok are perfectly angled to allow for maximum sunlight during the winter and limited sunlight during the summer. Third, natural cross ventilation is a product of both the layout and doors that can be lifted and hung perpendicular above entryways. Today, high-rises in Seoul have adapted that design to promote natural ventilation (which is a good thing, because energy-conscious Koreans rarely use AC). And finally, there are the two types of flooring, Ondol and Maru. Ondol floors are made of stone and heated from beneath by a fire or stove, which is also often used for cooking. Ondol floors are usually utilized in bedrooms and dining rooms. Other areas of the house utilize maru, or wooden floors, which are cooler and unheated. Together, the two help to regulate the temperature of the house. To this day, most Korean buildings utilize under-floor heating and for this reason it is still common to both eat and sleep on the floor. And because most people eat and sleep on the floor, it is also customary to take your shoes off before entering the house, and most restaurants. Other parts of Hanok are more influenced by the culture. For instance, our friends at EAN Technology taught us that traditionally, the location of a house was selected according to Feng Shui, which determined a site’s natural energy forces based on its geographic features. The philosophy of ‘baesanimsu,’ which stipulated that houses should face water and have mountains in their background, was also a strong consideration. The best location for development was considered to be at the end of a mountain ridge where a river on one side of the ridge connects with a river from the other side of the ridge. When we showed Koreans how Pittsburgh was situated at the connecting point of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, we were told that it must have very good energy. We agreed. Some of the ways we value place transcend culture.