In 2010, we were approached by a fellow of the Kennedy School of Government to design a house for his family in Bhutan. He had walked by our office on his way to school, been intrigued by our old storefront, and ventured in to check us out.
Our task has been to design a house in Bhutan that juxtaposes international and local cultural sensibilities. The interior layout and spatial organization is essentially western. The exterior is an updated local vernacular, which is determined by evolving regional building methods in combination with strict national design regulations.
Bhutanese houses echo the design of nearby fortresses/monasteries, called dzongs, as well as Buddhist temples. Most indigenous houses are farmsteads, consisting of a rammed earth or masonry ground story used for storage and livestock. The inhabited second (and occasional third) story is built from wood, with exterior walls cantilevered over the walls below. Most Bhutanese houses follow this pattern, although formal living areas have, as in our case, replaced livestock on the first floor.
The site, high in a valley just west of Thimphu, the capitol of Bhutan, consists of several terraced rice paddies overlooking a small hamlet and winding river valley. The house is topped with shallow, open gabled roofs with substantial overhangs. The area under the roof is open to the elements at either end and is used for the drying and storing of chili peppers and other locally grown foodstuffs. Elaborate wooden brackets and corbels - reflecting Tibetan and Chinese precedent - support upper level cantilevers. Highly articulated doorframes are rectangular in shape with trefoil shaped window openings. The exterior walls will be decorated with painted geometric and natural motifs in common with most Bhutanese homes.
The main level contains both formal and informal primary living spaces. Utilizing the existing slope, the bedrooms are split between three upper levels connected by a switchback stair. The upper levels consist of five bedrooms, including a master suite, a library, and a shrine.
The main living space opens to include the kitchen, dining space, and family room. Two multi-story glass walls and a skylight brighten the interior. The central living area, as well as the master bedroom and library above it, look out through a wood and glass gallery on the first floor and a loggia on the second. The house, unlike most houses in Bhutan, is filled with natural light.
There were two major challenges to overcome. The first was to accommodate the rigid design restrictions enacted to preserve and sustain unique, valued, yet fragile cultural heritage without devolving into rigid conformity, sentimentality, or worse, nostalgia; and second, to detail the house in a manner that was buildable from the material and labor resources at hand in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The problem with most design restrictions is that they favor custom and tradition at the expense of practicality and actual patterns of use. The key for us was to recognize and respond to primarily those elements that provide pragmatic solutions to physical problems of material, climate and site. For example, the roof overhangs were a necessary response to waterproofing based on available resources. It goes without saying that the decorative woodwork and other purely cultural components were the most challenging to incorporate, as their uniqueness is clearly differentiated from more universally shared (or globalized) design solutions. However, regardless of their role of carrying, at least in Bhutan, the elemental symbols and characteristics that define home, we found them to be immensely satisfying to design and appreciate as objects of beauty.
Despite the use of reinforced concrete, the manner in which houses are built is utterly pre-industrial. Power tools are few, and timber is typically dressed and joined with hand tools. Rebar is cut, bent, wired together, and raised manually. Limited manufactured products such as insulated windows, appliances, and electrical components can be sourced, but must be trucked over the southern mountains from India or down from Tibet.
The result is a modern house in sheep’s clothing. It exists gracefully and modestly in a highly specific landscape. It does not detract from or dominate its surroundings. The power and significance of this project lies in its ability to provide a substantial, joyful and accommodating living environment without compromising the unique circumstances that surround it.