Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Thai architect hits on blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics

28.09.2003 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

PATHUM THANI, Thailand – In a gated community just outside the teeming megalopolis of Bangkok, Soontorn Boonyatikarn’s three-bedroom home appears much like any other, with the solar panelling on the roof the only hint that something out of the ordinary lies beneath.

Soontorn calls this home a blueprint for sustainable living in the tropics: the unassuming house is 15 times more energy efficient than its neighbours, produces enough surplus electricity to power a car and creates its own water-supply and cooking gas.

"This house is a dream house for the future," says the architect, who challenged himself to build a self-sufficient dwelling in Thailand three years ago and has now been living in it for six months.

To meet his goal, Soontorn needed to design a house which had energy needs that could be met by solar panels squeezed onto its roof — one fifteenth the area required to supply a typical house with solar energy.

Soontorn had spent nearly two decades teaching at the University of Michigan in the United States and researching sustainable living. The additional challenge was to make what he’d learned abroad applicable to Asia.

"When I brought what I had learned back to Thailand, everything I used to do was the opposite here, so it had to be done backwards," he says. "Only the concept is transferable to tropical areas. You cannot take the knowledge and just put it here."

The journey from drawing board to reality was a fraught process, says Soontorn, who has battled scepticism, intransigent engineers and sloppy workmanship along the way.

"I had some students helping me do research on this and that but the imagination behind it is mine. Nobody wanted to do anything like this — they think it’s crazy," he says.

"When I presented my paper (to the government), they said I was crazy. Somebody said they should take me to the hospital to check out my brain. They said a lot of nasty things."

Soontorn pushed on undeterred, only to then meet resistance from his engineer who refused to adapt designs to his needs, such as airconditioning ducts 15 times smaller than the norm.

"He said, ‘No way will I do it!’ So I had to do it myself," he sighs.

Next came the construction, which "did not live up to my expectations" and led to Soontorn supervising all the work.

But the final product has won over the professionals, with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) presenting a regional award for energy efficiency to Soontorn last Sunday.

Kecha Thirakomen, a governor of ASHRAE’s Thai chapter and an energy efficiency expert, lavishes praise on the house.

"It is an excellent project… It’s very difficult for energy efficient projects to have good design and construction and be in practical use," says Kecha, who is not aware of any similar houses in the Asian region.

"In our culture sometimes we are too modest to express our ideas and sometimes it’s not the way to success. But Dr. Soontorn was outside for a while and when he came back he was brave enough to express his concept and ideas."

"With him, whether someone agrees with him or not, he just doesn’t care."

Soontorn built a house that even after lighting, air-conditioning and appliances produces a surplus 5.0 kilowatt hours per day that can be sold back to the grid, or power an electric car for 50 kilometres per day.

The water supply is consistent and requires only a small, cost-effective tank.

Some 30 to 40 litres are collected daily on the roof, thanks to a special surface which lowers its temperature at night. Water is then condensed out of the breeze, which is channelled across it by landscaped mounds in the garden.

Another 40 litres is sourced from the air-conditioning system, which itself operates using two-thirds the standard amount of energy.

Recycling water twice — with some sprinkling the vegetables growing in a greenhouse — provides at least 140 litres per day, with Thailand’s six-monthly monsoonal rains making up the rest.

"When you do not have to buy water, it means the house can be anywhere — on an island, the top of a mountain — anywhere in this region where the rains fall six to seven months each year," says Soontorn.

Grass clippings from the 800-square-metre block of land meanwhile are used to produce the gas typically used for traditional Thai cooking.

"You are living in a world of true sustainability with features that are equivalent to a millionaire’s," Soontorn enthuses, pointing to the 1.4-metre deep swimming pool which is filled during the rainy season.

The pool is heated slightly using the surplus energy created by the air-conditioner — after it’s used to heat the hot-water tank.

The total cost for the house, swimming pool and solar cells comes in at 5.0 million baht (124,378 dollars), a not unduly high price by Bangkok standards.

Soontorn, who is awaiting patent approval for his design, is already looking ahead: to a sustainable city.

"It would require nothing, no extra energy from outside. That’s what I dream of."