Climatic Influences on Vernacular Architecture: a Case Study on the Himalayan Hill State “Himachal”

Theme: Built Vernacular Heritage “Earthen Architecture and Interpretation of Rural Internal Design”

by Ms. Barjesh Kumari
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Bilaspur, India
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in Tourism Administration, Himachal Pradesh University



Himachal is a beautiful Himalayan hill state in North India. Its land-form varies from high Himalayas to foothills. There are ridges, valleys, small plateaus, mountains, and also a cold desert wilderness area. The changing climatic conditions and resources available from region to region form a great diversity in the vernacular architecture style. There are houses of mud, wood, and also stone. Changing economical, socio-cultural, and environmental conditions has put a great impact on the design and material used in building and construction of these structures. Modern houses are now coming up with urban influences in design and material used. Houses in Himachal are not only the homes, but culture, lifestyle, and struggles of the people residing over there.


By the word “vernacular”, we understand it is something “native to a country”, “domestic, indigenous” while R.W. Brunskill defines vernacular architecture as “a building designed by an amateur, without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The building’s function would be the dominant factor, aesthetic considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal. Local materials would be predominantly used and other materials being chosen and imported quite exceptionally.

Vernacular architecture is a method of construction using locally available material; and also is to support the needs of local people. This form of construction is climate responsive, environmental, cost effective, and uses traditional knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Thus, it is an intangible heritage of a region. Vernacular architecture is built heritage of a place that cannot be imported from elsewhere. Vernacular heritage or local architecture of a place is largely influenced by the climate of a region. Climate is the typical weather over a long period of time. Locals use locally available material for their convenience. Different resources are available at different climate zones as climate and physical geography affects the vegetation pattern, flora, fauna, lifestyle, and needs of the people of a place. Thus, we can say that climate affects the vernacular architecture of a place to a very large extent.

Understanding Climate of Himachal Pradesh

Himachal is surrounded by Jammu and Kashmir in north; China borders it in East, Uttarakhand to the south east, Punjab and Chandigarh in west, UP and Haryana in South. It can be divided into different climate zones based on different aspects of physical geography like elevation, precipitation, vegetation … etc. of the region:-

  1. Cold Desert Zone: This region comprises of Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh with very less or no rain, snow covered peaks of great elevation (3000-6000 meters), and bright sunshine throughout the year. Due to harsh climatic conditions it is least populated area with population density of 2 per sq km (Census 2011)
  2. Upper Himachal: It is a high mountain belt of 2700 meters average altitude in Chamba, Kullu, Kinnaur, Shimla, and some parts of Mandi, Kangra and Solan District. This region receives snowfall in winters and experience cool temperature throughout the year.
  3. Lower Himachal: This region of Bilaspur, Una, Hamirpur, Sirmaur, and some parts of Mandi, Kangra and Solan District is characterized by area of no snowfall but heavy rains. These are the Himalayan foothills and plains with an average altitude of 1200 meters.
Figure 1 Himachal Map source ©

Different Vernacular Styles in Different Climate Zones

Lahaul and Spiti valley is the cold desert areas of Himachal Pradesh, the region that gets disconnected in winters from the rest of the world for six months. Houses in this region are built with whatever resources are available, structures that are convenient to stay in and also convenient to build. Spiti is the driest part while Lahaul receives rains but a little of. With the changing climatic conditions Lahaul region is now able to grow vegetation while Spiti is still scarce of all kind of resources. The only resource people of Spiti have in abundance is Mud.

Mud houses in Spiti are hence prevalent that are built using rammed earth conduction technique in which the mixture of sand and water is put under the wooden frames and compressed. These structures are rectangular in plan, with low windows and doors. Natural lights are used by keeping roof open on top floors and stairs. These houses are vulnerable to earthquake but still are in practice because of scarcity of other resources available like a wood or stone in the region. In some buildings though, stone is used for foundation and wood for roof top but in others mud is the only used material. Walls are colored white using the finishing of mud and lime slurry while the windows are colored brown or blue. The heights of houses are kept low for keeping them warm. Small parapet of mud can be seen in some houses; others use dry grass as railing on top. The famous mud structure in Spiti is the ancient Key monastery (Fig 2- e).

Figure 2 Mud Houses in Spiti Valley: a) Houses in Snow b) Beautiful Rectangular House c) Rectangular Houses d) Chicham Village View e) The Ancient Kye Monastery

In contrast to Spiti valley, Stone and wooden architecture is seen in Lahaul Valley. Stone is found in abundance in the Lahaul region. All modern houses, homestays, hotels, governmental buildings and temples are built using all modern material like cement, stone, and bricks. Wood is used for Floors and Interiors to keep them warm. All traditional houses and temples are wooden structures. In Mrikula Devi temple in Figure 3 (a), stone slates are used on top, stone is used for foundation and ramp at base, walls are of mud and wood. Interior of temple are wooden including floors and walls. Walls are decorated with wooden paintings. Height of the temple is kept low. Buddhist Monasteries are made up of stones. In Figure 3 (c) and (b), dry stone is used for constructing walls of this Tupchilling monastery house while interiors are of wood, and cement. Stone is largely used material in construction of houses in Lahaul region.

Figure 3 Stone Architecture in Lahaul: (a) Mrikula Mata Temple (b) Tupchilling Monastery House (c) House in Tupchilling (d) Tirlokinath Temple in Udaipur

One common thing in houses of Lahaul and Spiti is to use Dry Toilets as an area is dry, and no water is available in winters. Dry toilets are just holes on the ground floor in which compost is pelt on urine waste that is later used as fertilizers. In upper Himachal region, a popular Kath-Kuni Architecture style is prevalent. This region of Shimla, Kullu, Kinnaur is dominated by “Devata beliefs” where deity is asked before constructing any house. This deity guides them in choosing the location, area, and directions of houses. Houses are built on hilly slopes; temple is constructed on the highest place. There are good resources of timber and stone in the region. Kath-Kuni architecture style uses wood and stone in constructing walls by using wooden beams after few layers of stone. This insulates the air and keeps the interiors warm. The foundation of the house is of stone that is locally available. Slate-pent roof is used on top where slope allows snow to fall off and flattened part keeps it insulated. Wooden balconies are used to enjoy the natural sunlight. Interiors are decorated with beautiful carvings on wood. Cattles are kept at ground floor and upper floors are for self use as they are warmer. The material used is bio-degradable, resistant for years, and is reusable.

Figure 4 Upper Himachal Architecture Style: (a) Hanging Wooden Balconies in a House in Kullu Distt (b) Slate Roofs in a village in Kinnaur

With changing economic, socio-cultural dimensions, with more access to nearby places people have started using other materials like- Tin in cattle shelters, Modern Paints on walls of houses. People have started using cement and iron for pillars, walls, and floor.

Figure 5 Modern Influences on Material Used: (a) Tin Top on a Cattle Shelter of Kinnaur Distt (b) Walls Colored Pink with Modern Paints, Cement pillars, and Cemented Floor on Ground Floor in a House in Kinnaur Distt

Then, there are temples in upper Himachal that are wooden in style, with pent, pyramid or pagoda type roof. There are forts that houses deities and are worshiped by people, e.g. in Figure 6 (c), Chehni Kothi was initially a fort but later converted into a Temple.

Figure 6 Temple Architecture Himachal: (a) A Pagoda Style Temple at Manali (b) A Kinnauri Style Temple in Hatu (c) A Fort Type Structure Chehni Kothi Temple in Kullu

In Lower Himachal, the climate is different from that of the upper. This region receives no snowfall. This region is warm in summer, mild cool in winters and receives heavy rain. Region enjoys good connectivity and accessibility. Old and traditional houses are now rarely found in this region. Traditional houses are found only in rural areas. Traditional houses were of two types in this region: ‘Kacha’ and ‘Pucca’. Kacha houses were made up of mud mixed with the agricultural wastes or mud bricks were heated to construct the houses. Later, people started building houses of stones ‘Pucca Houses’ and started using old ‘Kachha Houses’ as cattle shelters.

Traditional houses in lower Himachal have a courtyard called ‘Aangan’ outside the house. In some areas, there were shared courtyards for two or three houses adjoining or adjacent to each other. A rectangular stone ramp at the foot of the front walls along the wall on both sides of door can be seen that is called ‘Biu’ built for sitting purpose. Main doors are followed by a large hall called ‘Bee’ on first floor and ‘Pauda’ on second floor like the living area where gatherings, and ritual celebrations by women happen while men stay at courtyard. These large halls are then followed by small bed rooms called ‘Obra’ with no windows just a ventilation space on top. These houses have the roof tops that were built of stone slates, and called ‘Chhan’, keeping these houses cool. Below, the slate roof a wooden ceiling is also used. These are two story houses with very small windows just for ventilation on first floor and rows of large windows on front wall of the second floor. Small windows and earthen architecture are used to keep these houses cool. Separate kitchens are built to avoid houses to get warm from cooking heats. Kitchens are located in front of the house and are of very low height and small area.

Figure 7 Lower Himachal Houses: (a) Traditional Styled House with Shared Courtyard and Slate Roof (b) Traditional Style House with sitting area at the foot of front wall, and row of large windows on second floor (c) Separate Kitchen Outside in Front of the House (d) Rituals in Courtyard (e) Small window (f) Wooden Ceiling

The floors of these houses are of mud and are decorated with cow-dung. These houses were earlier colored with limestone but now people have modified their houses and have started using modern paints. Marble and cement is also seen in floors. This region receives high rainfall that is why overhanging roof called ‘Chhaja’ are used to protect the walls from rain waters. In modern houses of this region, verandas and balconies are used to protect houses from rain water. Overhanging roofs are still existing features in the modern houses of the region.

This is the region where stones are available in abundance whereas bricks, marble, and cement can also be transported from neighboring region of Punjab that is why modern houses are now built in modern styles. There are ancient temples in this region that are built in Shikhara style of temple architecture using stone (Fig. 8).

Figure 8 A Shikhara Style Ancient Stone Temple in Kangra Distt.


Himachal is rich in its vernacular heritage. Due to variation in climate conditions it has a large diversity in traditional architectural styles. Cold region of Lahaul Spiti has its own style of buildings that shows the struggles of the people surviving in those harsh climate zones while Upper Himachal region has evolved with its own beautiful heritage with the locally available resources and art. Lower Himachal region enjoys good connectivity with neighboring states that is the region why the traditional houses are now rarely seen in lower areas as people have started constructing modern homes using modern material that is easily available to them. Vernacular designs are evolved with response to the climatic conditions of a place making them unique and indigenous to the region; its the identity, the heritage that makes the region peculiar from others. People should always follow the traditional style of the houses in construction even if they are using modern materials to keep the aesthetics, the aura, and the identity of a place to survive.


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