It was a brutally hot and breezeless summer season in Hue, one of Vietnam's stickiest cities. Lien, who teaches Japanese, had just finished a class and was seeing off her students at the front door. There wasn’t a single drop of rain for over a week that time, so she lingered in the front garden to water her parched hedges and trees. After quenching their thirst, she slipped inside her naturally cool house, flipped on the rice cooker and heated up yesterday’s caramelized pork. She then headed upstairs to inform her elderly parents that lunch is almost ready before returning to the kitchen to chop up the vegetables.
In Lotus House, Lien’s home and workplace, she glided between the classroom, front door, kitchen, leafy garden and two stories. But in almost every other Vietnamese city house, usually multistory abodes connected by precarious staircases, this ease of movement would be unthinkable because Lien is in a wheelchair.
Lotus House, which was completed in 2019, was architect Le Minh Quang’s first project for a client with disabilities, and he admits that “it was a huge, interesting challenge.” Lien needs access to every corner of the house, garden and classroom, so Le’s firm, MW archstudio, proposed two long ramps. The lower ramp begins at the front door, crosses the garden and enters the open plan kitchen and adjoined classroom. The upper ramp connects the two stories via an open-air, U-shaped corridor lined with trees and plants. Both stories are broad and uncluttered, with plenty of space in which to maneuver a wheelchair.
But Le’s job went beyond designing a comfortable residence for Lien; he also had to consider her parents, both of whom are in their late 80s. Lien is their main caregiver. “[They] are very sensitive,” says Le, referring to their deteriorating mental and physical states. “So the house needs to be safe and comfortable, but it should also be open and connected to the positive energy of nature.”
Le wanted to craft an indoor space that was protected from – but connected to – the elements, so he deployed bioclimatic design, an approach that builds according to the local climate for optimum human comfort. He fitted the house with various broad windows that open and allow plenty of natural light, encourage cross ventilation and offer views of the garden. But he also used sensibly positioned sunshades and a generous buffer zone – a void separating outside and in – to mitigate heating from the sun.
Although Lotus House was a special case for Le, multigenerational households are the norm in Vietnam. “The connection between family members across different generations is always a top priority,” says Le. “It is the root of Vietnamese culture.”
Vietnamese architecture doesn’t always reflect Le’s sentiment. The (in)famous “tube houses” in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are usually narrow and spread over several stories. Despite the inconvenience, a ground floor living room that doubles as a bedroom for an immobile grandparent isn’t uncommon. Some boutique firms, such as Le’s MW archstudio, are beginning to rethink this exclusionary approach, bringing a new wave of inclusive architecture to the fore.
The two-story Nha Be House, designed by Ho Chi Minh City architecture firm Tropical Space and completed in early 2021, demonstrates that architects also need to think beyond physical disabilities. “[The clients] needed to live in a place with fresh air,” says Tran Thi Ngu Ngon, one of the firm’s co-founders and lead architects. “But they also wanted to create a warm living environment for themselves.”
The clients were a family of four: One mother and her three daughters. The elderly mother had lived in central Ho Chi Minh City for most of her life and the air quality had impacted on her health. She suffers from the heat but long periods of time in air-conditioning agitates her breathing, so Tropical Space designed a house that would cool naturally. Also incorporating bioclimatic principles, the firm made the house completely porous with perforated brick walls, a central void and a generous buffer zone.
These design strategies repel heat from the outside while inviting the breeze to cool the building and push any hot air up through the void to escape via vertical gaps in the tiered ceiling. The temperature inside the house is always a few degrees lower than it is outside. As the central space that connects all the bedrooms, the void was also designed for family cohesion. This is where the four women can sit in the living room or cook meals together.
Strengthening family connection was also top-of-mind for An Viet Dung of Farming Architects when, in 2020, he built The Valley, a multigenerational “tube house” in Binh Duong with an indoor vegetable garden and fish pond. The 70-year-old grandparents cultivate the vegetables and feed the fish, but they also “teach children how to farm, just like they did when they were young,” says An. With The Valley, An wanted to imbed elements that would help give the grandparents purpose, but also encourage moments of generational exchange.
Vietnam has developed at breakneck speeds over the past two decades, resulting in tension between the traditional, multigenerational living arrangement and a growing appetite for solitude. “Problems can arise from being too close, as many of us crave moments of aloneness,” An says. A firm believer in the power of the built environment, he believes that intelligent architecture might provide part of the solution.
“I think that architecture can solve this problem,” says An. “The key is blending thoughtful communal spaces with private areas within the same structure.”