"Low Income" Housing Typology in Vietnam

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In Vietnam, one of the fastest growing developing countries, its first and biggest mega-urban region - Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) - has been most affected by the rapidly transitional process. The vulnerable urban development has been suffering due to the disregard to cultural suitability, living environment and quality, especially in the ‘low-cost’ housing sector. Moreover, the economic crisis, which has been going on in recent years, has led to a strong demand particularly for a sustainable strategy to develop urban housing for ‘low-income’ inhabitants. Despite the massive need of the market, the first affordable apartments introduced in Vietnam have been offering really poor living quality. Thus, these bad products create a common understanding that ‘low-cost’ means ‘low-quality’. This topical issue has been discussed widely for years; so far there have been only some general strategies put forward without any detailed guidance or solutions and adequate examples of real-life application. This paper offers an affordable climate-adaptive design for prototype apartment in HCMC which aims to offer practical solutions within the architecture aspect to tackle the above mentioned issue. The proposal consists of adapting vernacular housing architecture to modern urban compact apartments to create new comfortable and convenient living spaces while still exuding Vietnamese traditional home feeling.


“Viet Nam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change despite being one of the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. This is particularly worrying, as Viet Nam has enjoyed one of the best development records in recent years of any country in the world.” (Oxfam 2008, 3)

Meanwhile, HCMC has been identified globally as one of the ten cities most likely to be severely affected by climate change. It has been ranked fifth by population exposed to the effects of climate change by 2070 (IPCC 2007). Furthermore, HCMC was recognized as the 28th most populated city in the world with over 8 million people by 2013 and could reach to 12 million by 2025 (Moens 2013), clearly reflecting the high pressure on housing sector. Over the past decade, the construction industry has been developing rapidly in size instead of quality, especially in terms of ‘low-cost’ housing due to the low economic returns of such projects. Unlike the new residential developments for middle and high-income classes, the recent few ‘low-income’ housing projects are mostly erected spontaneously with poor technical infrastructure and transport connections, resulting in precarious living conditions for the inhabitants and environmental problems for the city (Waibel 2007). This will be even more serious as Vietnam urban areas still need over 3 million more of ‘low-cost’ housing, including approximately 200.000 only for HCMC (MOC 2013). For the last five years, this emergent issue has been discussed topically. It was discovered that a numbers of solution need to be addressed and sustainable architecture design is one of the key element.

The concept of sustainable architecture is relatively new in Vietnam; however, taking a look back to Vietnam’s vernacular housing under the aspect of architecture dealing with hash natural conditions by environmentally friendly way, it can be considered as a model for climate-adaptive architecture design. Vietnamese ancestors, who were born and raised in warm and humid climate, had a lot of experience in building traditional houses in order to adapt to the natural and economic conditions, especially Vietnamese culture (Waibel 2012). Unfortunately, the advantages of vernacular housing are lost during rapid urban processing and being replaced by glass modern architecture without consideration of the local environment and the micro-climate of both inside and outside the buildings.

“While traditional buildings can often not satisfy today’s comfort requirements completely, they provide, if operated right, acceptable comfort conditions with a low energy demand. Therefore modern sustainable buildings should integrate traditional concepts and adapt them into modern forms. However buildings currently constructed in Vietnam seldom enable such passive energy saving potentials.” (Waibel 2012, 15)

Since ‘green architecture’ is quite a new concept to Vietnam, some recent buildings have been designed and labelled ‘green buildings’ despite the fact that their designs include only of striking facades and some greenery. In overview, sustainable architecture in Vietnam is simply a passive short-term reaction to the topical trend of ‘global climate change’, instead of a sustainable long-term solution. To all extends, it is vital to deeply consider the climatic design adaption of new residential developments in order to assure a better living quality for Vietnam inhabitants. This paper will focus on using modern technology but applying selective concepts of vernacular architecture adapted to the natural climate conditions within allowance budget particularly for affordable apartments. Especially, this proposal emphasizes the use of naturally ventilation, sun shading, and sustainable building design with the essence of Vietnamese culture which can be seen in both private interior spaces and communal exterior spaces.


In recent years, climate change and its major effects to the urban areas have been widely concerned all around the world, HCMC is not an exception. Noticing the importance of this concern, HCMC has actively organised a number of professional research workshops and conferences where many international as well as national specialists and architects have worked on a wide range of issues and solutions. These are a few recent successful conferences and workshops:

  • Vietnam Climate Adaptation Partnership. (Vietnam - Netherlands)
  • Future Mega Cities: HCMC project. (Vietnam - Germany)
  • Key Challenges in the Process of Urbanization in HCMC (Vietnam – USA)
  • Connecting Delta Cities on adaptation to climate change: Rotterdam, New York, Jakarta, London, New Orleans, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and HCMC.
  • HCMC Adaptation to Climate Change (Asian Development Bank in collaboration with the HCMC Peoples Committee and DONRE)
  • International conferences on Green Housing in Vietnam.

In general, the outcome of these researches defines the overall broad issues faced by the current housing development and offers certain well-rounded strategies mainly in the social, economic and urban aspects of development. However, such researches happen while building projects are being carried out, thus their usefulness and application are rather limited. Nonetheless there are exceptions, for instance, the Handbook for Green Housing - one of main publications of Future Mega Cities HCMC Project - is practical and highly recommended for currently townhouse’s stakeholders. According to Waibel, the Handbook for Green Housing is a tangible output introducing a comprehensive set of principles and measures by means of an easy to understand format. It also introduced options that use the potential of sun and wind to limit natural disadvantages; and targeted the new consumers of Vietnam, the rapidly emerging urban middle class population, currently in the process of erecting new buildings or renovating their houses. (Waibel, 2011)

This type of practical handbooks meets the emergent need of the running market. While the current handbooks are focused on town house, this paper targets affordable apartments, which are one of the two main housing typologies within HCMC urban development. On the other hand, the final proceedings of the conference on Green Housing in Vietnam between Tradition and Modernity raised many valid points to architecture community regarding the missing role of traditional tropical architecture in Vietnam current and future housing developments.

“In Vietnam, the potential to promote climate-adapted architecture and energy efficient building is far from being exhausted. Due to the tropical climate a particularly large amount of energy for cooling and dehumidification is needed here. The economic boom has allowed construction to grow enormously. For the first time, broad middle classes have emerged. They are the most important decision-makers in the construction of new residential buildings and are thus a key group for greater sustainability. In this context the 'rediscovery' of traditional tropical architecture, which is based on natural ventilation, represents an important opportunity.” (Waibel 2012, 3)

Moreover, taking a look back to some previous individual and smaller scale researches, it can complete and contribute to the overall picture. One of the first notable publications on “Housing for Low-income Groups in Ho Chi Minh City between Re-Integration and Fragmentation - Approaches to Adequate Urban Typologies and Spatial Strategies" was published on ASIEN - The German Journal on Contemporary Asia in 2007. It has been clearly stated by Waibel - one of the key international researchers in Vietnam for this field - that housing units have to be constructed in a way that ‘low-income’ people can afford them, to achieve that, there is a need for much better cooperation and strategies for the political, social and economic feasibility of the concept (Waibel 2007). Later on, ICEM - the International Centre for Environmental Management - conducted “The HCMC Adaptation to Climate Change Study” which was commissioned by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in collaboration with the HCMC Peoples Committee. This is one of the very first officially funded studies showing HCMC’s efforts in the practical climate-adaptive architecture aspect.

“The study was conducted between February 2008 and July 2009. Of necessity it was a rapid assessment undertaken within the context of the replication potential for local governments, the accessibility and availability of local information and the need for simple and practical responses which can be readily integrated with local development planning cycles and processes.”(ICEM 2009, 9)

In addition, recently, there are some noteworthy PhD thesises by Vietnamese researchers which worked on many different aspect of sustainable housing in Vietnam. So far, there are two distinguished thesises, which can be considered as the clarification to the valuable connection between vernacular housing architecture and contemporary climate-adaptive housing design. Firstly, Nguyen submitted his thesis on “Sustainable housing in Vietnam: Climate responsive design strategies to optimize thermal comfort” in 2013. The aim of his thesis is to develop design strategies toward comfortable, energy-efficient housing with a low budget based on studies on Vietnam traditional housing architecture.

“A study on vernacular and traditional housing in Vietnam will complement the socio-cultural aspect of this research and a life-cycle cost optimization will provide strategies towards affordable – comfortable housing in Vietnam.” (Nguyen 2013, 5)

There are a number of eminent outcomes from this thesis, however, the principles developed can only be applied in theoretical researches by professionals and it seems impractical for public use. Secondly, also within 2013, another notable thesis was published by Le on “Housing development situation and climate-adapted design solutions for Hue City” which was highly practical and easily understandable for common readers. The research proposed some particularly pressing and urgent solutions of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It adds specialized knowledge for professional designers in sustainable architecture, climate responsive, and low cost housing.

“From this research, the building strategies bring out sustainable living environment with the adaptive climate solutions. The strategies develop base on the local climate, local material, and traditional construction methods and some scientific approaches. This study will be the evident for many solutions which use the advantage of local climate to reduce the cost of energy and support a comfort living for inhabitants.” (Le 2013, 1)

Despite such positive attributes, this study has some limited points, such as the main study points of building development are located in Hue City, thus having slightly different climate to HCMC. Moreover, Hue City is just an average-scale city in central Vietnam which is hugely different from HCMC in almost every other aspect.

Generally, there are a vast gap in the levels of researches from architects and professionals for such a topical issue of climate-adaptive design for HCMC housing. However, the main weakness of those studies mentioned above is their failure to address the practical solution particularly for a well design affordable apartment adapted to the local climate of HCMC, which should also be easily shareable with common inhabitants as a prototype for further developments. Hence, this design proposal will not only focus on modern construction technology but also targeting on Vietnamese culture aspects.


Throughout some initial researches mentioned above on housing for ‘low-income’ inhabitants in such a mega city like HCMC, it clearly shows that the success of housing projects for ‘low-income’ groups is mainly dependent on sustainable architecture, particularly climatic design adaptation (Waibel 2007, 76). The key question need to be figured out is:

What is the fundamental of climate-adaptive architecture design to create quality-living ‘low-cost’ apartments in HCMC?

Based on previous studies of Nguyen and Le on climate responsive design strategies of vernacular housing in Vietnam, there are two subordinate questions in order to answer the main question:

  • To what extend can the values of vernacular architecture apply for modern apartment projects in term of ‘low-cost’ climatic design solution?
  • Can a ‘low-cost’ apartment afford to have the sense of Vietnam culture?


Those above mentioned questions could be answered through a series of studies on four key fields including:

  • Contemporary climate-adaptive design techniques, especially putting attention on ‘low-cost’ solutions.
  • Climate responsive design technique of Vietnam vernacular housing architecture, further considering culture heritage characteristics.
  • Current common status of affordable apartments in HCMC.
  • Good samples of affordable housing in other countries, particularly developing countries with the similar conditions.

The outcomes achieved should be adapted to the context of HCMC through effective climate responsive design solutions and flexible combination of various design parameters. The consistent solutions should meet the requirements for a sustainable development. The more detailed proposal workflow will follow as:

  • Understanding the natural climate condition of HCMC by using both personal experiences as local inhabitant and computer accuracy climate analysis tools.
  • Selecting and testing suitable climatic design solutions by using scale models and modern stimulate computer software.
  • Discovering unique and applicable values of vernacular housing architecture using archives and previous studies on traditional architecture.
  • Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the current apartment design in HCMC through site visits and direct quick interviews with existing users. (Currently under consideration as may have issues with finance for travel to Vietnam and back)
  • Researching the quality of currently in-use affordable apartments and selecting the notable and applicable design solutions.
  • Choosing a suitable up-coming affordable apartment which have good location and already had full design proposal.
  • Proposing a complete new design proposal based on previous studies.
  • Creating a comparison table between two proposals including a series of design elements, advantages and disadvantages of both design. Focusing on sustainable elements such as thermal comfort, natural ventilation, lighting, community, maximizing using spaces, etc, by using computer stimulate software such as Autodesk Ecotech 2011and Climate Consultant 5.1. Further analyze using architectural 3D modeling software (Autodesk CAD, 3Ds Max, Google SketchUp) and testing directly on physical scale models.
  • Comparing with at least two more similar projects.
  • Listing the key approaches and fundamental of the final design proposal.

It is expected as a design based thesis so the research and computer analytical approaches should come along with the creative design aspects in order to offer an aesthetic, comfortable, affordable, energy conscious, quality living environment.


“If housing conditions are inadequate, it might be concluded that this is because some households are unable to demand housing of an acceptable standard.” (Michael 2000, 2)

This statement points out a major problem of all the mega-urban regions all over the world, especially developing countries among which Vietnam and more particularly HCMC is typical. The city has been suffering the rapid increase of economic and urban development without a sustainable detailed strategy, leading to poor living quality in almost all residential developments, particularly in affordable housing sector. With the current global climate issues, the challenge of adaptation to climate change is inevitable to urban planning and management of the city. These fast-growing climate issues are vital in urban planning as well as building design, leading to the need to improve the level of energy efficiency and adaptation to climate. Thus, in recent years HCMC has shown strong determination on raising both quantity and quality of ‘low-income’ housing sector. This is reflected on a huge number of published materials from international specialist corporations as well as individual researchers tackling this topical issue. However, so far, published researches are mainly focused on the urban aspects and town house typology, but have yet offered any practical solution and detailed example for ‘low-cost’ apartments. This paper aims to promote a climatic adaptive design prototype of affordable housing for ‘low-income’ residents in HCMC, in turn contributing to the improvement of living quality and sustainability of development. Furthermore, it is expected that the results of this thesis can be easily refined and combined in to a practical handbook which can be applied widely not only for building designers but also common inhabitants. Lastly, the traditional housing architecture takes a vital role in this research process in order to offer a modern design consistent with and representative of the Vietnamese culture heritage.

As many other countries, vernacular housing in Vietnam has illustrated valuable examples of the harmony between the nature and manmade structures. (Nguyen 2013, 20)