Navigating the Thermal Environment, Korean Style!

For the past several weeks we have focused on different forms of energy in constructed spaces, especially that of heat and air. Nowadays much of society relies on air conditioning in order to create comfortable thermal levels. Without the proliferation of modern air conditioning in the 1920’s, no one would have moved to cities like Miami or Las Vegas simply because they were too hot. Today’s methods, however, are both costly and detrimental to the natural environment. “Sustainable” buildings have therefore turned to incorporating passive systems. Heat, air, etc. are not forced through the building but simply flow through it.

Vernacular architecture provides a wealth of precedents for those attempting to create “sustainable” buildings because, for centuries, humanity has had to construct climate-specific architecture without the aid of the air conditioner. We’ve heard a lot about Western examples in class, but very little about the East Asia, so this post will take a preliminary look at the Korean traditional house, the hanok.

A typical upper-class hanok

Upper class hanoks were constructed in methods similar throughout much of East Asia. They are characterized by a systematically organized wood frame, wooden brackets, curved tiled roofs, and a courtyard. However, the one thing that makes the traditional Korean home different from any other in Asia is an underfloor heating system called ondol. Similar to the Roman hypocaust, the ondol system utilizes an exterior fire that distributes and transfers heat beneath a raised floor. All methods of heat transfer – conduction, convection, and radiation – occur. The diagram below illustrates this process. However, what makes ondol different from the hypocaust, a system used mainly for public baths, is that the fire was also used to prepare food in the kitchen.

One might ask why this underfloor heating came into being. Traditionally, Koreans directly engaged the floor in their daily life. Because there was no concept of furniture as in the West, they ate, slept, and communed on the floor – even the king would do the same. The Korean peninsula also has four distinct seasons with winters being especially cold compared to areas in the same latitude. Heating the floor became a natural response to these conditions. Also, because a fire was not necessary inside the building itself, ondol retained heat in the room more efficiently and prevented wooden homes from bursting into flames.

A 1904 photo showing Koreans’ daily life on the floor, even for someone like the Minister of War. 

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One thought on “Navigating the Thermal Environment, Korean Style!

  1. georgeklett says:

    Issac, this is such a cool system! Like you said it not only seems more efficient than western ways of heating, especially since people are accustomed to living on the floor, it seems like it may be healthier too. Was the floor of these structures air-tight? I am just wondering because I know with the traditional western fireplace often smoke could enter the rooms making for unhealthy conditions. I am still a little confused as to how the smoke and heat is directed across the floor, I feel like this indirect path may in some cases end up putting the fire out. Also, why is the chimney lower than the roofline? I wonder if they had a different type of flooring material, such as concrete, if this system could have been even more efficient since concrete holds heat so well.

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