When I was younger, I thought a typical “Filipino house” was whatever was depicted at the scale models at the mall: two-story homes with a living room, a dining room, a bathroom, and multiple bedrooms.
As an adult, I became interested in history and heritage. I enjoyed learning about different places and how they came to be. This led me to create my first cut-and-build book about Intramuros. I was intrigued that so little of the Walled City of Intramuros survived to this day, so I made paper models to recreate the sites that were lost in World War II. I also grew to appreciate old houses. For me, they were anchors to the past that told us how we Filipinos lived. But I assumed that more or less, they had the same parts as the scale models I loved as a child.
In November 2022, I released my second cut-and-build book called “BAHAY: A Tour of Traditional Filipino Homes.” The book allows you to build models of traditional Filipino houses like the bahay kubo or bahay na bato.
In my research for the book, I learned that traditional Filipino houses didn’t always have bedrooms or living rooms. Most houses were elevated from the ground and had open, multi-purpose areas instead of separate rooms. They stood in harmony with their immediate environment, adapting to the local terrain, climate, and culture. They had ingenious architectural details like walls that converted into windows, wooden discs that warded off rats, or carved serpents that captured the sun’s energy.
While creating “Bahay,” I discovered what scale models at the mall can’t show — that traditional Filipino houses are rich with details adapted to our country’s volatile terrain and climate. They are closely tied to the land they stand on and to the air that flows into them.
Learning about Filipino houses gives you deeper insight into Filipino culture. If culture is a way of life, then learning about our intimate spaces is a window to how we shape our lives.
Here are six unique details in traditional Filipino houses we should know more about. The parts listed here belong to just six of the many traditional houses found all over the Philippines. May this list inspire you to learn more about them, their unique architectural details, and the Filipinos who call them home.
In the bahay kubo, the silong is the space below the elevated house. In most other bahay kubos, the silong is also a space for farming tools or livestock like chickens and pigs. But the silong is more than just a work or storage area. Wind enters via the silong into the house, through gaps in the bamboo floor. Residents build the house this way to keep cool or presko in the muggy, humid lowlands while also saving themselves from pests or floods.
In Marikina, where my grandmother lived, Just like other Marikina families in the past, my grandmother would make shoes in the silong of their old house, just like other families in what is called the Shoe Capital of the Philippines
The stone first floor of the traditional bahay na bato makes it seem impenetrable. In contrast, the wooden second level is porous and presko. Capiz shell windows envelope it with light, while calados or wall cut-outs allow cool wind to waft between its rooms.
Calados are wooden cut-outs in the shape of flowers, vines, and leaves that are carved at the tops of walls. They are found above doors or around the whole perimeter of the room, like trims of lace below the ceiling. Through the calados, air circulates freely around the house. In addition, sound also travels between the house’s rooms through the cut-outs, whether it be music from the sala or chismis from the kitchen.
The stone houses of Batanes have thick roofs and walls that can withstand typhoons. Upon entering one, you can see the exposed beams and rafters that support the structure. In the past, you would have also seen the tarugu suspended from one of the house beams.
A tarugu was a notched wooden peg where the Ivatan displayed unmilled rice. While the staple yams and sweet potatoes were stored in the kitchen, rice was hung proudly in the living area as a mark of social status. Since it was difficult to cultivate in the typhoon-swept islands, rice became a prestige crop to be displayed and protected from pests.
As in many houses today, the Ifugao traditional house — the bale — also has its fair share of rat problems.
Situated among centuries-old rice terraces, the bale is elevated on four hardwood posts. On each post, Ifugao builders place a cylindrical wooden disc called lidi or halipan. These disks serve the purpose of a rat guard — they prevent the vermin from climbing up the house and nibbling on the rice grains stored in its attic or shelves.
In the gono bong, the traditional longhouse of the Tboli, walls open up the home to the outside world instead of dividing it into rooms. Wall panels called tembo beng fold down to create an extended floor surface by the windows.
When the tembo beng are folded down, the view of the lush South Cotabato landscape floods the gono bong. The natural light also comes in handy for weaving tnalak, the intricate abaca textiles the Tboli weave by their house’s windows.
The torogan was a distinct sight in traditional Meranaw communities in Lanao Del Sur. Standing on sturdy tree trunks and awash with color, it announced the prestige of its residents — the sultan and his family. According to Meranaw custom, it was the only house that may have panolong, or end-beams reminiscent of boat prows on its facade.
Each panolong has a distinct design with its own symbolism. The designs are examples of okir, or traditional Meranaw motifs. The pako rabong or fern is said to give prosperity and peace, while the niyaga, or serpent, is said to channel the sun's energy to the Torogan’s chief resident, the sultan.
Buy a copy of “Bahay: A Tour of Traditional Filipino Homes (Cut -and-Build Your Own Model Houses” through Tahanan Books.