In May 2010, new thermal regulations will come into force for buildings in the French Overseas Departments. All new dwellings will have to comply with specific architectural and technical criteria, the aim being to encourage the development of more comfortable dwellings that consume less energy. These criteria derive from what is known as a ‘bioclimatic’ approach to building.

Man has always used the materials he has at hand to build shelter.

For a long time forests provided the necessary construction material for Amerindian, Creole, and Maroon architecture. From this common basis each culture devised and adapted its own form of dwelling depending on where they lived and their way of life.

Another common characteristic of the various sorts of traditional dwelling is the use of features allowing a cool and ventilated home. If you look at old Creole buildings, for example, you will notice that the roofs jut out around each floor, fanlights* above the doors and windows, louvres*, shutters, and even open eaves. The same is true for traditional Amerindian buildings where their apparent simplicity makes them very comfortable for their occupants.

But recently cheap energy and unlimited confidence in technology replaced the traditional skills of the elders, and people started to think they could ignore environmental concerns.

These imported types of building constructed using new and not always appropriate materials led to new needs. Hence private air-conditioning units proliferating along the coast, the place where paradoxically there is the most wind. It is worth remembering that electric chilling systems consume a lot of energy. Their increased use in the residential sector has resulted in a sharp increase in demand for electricity, especially during periods of peak consumption. This has an impact on operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions, due to the burning of diesel and fuel oil to meet this additional demand. Nowadays, if we take into account the life-cycle cost, that is to say all the costs generated by a building throughout its life (building costs (surveying, building work, and so on), operation costs (energy, water, waste, maintenance, and so on) and demolition (demolition work and recycling), it becomes clear that it is in fact a lot more expensive than building a well-thought-out dwelling.

Bioclimatic architecture makes the best use of the climate and the behaviour of the occupants so as to reduce energy needs as much as possible. The key thing is to keep the inside of the dwelling comfortable without necessarily using air conditioning.

In French Guiana designing this sort of building basically depends on 3 points:

- the exact siting of the building in relation to the dominant winds, the sun’s trajectory, and the outside environment, so as to provide optimal conditions within the dwelling,

- a natural draft for ventilation based on a room layout that assists the circulation of air through the dwelling

- protection from the sun so as to minimise the amount of heat from the external walls and the amount of direct sunlight via the windows.

Using local materials and renewable energy-generating equipment is part of an overall approach that is environmentally friendly and which includes bioclimatic architecture. Once energy consumption has been reduced as much as possible then the remaining needs can be met by producing solar heated water, photovoltaic electricity, and by recovering rainwater.

The new thermal regulations for overseas departments call for the implementation of simple and less energy-consuming solutions. It is in a way a matter of going back to the principles already used in traditional architecture and which have stood the test of time and demonstrated their efficiency. Of course, today’s requirements are different and architecture and materials have moved forward. Modern architecture will simply rediscover the principles of the past whilst using contemporary materials and more efficient technologies.