TROPICAL ARCHITECTURE isn't just about beauty. Sure, it looks gorgeous with all those Balinese holiday accoutrements, but the design first and foremost serves a purpose: to provide the coolest way of living - literally. In the tropics, houses are designed to take advantage of natural ventilation. The constant search for breeze and shade usually means that the choice of roof pitch, window openings and floor height aren't mere whims, but based on typical conditions during the hottest months. Tropical architecture is about adapting to the environment, says architect and interior designer Roderick Murray, of R.J. Murray Design. It takes into consideration using indigenous materials that can withstand the rigours of a tropical climate; roofs, walls and doors to protect from the sun and rain (and sometimes animals and insects); capturing prevailing breezes; and decor that reflects the local culture and tradition. Architect Johnny Kember, of KplusK Associates, says it's also a mindset. 'It's the pursuit of a symbiosis between climate and living experience, informed by universal truths of the beauty of sun, sea and sky.' He says contemporary tropical architecture re-evaluates traditional forms and local expertise. For instance, the craft used for boat-building in places such as Phuket can be reflected in building forms such as concrete and sculpted to blend into the landscape. Given that design is said to influence mood, it's little wonder that exotic resorts leave many people pining for more. But Murray and Kember warn against copying ideas you see on holiday. It often just doesn't work at home. 'I find it best to think about the essence of what I like about tropical design, rather than slavishly copy it,' Murray says. 'It's a bit like local wine you buy on holiday - tastes great when you're in the sun, but not so appealing when you get back home'. Kember says resorts and homes are different animals. One is designed to appeal to a wide range of people for a short space of time. A home is the opposite. However, Murray also warns against trying to reinvent the wheel. For a house he designed in the south of Thailand, he looked at what had been built on the islands: timber structures high off the ground for cooling breezes, thatched roofs to insulate from the sun, and large overhangs to protect from the rain. Murray adapted these to a layout conducive to relaxation: a large bedroom with a great sea view, a bathroom that opens to the skies, shaded timber decks, and a kitchen and dining area designed more for chilling out than working. For a villa in Koh Samui, architect William Lin worked with the natural environment to create a building that nestles into the landscape. The steep slope and presence of large boulders presented not only challenges but design opportunities, he says. The house, called Baan Limpa, was intended to be a relaxing and peaceful abode. Its entrance is an open sala, or gazebo, with a full view of the ocean beyond. A white floor, white columns and timber roof add to the calming effect. 'All the elements are simple and clean,' Lin says. The house is designed in a progression of levels, which makes it look more like a series of smaller buildings. This gives the design 'a more human scale', Lin says. It also allows bedrooms to be screened from communal areas, creating 'privacy within the openness'. Indigenous materials were used wherever possible, including black stone, tiles and recycled timber. An infinity pool adds the final element - a link with the ocean in the distance. David Clarke, architect and co-owner of Baan Kinaree (also on Koh Samui), agrees that Thai-style architecture with a modern adaptation is the most picturesque aesthetic. 'Our vision was to design a large villa of several main pavilions which would provide spacious accommodation for 10 adults and their children set in generous landscaped grounds,' says Clarke, director of MAP Hong Kong. To create an impressive entry, boulders foraged from the site were used to create a freestone wall leading into a courtyard, with carp ponds fringing the spectacular view. In the main pavilion, living, dining and social kitchen spaces enjoy the cooling effect of a high vaulted roof and cross-ventilation - and a large shaded terrace with views. 'Faced with the choice of either a cut-and-fill site formation or stilt structure we elected the former to retain - as far as possible - a lower profile for the villa,' Clarke says. 'We were able to recess most of the lower level of the main pavilion into the resulting cut - giving us two identical bedroom suites that open out to a separate terrace and lawn area - again enjoying the same view.' The master-bedroom pavilion is also cut into the slope, with its indoor and outdoor showers and a large terrazzo bath arranged so guests can enjoy the views. The signature landscape piece is the 18-metre infinity pool that appears to sail out over the palm tree-filled valley below. One of the main unifying themes of Baan Kinaree is the extensive use of Thai sandstone flooring. Plantation timber stained to a dark teak colour is featured on the ceilings. As well as sourcing local materials, the developers used local contractors and tradesmen. 'These skill sets are now rapidly improving on Koh Samui - the quality is now getting closer to what is possible on Phuket,' Clarke says. 'Each new villa takes advantage of the lessons learnt on the last.' Gallery owner Sin Sin Man, whose Villa Sin Sin was designed by Italian architect Gianni Francione, chose the green of a rice field in Bali for the setting of her tropical home. 'It's a very beautiful landscape, where one feels safe and calm,' she says. Elevated to capture cooling breezes, the villa has few walls, with the living and dining rooms and every bathroom left open to the elements through adjoining terraces or gardens. 'You see so much when you go out. When at home, I like to see almost nothing,' says Man, explaining the openness of the design. 'I love the balance; the zen feeling - as if Hong Kong is the ying, and Bali the yang.'