What is a hanok? An eco-friendly accommodation in Korea

The Korean peninsula displays many unique cultural assets, but the hanok, a traditional Korean house, is truly something special. Beside its elegant appearance, a hanok is made of almost only natural elements (earth, wood and rock), which makes it an eco-friendly accommodation option. Indeed, a hanok is more than just a house to eat and sleep in. It is a place where Koreans find themselves in harmony with nature in a serene and calm environment.

Written by: Anneleen Debruyckere, Herost Global Youth Ambassador

When traveling to South Korea, you may have a chance to stay in a hanok for at least one night. But what is a hanok and why does Herost promote this type of accommodation?

Herost - Bukchon Village

The Korean peninsula displays many unique cultural assets, but the hanok, a traditional Korean house, is truly something special. Beside its elegant appearance, a hanok is made of almost only natural elements (earth, wood and rock), which makes it an eco-friendly accommodation option. Indeed, a hanok is more than just a house to eat and sleep in. It is a place where Koreans find themselves in harmony with nature in a serene and calm environment.

Hanok houses feature another hidden gem: an underground heating system called ondol. Ondol is the outcome of local ingenuity and craftsmanship, endemically Korean and unprecedented anywhere in the world. Such vernacular architecture, i.e. an architecture characterized by the use of local material and knowledge, almost disappeared during the urbanization process of Korea. However, hanoks have been developed and promoted over the past years as popular tourist accommodations.

In this article we will see how they can qualify as an eco-friendly accommodation.

Welcome to Seoul, a blend of traditional and modernity

A first glance at Seoul and it’s difficult to miss the hundreds of apartment blocks neatly lined up next to each other. An impressive sight, to say the least. It gives an immediate impression of the South Korean capital: a vibrant, multi-cultural hotspot, accommodating millions of people. A closer look and ancient Korea enters the scene: between the high-rise apartment blocks, you might notice some curvy, tiled roofs. Go even closer and you will find colorful Buddhist temples, massive palaces and picturesque little houses. Even though industrialization has influenced Korea strongly over the past decades, these landmarks remember us that Korea is a country with deep roots and rich history.

It is obvious that Koreans have not always lived in massive apartment buildings. For centuries, the population of the Korean peninsula lived in a dwelling called hanok (Korean: 한옥). Its exact time of origin is unknown and difficult to pinpoint, as the building technique has been used for centuries and improved over the years. In general, any Korean building with the ondol heating system and made with natural elements only can be referred to as a hanok. Hanok houses hold the special characteristic of being fully recyclable, and can therefore be considered as pioneers in eco-friendly architecture.

Herost - Korean Fok Village

Hanok as a prime piece of vernacular architecture

The word ‘vernacular’ might sound new to you, but has nevertheless a simple meaning. Vernacular architecture refers to a primitive form of building houses, prior to the existence of a schooled architect to supervise. What makes vernacular architecture exceptional is that it is unique to one region, at one period in time. In ancient times, people were compelled to help themselves with the material they found nearby to build constructions. Since no architect was involved, the only way to see if something worked was through trial and error. Defects were rethought until steady, functional houses came to be. The remaining hanoks in Korea are a physical exhibit of the country’s traditional culture, local knowledge and craftsmanship.

Eco-friendly hanok and geomancy

The world was not always as globalized as it is now. In order to make constructions, Koreans had to provide themselves with elements they found in nature nearby. Accordingly, hanok constructions appear fully sustainable, as they are made solemnly of natural materials: wood, earth and stone, and built by the locals. The hanok’s foundation is established with stones, upon which a framework of wooden beams and pillars is constructed. The floors and walls are made of red clay, as well as the ceiling which is ultimately finished off with clay tiles. Hanji paper is used to subdivide the interior in multiple rooms. Indeed, Korean traditional architecture seems to have been eco-friendly from the beginning.

Koreans describe hanok as ‘a house that breathes’. Unlike Western smooth-surfaced concrete, the red clay’s structure works as a sponge that absorbs moisture. As a result, the clay used for the floor and walls has an excellent humidity regulating capacity. Natural light shines into the room through the fine hanji paper used to cover windows and doors. The tightly intertwined fibers of hanji have small gabs, allowing air to flow through freely from both sides. Because of this, the room is properly ventilated without opening a single door or window and it also works as a natural air-cleaner. Opening or removing the light hanji doors is easy and it breaks the barrier between in- and outside, creating a fully natural environment to sleep, live and work in.

Herost - Hanok Village

As a matter of principle in Korean architecture, the positioning of a hanok is thoroughly considered, bearing in mind the natural surroundings. Ideally, a hanok house has a mountain in the background and a river flowing in front of the house. This is not only for esthetic and functional purposes, but also dictated by rules of geomancy or the art of placing or arranging buildings or other sites auspiciously.

Due to the rising world population and the rapid technological development, we have seen the world rush into urbanization in just a generation. While this undoubtedly has had its economic advantages, an increasingly high voice calls for more sustainable development approaches. In this regard, traditional Korean housing can be used as an example. It is a sensible way of house building, using minimal resources and avoiding, or at least limiting, negative environmental and social impacts. It is a house built by people, for people; and every aspect has been considered thoroughly.

Adjusting room temperature through ondol and maru

Influenced by both a maritime and continental climate, the temperature difference between summer and winter reaches up to 50°C. Constructing a house that suits the hot and humid summer as well as the cold and windy winter can be tricky. That is where the hidden secret of Korean hanok houses comes in, and without a doubt its biggest merit: ondol, a heating system allowing hot air to flow under the floor, heating up the room above it. The tunnel is made of rocks, which capture the heat generated by a fire for a considerate amount of time. The ondol system originates from the north of Korea, where the Siberian landmass was responsible for harsh weather conditions. It is uniquely Korean, as the technique was spread all over the Korean peninsula but not in any other countries. It is without a doubt the hanok’s most significant feature, and its presence has dominantly influenced the house’s interior arrangement. For example, in order to save wood, the fire used to cook food upon is connected to the ondol system. The heat for cooking is simultaneously used for warming the hanok. Therefore, the kitchen should be situated next to the ondol room(s).

In hot summer months, unheated rooms are still being used but if the house also possesses rooms with a maru floor, then this will be much more preferred. A maru floor is made of wood and does not come with a heating system. The open space under the floor allows fresh winds to flow underneath the room and cool down the heat inside. Contrary to many Western spatial arrangements, Koreans like to keep their premises as open as possible. This allows nature to enter the house and facilitates redecorating depending on the occasion. Accordingly, the courtyard is intentionally kept open, without trees, as trees would hinder free air circulation. While ondol rooms and the kitchen area are basic hanok features, a maru floor was considered luxurious and could only be found in middle and upper class houses with enough space. A maru room in the center of the house, called daecheon maru, was particularly special as it was used for special occasions, such as weddings, receiving guests or family events.

Herost - Jeonju Hanok Village

As a result, all spaces in a hanok have either a maru or an ondol floor, except for the kitchen. Maru floors are often used in common spaces, like the living room, where the whole family comes together to eat. Heated ondol floors are more common in private quarters, like bedrooms. Korean architecture prefers all rooms to be connected in one big building, rather than multiple buildings. It is customary and almost mandatory in Korea to take your shoes off when entering a hanok, so switching rooms would mean a lot of shoe changing. Entering a room without footwear has also stimulated Asian floor-sitting culture.

Downturn and revival of Korean hanoks

After the Korean War (which ended in 1953), many hanok houses were demolished, leaving millions of Koreans with nowhere to live. In urgent need for new infrastructure, the newly introduced Western-style buildings seemed way more practical and quick to build. Back then, hanok houses were considered old-fashioned and outdated. However, the ondol system was still very popular and deeply rooted in the Korean culture. Their way of living (i.e. sleeping and eating on the floor) was adapted to the usage of underground heating, and so it was initially hard to let go. Nevertheless, when contemporary floor heating with metal tubes was introduced in the 1970s, hanok-living declined rapidly. The invention allowed Koreans to continue their shoes-off lifestyle. Today, about half the Korean population lives in apartment blocks.

Isn’t it hard to imagine that instead of all those apartment buildings, there were simple hanok houses, only 70 years ago? Not all were destroyed in the war, but those that were left over had a bad reputation. They were neglected and unsanitary, and therefore unfit to live in. As a result, all old hanok houses were systematically removed and replaced by story-high apartment buildings. However, at some point around the late 1990s, a feeling of cultural nostalgia emerged. How unsettling would it be if the Korean capital lost all of its traditional landmarks to industrialization? The government changed course and started another project: The Hanok Conservation and Regeneration Project.

Herost - Bukchon village

The Bukchon area, located in the North of Seoul, had been planned for modern redevelopment but was the first area in Seoul to be regenerated. At first, this project received backlash from citizens who did not see the economic value of conserving old, unkept hanoks. Nevertheless, the project quickly restored the traditional character of the city, and over the past decade, Bukchon Hanok Village has been one of Seoul’s major attractions for both Koreans and international tourists. The result of the regeneration project has proven positive and has consequently stimulated similar projects in other historic areas.

Apart from this, there seems to be a relapse in hanok domiciles, as more young Koreans regain interest in this eco-friendly alternative to contemporary skyscrapers. It is the simple, slow way of life that attracts them. Especially in a huge, dynamic city like Seoul, it can be a fulfilling and relaxing experience to stay in a serene and calm place such as a hanok.

Herost - Bukchon

Hanok promoting coexistence between nature and man

Those who are visiting Korea and searching for an eco-friendly accommodation, look no further! All over the country, several hanok buildings have been remodeled for modern usage, such as cafés, traditional stores and guesthouses.

Visiting hanok villages and learning about traditional Korean culture is in many aspects practicing positive, sustainable tourism. First of all, it is a particularly eco-friendly way of living. An important feature of ecotourism is reducing the impact of traveling on local environments and cultures. Staying in a hanok will have minimal negative influence. On the contrary, it will support the local community and help preserve this unique culture. As a guest in a foreign country, it is a token of interest and respect to educate yourself in its traditional culture. Secondly, as Koreans estimate a huge benefit, hanok-living is health-promoting and brings the mind at peace. Its simple concept and design allows you to connect with the world around, while also experiencing the ancient Korean mindset and spirit that still lives through today.

Herost - Bukchon Hanok Village

Feel free to explore our Herost hanok experiences! 


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