The Attapattu Walawwa, originally built by Mudliar Don Bastian Gooneratne in 1742 has been the ancestral home of the Dias Abeysinghe and Gooneratne families for 269 years. It is a large comfortable family home which incorporates features that keep the environment comfortably cool in the hot and humid climes. The house is located at Walawwatte – a highly residential area on Lower Dickson Road, adjacent to the Galle Town Centre.

By Dr. Janaka Goonetilleke

A characteristic feature of this house is the multiple verandahs. The verandah spaces of Attapattu Walawwa are spacious, well ventilated and well lit with wooden pillars characteristic of the Sinhala architecture except from the front lower and the sides which have columns made of brick or stone – reflection of the Dutch architectural influence. These spaces have been specifically designed to interact with society on a hierarchical basis.

The front verandah leads into a airy and light high roofed sitting room into which light streams in through the many windows and the lotus shaped glass panel in the front side wall of the sitting room. A decorated arch separates the sitting room into front and rear sections.

This area opens into the quadrangle (meda midula) through a small middle verandah which stretches around it. The quadrangle creates an opening within the house into which the spaces connect.

On the side of the quadrangle is the dining room. It has a striking mural of ancient “disa” flags. The “panka”(manual fan) located above the dining table kept the diners cool and comfortable as it was manually operated to gently sway to and fro.

As was customary during the period the living areas were segregated. The main bedrooms of the house are located on either side of the quadrangle and the ladies dormitory was located above the dining room while the kitchens, paddy store and the back veranda were located at the rear.

The high steeply sloping roof was covered with Sinhala tiles. The circulation currents created by the arrangement of the local tiles help to keep the interior cool. The angular nature of the roof disperses the waves of solar radiation into a larger area thus reducing the radiated energy per square area. Heat radiation from the roof to the interior is reduced by the convexity of the Sinhala Tiles which reflect the Solar Radiation, the low thermal capacity of the tiles and continuous air flow through the house.

The roof is laid on a wooden frame painted with lime to prevent termite attacks. The roof of the kitchen has a Dumwahala – an elevated roof through which the smoke from the kitchen fires are discharged.

The south west orientation of the Walawwa is based on astrology. It ensures that a constant cool draught plays through the house and that the direct sunlight does not fall on the house. The front door, the doors leading into and out of the quadrangle and the back door are in one straight line with slight incongruence which allow part of the air stream to create turbulence in the relevant spaces thus mixing the cold winds with warm air of the interior. The passage of warm air from the interior of the house into the quadrangle creates convection currents creating a constant flow of air.

In order that thermal comfort is maintained, solar heat gained by the building must be minimised whilst heat dissipation must be maximised by ventilation. This has been achieved by good ventilation and insulation of the interior of the house from the sun light, and preventing the passage of heat across the walls.

The Walawwa has been expanded along with structural changes incorporated to accommodate the needs of the owners over the years. Such indications are seen in the sitting room where an original base of a door frame is present indicative of subsequent expansion of the sitting room.

The walls are painted with lime and adorns different colours of white, green and pink in keeping with periodic trends. There is evidence that the walls were painted with floral designs at a certain period. A Brahmin chart of unknown significance has been located in the side wall of the verandah. The core of the walls are made from stone ant hill clay, sand and lime and plastered with a mixture of ant hill clay (humbas meti), sand and lime. When the weather is cool and humid, especially at night the porosity of the clay, absorbs moisture and during the day when it is warm the moisture is expelled. The wall literary breathes acting as a ’natural air conditioner’, which prevents heat from crossing the walls. This enables the wall to withstand changes in environmental temperature unlike cement walls which tend to crack due to temperature variations. In addition the walls are of low thermal capacity and hence the transfer of heat across is minimal. The walls themselves are very strong in spite of its porosity. The lime that is used not only is a binder but makes the walls immune to the attack of termites. The walls of Attapattu Walawwa have lasted 200 years without any cracks except in areas where cement has been used for repairs. Cement lacks porosity thus the plaster surrounding gets displaced as the wall cannot “breathe” through the cement.

The floor of the Walawwa is of terracotta tile (dimension12”X13” X1.75”) carefully laid on sand and lime with grouting carried out using lime or calcium carbonate. The porosity of the tiles enables ground water to evaporate preventing dampness and stabilising the ground underneath.

However, as with all old buildings different technologies have been accepted at different periods without appreciating its affects on the house. The living areas in the western wing of the house has cement flooring in one room and cement grouting in the other two rooms. This prevents evaporation and has caused dampness on the floor and rising damp in one room. This has worsened due to poor rainwater drainage and the building of a modern house in the premises. The collection of moisture under (cement floors) tends to cause ground instability which gives rise to subsidence and cracks.

The flooring of the kitchen and the back verandah is made from granite for hygienic reasons and durability as the areas need to be washed regularly.

The detailing in the building indicates native philosophies, and is done in a manner that it enhances the aesthetics as well as comfort for instance, the lotus bud design on the arch in the sitting room and on the wooden pillars in the library and the flower stands; the wooden carvings on the screen in the barandaya – sitting room next to the meda midula – and three wooden carvings on either side of the door. The carvings on either side of the door are identical but the two lateral carvings are mirror images.

In addition to terracotta tiles in the dining hall and the verandah, the dining hall tiling has been done in an artistic manner creating an observation area to admire the mural of Sinhala disa flags.

The builders of this magnificent house have designed the house in such a manner that the bioclimatic effects of the environment have been maximally utilized to give its occupiers shelter and comfort. This house is a tribute to the Sinhalese builders and their technology.

Adapted from “Attapattu Walawwa the residences of the Gooneratne and Dias Abeyesinghe families of Galle” by Dr. Janaka Goonetilleke