Desert Architecture

By October 16, 2010 6 Comments

Kuwait is a desert, yet you wouldn’t know this by looking at our architecture. What does it mean to design for a desert climate? The most important thing is to understand three basic rules:

  1. Understand the movement of the sun
  2. Know how different materials react to the sun
  3. Be aware of our physiological reaction to uncomfortable environments

It really amazes me that so much of the recent architecture built in Kuwait does not follow these basic rules. You see villas with giant windows facing west. Skyscrapers with glass facades on every side. It’s crazy. The only reason they can get away with this is because electricity is so cheap and they can afford to pump in chilled air all day long.

The image above is the building where my office is. The glass facades are facing south and west, which is where the sun is from noon until evening. The problem is made worse by the fact that the thermostats are deeper inside the building and so the space gets really hot during the day and suddenly, after sunset, it becomes very cold.

Good desert architecture should be able to reduce the daily heat gain inside a building to a comfortable level with as little mechanical cooling as possible. We can do this by respecting the sun. Another way to do this in residential architecture is to have as much shading as possible and to use materials that are natural insulators and reflect a lot of the heat. Most of the heat is gained through the roof, so having a well insulated roof that is white and reflective will help out a lot. Another idea is to build underground. This takes advantage of the insulating effect of the ground that will surround the building, like a blanket. It will make it cooler during the summer, and warmer in winter.

That’s why I believe a sunken, courtyard house design is the most practical residential model for Kuwait; both in terms of the environmental aspect as well as the cultural advantage of having absolute privacy. An inward looking house would allow you to have as big an opening as you want without having to worry about people looking into your house.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Sahar says:

    It is critical these issues be brought up before designing any project. Electricity in Kuwait is a big problem even if cheap, most projects are delayed months just because of the electricity dilemma.
    Jean Nouvel has tackled the energy saving criteria in many of his projects in the Arab world, his initial idea which won him an award in 1982 for the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, why aren’t the others doing the same? As you said the concern for environment and energy saving has not hit us yet, no idea when they will start introducing LEED certified projects. Even Recycling and eco-friendly products are considered unwelcome in Kuwait!

  • Well, LEED, recycling and most ‘eco-friendly’ marketed gimmicks are just that; gimmicks. They really don’t do much to solve the bigger problem, and if you crunch the numbers they don’t do much of anything at all. In fact, sometimes they end up making things worse by distracting funds and attention from things that really do work.
    The gimmicks are prevalent because they’re easy to do. They don’t require people to drastically alter their way of life or for business to take a major hit on their revenue. Try convincing people to live in smaller houses. It’s much easier for someone to feel involved by recycling paper. Try convincing businesses to pay a carbon tax. It’s a lot easier for them to just install a bike rack and get lots of LEED points. It’s just an easy way for people to convince themselves that they’re ‘helping’ and move on with their lives.

  • MechGuy says:

    Nice idea, from air conditioning aspect the idea is very intelligent, by having the walls sinked in the ground we will save up to %45 in energy consumptions, also avoiding heat and wind coming from south and south east which carries most of the heat currents.
    Avoiding windows that are rarely used in a hot sunny country like kuwait is also a smart idea, i think you have an idea of how much heat gain come from our unused windows along the year.
    Increasing horizontal coverable windows might be an idea to increase people’s exposure to the sun with less expense, knowing that horizontal surfaces gains less heat than any other directions.
    but , will it be financially efficient to build a house underground, our houses in kuwait consist of 3 floors or sometimes more ( illegally ).
    and what about the sounds that come from our “well structured roads” ?

    • Well, my house right is half underground, really. There’s a ground floor and a basement, but the garden is sunken way down into the basement, with a 6m retaining wall surrounding it. It actually stays pretty comfortable in the summer. In the can stay out all day really (as long as it’s not humid).
      Skylights are usually a terrible idea in Kuwait if they’re always exposed directly. You need to find a way to shade it from direct sunlight, like you said. But as long as people use just a little common sense when designing, we can fix a lot of the silly problems that exist in most houses today.

      • MechGuy says:

        common sense huh ?
        let me tell you a short story , I had a client that asked me to calculate the load required to condition his house. after 3 days of studying his design and what kind of appliances we are assuming in specific rooms. I recommended 35 tons in total, he went and bought 70 tons in total ! and when i asked him why, he was like ” The more the better “. of course his family are having their Ice Age as we’re talking.

  • Yeah, I get that all the time.
    Then again, I really can’t blame them. I keep coming back to the point that we always expect people to do good because of morality, or a sense of global self-preservation… But that never works. The ONLY thing that works is economic incentives and penalties.
    If electricity was priced in a free market, then we will never have this problem. People won’t feel like we have an infinite supply of energy, because we don’t.
    Same with parking, petrol, water and land.

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