Learning Sustainability from Arab Gulf Vernacular Architecture

  • Khaled A. Al-Sallal
Conference paper


This chapter describes an approach that helps to understand the complex relationship between environmental and sociocultural factors and how to learn/derive sustainable design guidelines from vernacular architecture. The method identifies at the outset that vernacular architecture is a result of both cultural and environmental influences. It describes a set of factors that belong to two different categories, sociocultural and environmental, and that have had impact on generating the vernacular architecture of the Arab Gulf. Then it focuses on analyzing selected architectural elements based on the influencing factors. It presents a matrix that illustrates the function of each element and the complex relationship between each element and the factors that affect it. To understand these complex relationships, another matrix was devised to analyze the interactions between these elements under the relevant factors. The outcomes can be used to develop rules of thumb for sustainable design.


Architecture Cooling Desert Design Passive Sustainable Vernacular 

1 Introduction

Several scholars have considered settlements as an outcome of environmental and sociocultural factors. The studies by Rapoport [1, 2, 3] noted that a house cannot be considered in isolation; it is part of a larger system of settings (i.e., a settlement) in which the house exists and hence must be considered as part of the settlement. Numerous examples from various places throughout the world support this argument. Oliver [4, 5] has provided extensive evidence in support of this idea that is shared by many well-known scholars from around the world, who have established a valuable collection of vernacular building traditions spanning the entire globe, including locations in the Arabian Peninsula, such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), some studies have relied on the documentation and categorization of traditional design elements (e.g., Dubai Municipality 1997). Other studies have gone into more depth to show the human and environmental values reflected in vernacular settlements. El Aswad [6] offered an insightful analysis of the spatial structure of a modern vernacular settlement in Al-Ain, UAE, through a careful reading of people’s habits and lifestyles and by tying this into a larger cultural framework. Dostal [7] explored the traditional architecture of Ras Al Khaimah with a specific emphasis on various house types as they relate to different climatic conditions (winter and summer).

In a different climatic zone not far from the Gulf, yet sharing a very similar sociocultural background, Yemen has a very distinctive vernacular architecture. The vernacular tower architecture of the historical city of Sana’a followed certain conventions that were well known and practiced by its inhabitants. These conventions grew out of long-term experiences developed over the lifetime of the city to satisfy human sociocultural needs and to meet the requirements of climate and environment. Because the city’s inhabitants abided by these conventions, a consistent architectural language arose that gave a very unique identity to Sana’a architecture and preserved it for a long time. Al-Oulfi [8] provided a historical background in which the Yemeni architecture was compared and related to other architectures in the Arab region and in the world. Lewcock [9] described the old city of Sana’a and its architecture, including the tower houses. Other studies have focused on environmental factors and how they are related to human factors [10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16].

2 Theoretical Framework and Methodology

This study emphasizes the environmental component of architecture with a specific focus on the extent to which vernacular architecture is able to respond to climatic conditions. Furthermore, the cultural aspect defined here as a way of life of the people constitutes another component in the theoretical framework. The recognition that tradition/heritage is a living and continuing process of change is incorporated into the model, and the term is specified further to include both traditional vernacular (Bastakiy’ya-Dubai and Al’Marija-Sharjah, for example) and modern vernacular (housing neighborhoods built by the government and modified by its inhabitants and rural settlements). The model also attempts to move away from the temptation to copy traditional elements by extracting principles/lessons from traditional buildings and settlements (relationships among buildings), which could then be reapplied in contemporary housing projects utilizing modern technologies and processes. Furthermore, the study hopes to make a contribution to the large body of knowledge on this topic, thereby furnishing data that could further aid in the development of theory on the relationship/interaction between people and the built environment, thereby furthering our understanding of these processes (Fig. 69.1).
Fig. 69.1

Theoretical framework of study

To achieve the study objectives, the research utilizes a photographic survey, a library search, thematic map analysis, three-dimensional computer modeling, and energy simulation to achieve the targeted results in each of the research phases as follows:
  1. Phase 1

    Fieldwork exploratory visual survey and office work analysis of the city map to determine the physical features of interest to the research;

  2. Phase 2

    Three-dimensional computer modeling and energy simulation to analyze selected prototypes that are common in the region;

  3. Phase 3

    Comprehensive environmental and sociocultural analysis of results; this phase will investigate the critical relationship between environmental and sociocultural factors to observe any conflicting or matching points in design; it will describe the results by illustrating them graphically in matrix format.


3 Urban and Architectural Context

Many vernacular settlements in the Arabian Peninsula were generated as a result of trading purposes and hence developed on the old caravan paths used for trading. An example of this type is the city of Muscat; Muscat dates back to the first century AD when it was a concealed harbor from where frankincense was transported to Greece, Rome, and the Mediterranean. Dubai developed as a result of fishing and pearl diving activities. Other inland settlements were established mainly as centers of power of old civilizations and a place for royals; an example of this type is the city of Sana’a in Yemen. This study focuses on settlements that existed in the Arabian Gulf area.

The desert architecture in the Middle East and North Africa was basically the result of three main factors: the hot dry or humid climate, sociocultural life, and locally available construction methods and materials. Generally this type of architecture is characterized as having a high-density plan where buildings were close to each other or attached, penetrated by narrow alleys (called Sikka in the local dialect) that were shaded for most of the day (Fig. 69.2). These alleys are oriented either to promote sea breezes in coastal settlements or to limit dusty winds in inland settlements. The compact planning plays a vital role in traditional desert settlements. Some of the benefits can be outlined as follows:
Fig. 69.2

Plan of Bastakiya area in Dubai

  • The interiors of the buildings are protected by almost blank walls with very small openings, which helps to provide shading and control heat, dust, and sand.

  • The streets are narrow and winding; therefore, there is less tendency for wind velocity to increase as a result of tunneling effects.

  • Public spaces, such as market squares, are well sheltered from the impact of desert winds by adjoining houses and high walls.

In coastal settlements, such as the Al-Bastakiyah district in Dubai or Al Murijah in Sharjah, the alleys mostly ran from north to south and ended at the sea, permitting the prevailing north winds to pass through. Another important feature in this architecture is the use of wind towers that helped to passively cool the occupants. The wind towers of these vernacular houses gave the only variation in height to the outline of the district and thus created a more interesting and beautiful skyline. So-called introvert-plan houses comprising a series of rooms built around a central courtyard, open to the sky, are the configuration of residential buildings in this area. This plan satisfies social conditions and in particular privacy for the various elements of extended families; in addition, it is a flexible space that can be adapted to the changing requirements of an extended family. This configuration agreed with Islamic teachings advocating a separation between public and private life (with the latter turning its back on the street). The house or bait is the basic element in desert settlements and is turned in upon itself as it opens onto the private courtyard, known as a hawsh. The majority of people in the Arab Gulf region lived in houses built of date-palm products. Other materials used to construct houses were stones in the mountains’ areas and mud bricks in the oases. The richer ruling families and merchants built their houses of coral stone, mud bricks, and imported mangrove wood [17].

The courtyard acts as a center of home life (Fig. 69.3). In this configuration, the family, especially the woman, can enjoy complete privacy, while at the same time the house is open to relatives, friends, and neighbors who may wish to come in to the men’s reception room (majles). The external walls represent a powerful physical barrier between the interior and the exterior. From the outside the walls of the house rise up high with bare surfaces, rough and massive, that contrast sharply with the interior, where arches and screens achieve an intricate pattern of light and shade. The courtyard also acts as a wind-generating tool in the house, the hot air ascending and cooler air replacing it from the surrounding rooms. This movement creates constant air circulation in the house and provides a pleasant living microclimate for the inhabitants.
Fig. 69.3

View of a courtyard – a traditional house in Sharjah

There is a need to understand how the traditional architecture succeeded in maintaining a balance between environmental influences and sociocultural needs and why modern houses failed to do so. Learning from the past by exploring design-oriented guidelines from traditional architecture is necessary to reveal proven design methods that could serve as the basis for creating sustainable communities.

4 Analysis and Discussion

4.1 Effect of Culture

Traditional settlements are flanked by alleys that run in different directions to connect between houses and public buildings, such as the mosque or the market (Suq), and between residential districts. In the intersection of these alleys, one can find social squares (Fig. 69.4c, d) connected to the public areas, especially the mosques and suq. The width of the main alleys should permit activities to be performed comfortably, such as walking and transporting goods to the market, and accommodate other public facilities. The social square is directly connected to the mosque that is needed for daily prayers as well as to support certain social events, such as celebrations, feasts, and weddings. Location, size, shape, and shape proportion of the outdoor space are the design parameters that determine its adequacy for supporting certain functions. Hence, the space of a social square should permit gatherings of many people, usually males, to celebrate religious feasts and social ceremonies.
Fig. 69.4

Sketches showing some design concepts in vernacular architecture of Arab Gulf: (a) compact planning where buildings were close to each other or attached, penetrated by narrow alleys; (b) alleys were oriented to promote sea breezes and to limit dusty winds; (c) size and space proportion of social squares promoted solar shading and social activities; (d) shading of social squares by vegetation or light structures made of palm groves; (e) shading of sikka by palm groves; (f) buildings heights were increased while alleys were made more narrow (h/w = 2:1–1:1) to promote shading; (g) wind towers assisted by windows open to courtyards helped to provide comfort cooling for people and cool building structure by convective ventilation; (h) sun shading and evaporative cooling provided by vegetation in courtyards

As the alley runs through residential units, it becomes narrow and more private, serving only a limited number of houses. Since the activities of the main alley and the social square are public, the privacy of the entrances and ground floor openings of the houses located around the square should be maintained. This is an effect of the outdoor space function on building form. Thus a concern for privacy was reflected in the physical form of the buildings in a number of ways:

The position of doors opening onto streets: a main door, usually visible from the street and having an elaborate porch, is used by men and guests, while another, secondary, door, much smaller in size and hidden from strangers, is used by women.

Minimum use of windows facing the street: only reception rooms on the first floor have large low-level windows onto the street. Higher up the building, rooms are more private and windows do not face the streets; openings are screened with mashrabiyahs to provide privacy and permit air circulation.

Restricted building heights: usually rooms in vernacular houses were added in stages to respond to growth in family size; according to the social structure the extended family lived under one roof. These traditional buildings and the way they expand follow certain conventions developed by their inhabitants throughout history. Examples of these conventions are as follows:
  • Buildings should be no more than two floors high.

  • The terraces of neighboring buildings should be at the same height so that no house can overlook another.

  • No window should open onto another family’s or person’s private space etc.

4.2 Effects of Climate

Solar shading: The vernacular settlements in the Gulf were compactly organized to maximize solar shading and keep the extreme solar radiation away from buildings’ structures and occupants. This was achieved through the following means (Fig. 69.4af)
  • Form–space proportion: The ratio of form to space increased the density of the built area;

  • Size of alleys: Alleys were narrow, not exceeding 3 m;

  • Building height and alley width proportion: Buildings heights were increased while alleys were made more narrow (h/w = 2:1–1:1);

  • Public social squares: The size and shape proportion of public squares promoted solar shading by the surrounding buildings and vegetation;

  • Covered alleys: Alleys in public zones, such as in the market, were shaded by palm groves.

At the architectural scale, several methods were used to provide shading. These are as follows:
  • The courtyard maximized shading with its walls and vegetation for most daytime hours.

  • Solid air-puller walls (masqat) provided total shading.

  • Traditional windows provided total shading with their wooden shutters.

Airflow: The main alleys in the coastal settlements in the Gulf ran in the north–south direction (Fig. 69.4a). This helped the desirable north and northwest breezes to infiltrate into the main city building masses. Houses were oriented to capture the pleasant sea breezes. This is an effective traditional design solution at the urban scale, which promotes passive cooling effects through the following methods:
  • Convective cooling of building structures by dissipating heat from the building mass,

  • Cooling by ventilation for building occupants by dissipating heat from their bodies,

  • Reduction of the effect of excessive humidity by stirring air currents.

At the architectural scale, several methods were used to provide passive cooling:
  • Courtyards provided convective cooling by acting as a wind-generating tool in houses, where hot air ascends and cooler air replaces it from the surrounding rooms. This promoted evaporative cooling by the use of vegetation, lowering the air temperature;

  • Wind towers helped to passively cool private spaces in traditional houses by four triangular vertical tunnels that attracted air from all directions and increased its speed (Fig. 69.4g);

  • Air-puller walls allowed airflow to circulate through rooms, removing hot air through convective cooling, while maintaining the privacy of the indoor space.

4.3 Relationships Between Factors

The factors that formed the vernacular settlements of the Gulf can be divided into two groups: sociocultural and environmental factors. The privacy of the house occupants, their safety, and sociability with the outside world and within the house are examples of important cultural requirements that have a great impact on the architecture of vernacular settlements. Solar access/shading and ventilation are examples of environmental factors that played significant roles in forming the climatic-responsive architecture of these settlements. To respond to the influence of these factors, numerous innovative architectural solutions were developed, such as compact building organization, courtyards, windows, air pullers, and wind towers. These features gave the architecture of the Gulf a unique identity and attractive character.

The way the vernacular architecture responded to the needs of the sociocultural and environmental factors by innovative concepts has been investigated and described. Tables 69.1 and 69.2 below provide matrices that illustrate how some traditional design concepts (or elements), such as courtyards, air-puller walls, windows, and wind towers, responded to environmental and cultural factors. This matrices can be a useful tool not only to carry out the function of each architectural element but also to understand the complex relationship between each architectural element and the factors that influence its design and operation.
Table 69.1

Traditional design concepts’ response to environmental factors

Environmental factor


Air-puller wall


Wind tower


Courtyard maximizes shading with walls and vegetation for most daytime hours

Solid air-puller walls provide total shading

Provided using wooden shutters

Overshadows roofs and other structures of house

Passive cooling

Comfort ventilation: courtyard acts as wind generator in house; hot air ascends and cooler air replaces it from surrounding rooms. Evaporative cooling: vegetation creates an evaporative cooling effect that lowers air temperature and increases humidity

Allows airflow to circulate through rooms, removing hot air through convective cooling while maintaining privacy of indoor space

Windows promote airflow with assistance of courtyard by acting as inlet openings during day or outlet openings at night

Wind towers help to passively cool private spaces in traditional houses with four triangular vertical tunnels that draw in air from all directions and speed it up

Table 69.2

Traditional design concepts’ response to sociocultural factors

Sociocultural factor


Air-puller walls


Wind tower


Provides totally enclosed space that maintains privacy of house, especially for women

Provide high visual and acoustic privacy for indoor spaces

Privacy is provided with wooden shutters; location of windows on ground floors open onto courtyard; those opening to public spaces are located on upper floors

Wind towers help maintain privacy of indoor spaces requiring circulating airflow


Provides safe and pleasant enclosed space for children and helps parents watch children in courtyard from surrounding spaces or from liwan (i.e., shaded outdoor space surrounding courtyard)

Provide greater safety than windows because they are totally closed and cannot be penetrated, but meet requirements for ventilation

Provided by use of steel bars and wooden shutters

Triangular tunnels of wind towers are usually open in summer and closed in winter with wooden shutters; the shutters and narrow design of the openings helps to guarantee safety of house

Sociability and visual connection

Serves as center of home social life; its introverted design provides visual connection to liwan and other rooms to shaded and planted areas

Used for most private rooms and hence do not improve sociability

Low-level windows (usually a small number and used only for men’s reception) provided limited visual connection with outside

Wind tower room is most appropriate room for family or female gatherings in summer

To understand these complex relationships, another matrix was also devised (Table 69.3). It helps to analyze the binary relationship between any two factors regardless, of category (i.e., sociocultural or environmental). Three types of relations have been identified: agreement (A), disagreement (D), and no relation (N). For example, courtyards with vegetation provide shading and passive cooling for most of the daytime hours while maintaining the privacy of the family inside. Therefore, in the courtyard case, there is a high degree of agreement between privacy and shading and between privacy and passive cooling. In contrast, in the case of air-puller walls, there is a high degree of agreement between passive cooling and privacy, while there is a disagreement relation between cooling (or privacy) and sociability. This is because this kind of system promotes cooling by ventilation while maintaining the privacy of inner rooms by solid walls. These solid walls prevent any opportunity for sociability. This is a good example of matching between two factors (i.e., passive cooling and privacy) at the expense of a third one (i.e., sociability). The location of windows is determined according to the level of privacy required for each space. For example, windows in private rooms open out onto the courtyard to maintain privacy, while windows of the men’s reception are open to public alleys, which can promote sociability. Therefore, in the window case, sometimes there is disagreement between passive cooling and privacy. The occupants must choose between closing windows using shutters for complete privacy or opening them to create airflow for ventilation.
Table 69.3

Analysis of level of agreement between environmental and sociocultural factors

Analysis of level of agreement between environmental and sociocultural factors


Air puller

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Wind tower

Traditional window

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5 Conclusion

This study proposes a model that helps explore abstract concepts from traditional environments and present methods to reapply them in contemporary architecture. It depends mainly on abstracting complex architectural environments into more simplified, yet more comprehensive and meaningful, relationships. It helps in fostering an understanding of the complex relationships between environmental and sociocultural factors in a more visual depiction and design-oriented approach while keeping them coherent. The sociocultural and environmental impacts on four settings from the vernacular architecture of the Gulf are analyzed. The study provides two matrices that illustrate how some traditional design concepts (or elements) responded to environmental and cultural factors. These matrices can be used as a useful tool a useful tool not only for fulfilling the function of each architectural element but also for realizing the complex relationship between each architectural element and the factors that influence its design and operation. To understand the interactions between elements, another matrix is developed. It helps analyze the binary relationship between any two factors based on three types of agreement/conflict relations. It is believed that the same model could also be applied to analyze other architectural settings or comparing design alternatives.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UAE UniversityAl-AinUnited Arab Emirates

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