Desert Dwellings: How to Design for the Desert

A desert environment is hostile by nature; building in the desert means having to prepare your design to withstand extreme sunlight and heat, and relentless cold temperatures- all in one day.

Nature inspired solutions
Even if it seems impossible to live in such an environment, it's perfectly possible to adapt; when it comes to finding inspiration to acclimate in a natural environment, such as a desert one, it's wise to take a look at what animals and nature do in that particular setting.

Creating shade and sheltering from the heat: Staying away from the sun is one of the most important things to consider when you're in a desert environment; animals tend to stay under the sun as little as possible, finding creative ways to stay hidden from it in a place with little or no vegetation to use for shade. The best way to find or make an artificial shade is to stay away from surfaces that absorb heat and are directly under the sun- sand absorbs heat and radiates it, making it hotter around it; rocks and pebbles present a similar problem. Some animals dig holes into the sand and make burrows to hide and stay cool during the day; the sun's heat doesn't reach the deeper layers of earth and the layers above act as a natural insulator making it the perfect solution.

At night, the same burrows keep the animals warm, as insulation works both ways. This can be translated into design; by building underground, you won't only stay away from the sun and keep your building cool- the insulation properties of the earth around it will also keep the cold at bay at night, when temperatures drop. Keep in mind the building doesn't have to be completely underground to be called an underground construction, it could be semi-buried and still benefit from earth's cooling and insulating properties.

Reflective surfaces: Reflective surfaces can be positive or negative in these environments, depending on how they're used. Notice how most desertic mammals are light-sand colored; their coloration not only helps them camouflage in their surroundings, but also prevents them from overheating. Lighter colors reflect light rather than absorb it. In design terms, painting a building in a light color specially the roofs could help keeping the temperatures at bay during the day, when the sun heat is problematic.

Desertic Vernacular architecture
Other than looking at nature for solutions, inspiration can be found in the vernacular architecture of civilizations rooted in desert regions.

Caves: They have the same principle as burrows or buried architecture; the goal is to find shelter in a highly, naturally insulated space, by carving into a mountain to create a habitable space. You can find examples such as the Bandelier National Monument, native American architecture and Petra in Jordan. The "Casa Brutale project" by OPA, is a good example of how the concept can be reimagined in a contemporary context.

Sunlight control: The use of screens, to reduce the amount of sunlight that comes inside the building, widely spread in Arab architecture is the most common solution. Hermetical constructions are another form of sunlight control- the less windows there are, the less sunlight comes in. In a contemporary setting, sunlight control can be achieved by the use of insulated glazing and less heavy screens, avoiding the problem of choosing shadow to the detriment of a nice view. The Desert House is a great example of creative sunlight control that goes beyond literal sun screens and uses the facade to tame the light.

Passive cooling methods: The malqaf or "wind catcher" is a passive cooling technique that allows the building to vent through a chimney on the roof (Central Asia- Middle East). This solution, and those similar to it, can be easily duplicated or adapted to fit a contemporary building.

The use of thick walls: Thick walls act as natural insulation and proves more effective when made with materials such as soil (common in every desertic climate). When translating this solution into a contemporary setting, the thickness of the wall can be replaced with a good insulation.

Building around courtyards: The courtyards usually contain water mirrors or fountains, and vegetation which help to cool the building during the day. Sometimes, the interior gardens are paired with a net-screen on top to mitigate sunlight. An example of the use of interior gardens would be the Alhambra Palace in Seville, Spain.

Domes: This roof shape is more easily cooled and proves especially effective when paired with a wind catcher or similar venting solutions. Curved roofs like the one found in the European Investment Bank are also ideal to apply a passive cooling solution.

Other methods and considerations:
Trombe wall: This method developed by Felix Trombe in the 1960's is one of the best passive cooling methods for desert environments; this wall absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, solving the problem of extreme temperature changes.

Use solar energy: Deserts are the perfect spots to use solar energy as they have few overcast days and are near the equator; the panels would receive direct sunlight most of the time making them very efficient.

Save water: Some desert environments,such as the Atacama Desert, produce mist in the morning due to the extreme temperature differences between day and night; the mist can be gathered and saved, then used inside the building for different purposes.

What are your thoughts on desert design? Are there any other solutions you'd like to share? Leave your thoughts.

Desert Dwellings: How to Design for the Desert

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Comments (1)

Misbah, Student • 2019

This is amazing!! helped me so much.Thank you!!