When we think of the life in Dubai, the image it conjures is one of ultra-luxury; never ending shopping malls, towering skyscrapers, luxury villas and the most amazing feats of engineering. But there was a Dubai before the Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall and even before the all-important air conditioning! If you were to think of living in a property in Dubai today without the cool comfort of the air-conditioning, we are sure you would be appalled. So how did the residents of the Dubai of old seafaring fishing villages live? How did they weather the scorching temperatures? How did they adapt their homes to deal with the intense heat and humidity? In our very first edition of this brand new segment on the blog which explores the history of homes from across the world, let’s take a look at how traditional desert homes in the UAE stayed cool without air conditioning.
Traditional desert homes in the UAE
The traditional houses in Dubai and the other emirates have evolved over time from basic tents to more innovatively designed abodes protecting residents from the heat and dust characteristic of desert living. Let’s look at the principles used in the construction of old houses in Dubai and how they adapted to the changing weather conditions.
The 1800’s – Bait Areesh: Old Dubai homes made of palm fronds
The old houses in Dubai and the rest of the UAE were constructed by keeping the idea of staying cool as the central concept. In the winter months, most of the nomadic Bedouin population lived in tents made of animal hides, usually close to wherever their camels could also graze. But when the summer arrived they would construct houses using palm fronds as shelter from the heat. These palm frond shelters were called Bait Areesh (Areesh house) or Barasti (not the nightclub!) and were the ideal airy homes for the summer months.
These Bedouin houses were often built on a higher surface so more wind could pass through them. Barasti or Areesh house had wooden frames which were either square or rectangular in shape and were made of mangrove poles, split-palm trunks or any other wood that was available. The fronds of the palm which makes up the Areesh would be stripped off to create screens and the full fronds were used as thatching for the roof. When it got very warm, these thatched roofs were often watered slightly to cool down the overall temperature of the house.
The early 1900’s- Bait Morjan: Homes of Old Dubai made with coral and sea stone
Over time, more materials were added to this mix, including limestone, coral, sea stone, mud and mortar derived from seashells. These houses made of coral and limestone were called Bait Morjan. These old Dubai houses were extremely well insulated from the heat because of the layering technique used. Another aspect that went into how traditional desert homes in the UAE stayed cool without air-conditioning, was the use of mud and clay as the building materials. They kept the cool air trapped inside these desert homes and helped to maintain an optimum temperature, which you can see happen even today when you use earthen pots to store water.
The reason for transitioning from the Areesh homes to these was attributed to a fire that ravaged the settlements along the Deira side of the Dubai Creek in the late 1800’s, which created the need for a more fire resistant material. This also eliminated the need to have two separate kinds of dwellings in winter and summer, suggesting that people increasingly chose to settle down instead of sticking to a nomadic lifestyle.
Occasionally these houses were also built half into the ground, so they would stay cooler.
Introduction of the Barjeel: how traditional homes in the UAE desert stayed cool without air-conditioning using wind towers
The desert homes of Old Dubai needed to take special care to make sure that there was enough ventilation. An important engineering concept that was introduced in the area during the early part of the 20th century was the use of the wind towers or barajils or Barjeel which were imported from Iran. These towers were used to direct the flow of the wind so that air could be recirculated as a home cooling technique in the past. Sometimes, water would be sprinkled at the bottom of the tower to cool down the ambient temperature within the traditional desert houses in the UAE.
If you visit the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House in Al Shindagah, one of the landmark heritage sites in Dubai you will find the presence of homes built with coral walls and wind towers located nearby to keep the house at an optimum temperature. In fact, these four-directional windcatchers can be seen all around Dubai. They often feature protruding wooden sticks on the sides. These were used to mount cloth so as to efficiently redirect the airflow. Even when there was no wind, the towers would function as solar chimneys, allowing hot air to escape upwards and away from the house.
The Barjeel would usually rise around five meters above the roof and was open on all four sides. It would catch and direct cooler breeze into the room below through vertical shafts. Warm air would naturally rise up and leave through the same tower, creating the ultimate home cooling technique for old desert houses.
Influence of Islamic architecture and addition of the Majlis to the old houses in uae
While the Bait Morjan with the addition of wind towers were the most popular homes for the elite, up until the late 19th century, in the early 20th century more Islamic influences began to be seen in the design of traditional houses in UAE.
To preserve the modesty and privacy of the family, the old houses in UAE became more elaborate with more shielded living quarters opening out into a central courtyard which allowed for better air circulation in the old houses in Dubai. The higher walls shielded these houses from the harsh sunlight, and the intricate labyrinthine structures took acre of insulation. The concept of the Majlis became popular in these traditional desert homes and was used by male members as a meeting room. The wind towers continued to be a feature of these homes, but they would be situated on one or more exterior rooms to direct the wind into the main house.
These traditional architectural concepts contributed to how traditional desert homes in the UAE stayed cool without air conditioning. People also covered their head and wore loose fitting clothes to stay cool in the heat.
With the discovery of oil and the introduction of more technology into the UAE, fans and eventually air conditioners became the norm for houses to stay cool in Dubai and the rest of the UAE. But it is still fascinating to see how cleverly the original dwellers of this glorious country managed to create safe havens in the old houses in UAE for their families to live in.
Stay tuned to the MyHome section of the best property blog in Dubai to get more insight into the history of homes from across the world!