The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1858] The Traditional House for Modern Living - Reviving a Lost Identity

United Arab Emirates

A country’s identity represents its people. The culture, the way of life and the urban typology in which people have created is what defines that identity. Culture is permanent, however people and their way of life evolve through time. It is with this evolution that history takes its place. Through history, we can observe how people lived within their environment at any given time. Within the field of architecture, what is intriguing is to identify the way in which people of the past used architecture to build their shelter. How their shelter helped conform to their needs in a time where modern building materials and technology were not present or available is what makes a place and its past so unique.

Heritage, through architecture, is an important factor as it represents a social uniqueness among people, a culture and a way of life that defines the true identity of any country. What can architects of today, learn from the past in order to preserve a country’s identity? What design methods can we borrow to enhance our buildings into being sustainable forms within our environment whilst maintaining its traditional beauty in today’s contemporary world? These questions are often asked and tested but seldom made the norm in building practices of today.

Great cultural cities like Rome are well known for preserving their history through their architecture by adapting their buildings to conform to today’s technological needs whilst maintaining its original antiquity. It is the beauty of these buildings that represent the overall notion of a country’s true identity and its perseverance in its history. In some countries, the notion of holding on to their heritage is striving to exist in the midst of great change. Such great change can be seen in a place like the Middle East.

Over the years, the Middle East has been known for its traditional built form that is rich in its own history; however, with an increase in the region’s economy due to the boom in the oil industry in the early 1960’s, this history of its traditional built environment is diminishing. It is the traditional courtyard house that once served the people of this region that has been lost today. Through many generations, the courtyard house has always been considered as the primary building form not only to house families but to shelter them from the extreme summer temperatures and cold winter winds that are existent in this part of the world. It is an architecture that, upon various levels, presents the immense culture of the region and the lifestyle of its people through out the overall design of the home as well as its environmentally sustainable form. In particular, the country where I was born and brought up, the United Arab Emirates, has lost this Architecture. What triggered my interest about the revival of the courtyard house is the lack of knowledge about this traditional built form and the ability of it becoming a revived urban typology in which would benefit the country through its sustainable and cultural character; Something of which has not been a consideration in the UAE’s current building construction industry.

The United Arab Emirates has indeed risen from its sands into the modern country we see it as today. From tents and coral-built houses to luxury villas and high-rise towers; It is obvious that these traditional built forms are rarely to be seen in new residential communities, primarily those in Dubai. In a matter of thirty years, Dubai has emerged into a modern metropolis well known for its beyond belief Architecture and massive urban growth. Whether it is the residential communities of the Palm Islands or the ‘traditional’ villas in the new residential neighborhoods, none of which possess the true identity of Architecture belonging to this part of the world. The traditional form of the courtyard house has been eliminated from such major developments around Dubai. What originated as traditional settlements around the Dubai Creek, a trade and export hub, the courtyard house lifestyle has merely become the history of the place rather than the current identity of the country. What is left of this place is only the restored versions of the original building typology in which has been turned into one of the primary tourist attractions in the city, in hopes to continue Dubai’s economic growth due to the increase in the city's tourism over the recent years. This place has been confined to what is known today as The Bastakiya. Located in its original location along the Dubai Creek, it is the only existing site that represents the old urban fabric of the city as it first came into being from the year 1900 onwards.

It is the suburban home that has taken over the new residential communities of Dubai. Set at the centre of its plot, with a pitched roof and a surrounding garden, these homes have become quite popular in the growing city of Dubai and can be seen as the primary housing type through many of these residential communities emerging through out this city. A question that is often asked is, why has this building typology become the preferred home for Dubai's residents? One must first observe the people who are occupying these homes. Thus, as Dubai continues to grow economically, it has attracted the many who wish to come to live and work in this city. The new residential developments of Dubai hence cater to the international residents and thereby provides a new sense of living to its national residents too. Such examples include the development of Dubai World whereby it provides a particular sense of living by the actual implementation of models similar to that of other countries and their building typologies.

What must be understood here, is the notion of reviving the traditional courtyard house would be important to the people of the Emirates in order for them to have a sense of their heritage and a sense of real place. This could be integrated in such a way so that only the traditional qualities of the design of the traditional courtyard house are to be used within today’s contemporary building practices. Today’s courtyard house would therefore borrow the traditional design by means of applying similar levels of progression through the interior of the home for social and cultural characteristics, as well as shaping its overall form into becoming a sustainable building through the reduction of direct sunlight and heat through the use of today’s advanced building materials. The courtyard house, therefore, must be analyzed by means of its social, traditional, cultural and environmental aspects in order to successfully attain these characteristics into a more suitable home for today’s society.

The city of Dubai is constantly developing alongside of the coast and farther down into the desert. The areas along the coast are the primary locations for high-rise residential towers, such as the developing areas of the Dubai Marina, where the benefits of the ocean would attract a large number of people to occupy these towers. Hence, the outward growth of the city could well accommodate courtyard-house communities to be developed farther into the desert where by, in similar terms, would also contribute to accommodating a large number of families within a social atmosphere whilst providing protection from extreme temperatures without the use of much technology - such as the overly used air conditioning system. This is primarily helpful as it provides less energy consumption by the city, especially during the world’s current economic crisis.

In sustaining the decrease in Dubai’s total energy consumption, the courtyard house is best suited for both the summer and winter seasons. The house exposes only the street façade as well as the inner exterior walls that face the open space courtyard; hence it is a strategic design overlay so as to conserve heat whilst blocking strong winds during the winter season. Similarly, the design of this house, through the central courtyard, will provide air circulation during the hot summer months of the region and hence reduces daytime heat temperatures by this cooling effect (Reynolds, 2002). In addition, one may choose to have a garden within the open courtyard space so as to filter, through the use of trees, direct sunlight and heat during the hot summer months of the region.

The courtyard house strongly stands, not only as a pure traditional and sustainable architecture, but as a pure social and cultural essence of interaction among family members and guests who occupy the home. It is through the beauty of the traditional courtyard house that one may observe how it accommodates the variety of social interactions that takes place in and outside the home. The various levels of these cultural and social characteristics are accommodated using interior filters as one progresses through the home. These filters in which vary from private, semi-private or public, all of which are fully controlled in an ideal courtyard house, provide the sequence of progression from the entry of the house through into the courtyard (Edwards, 2006). The outdoor courtyard in itself becomes predominantly the family’s headquarters and thus provides full privacy for all members of the home rather than having to use the more open/public space that surrounds the house in what is primarily being used in today’s typical suburban home.

It is of great importance to revive such cultural characteristics in the new homes of Dubai so as to have the national residents somewhat experience their traditional sense of lifestyle and become more familiarized of their traditional sense of living and building design that was used in their past. In providing a link between the past and the present, it will also provide a sense of lifestyle to those coming from abroad who wish to experience this unique housing type that represents the lifestyle of the United Arab Emirates.

Reviving the courtyard house in new residential communities in Dubai is a two fold process. First, to initiate the use of a social and traditional design that would adhere to the requirements of sustainable design, a community of courtyard housing can be developed within the outskirts of the city through the use of cohousing communities. Thus, to encourage a more social atmosphere within a cultural, traditional and yet, a contemporary sense of living than that of the commonly used high rises and isolated villas. A typical cohousing community incorporates sustainable design in a socially significant outlay of the homes within a tightly knit area; Thus, this becomes beneficial in terms of encouraging interaction among its residents whilst maintaining the privacy of each residential unit.

Established as a movement that originated in Denmark, the cohousing community dwelling has moved its way into North America where it has become one of the most dominant residential communities of today. (The Cohousing Association of the United States: What is Co-housing? - Retrieved February 2009). The use of such social housing communities could well be adapted by the United Arab Emirates as well whilst incorporating sustainable design rather than adapting the overly used suburban home that of North America and Europe. In addition, this community is a tool for successfully accommodating social gatherings that occur on a regular basis in this part of the world such as religious annual gatherings as well as other regular social occasions. Such communities conform to the needs of the many, from families, singles and young couples and at the same time, could represent the country’s long lost identity of built form within this new method of urban typology.

The next step to this process in initiating such a project would be possible through the use of small design firms in Dubai that may well pursue such small-scale projects. It is less of a risk to carry out such a project during the current economic environment as it is at a much smaller scale than that of a typical high-rise tower. Thus, these community projects may be initiated by a private owner in cooperation with a young design firm that considers traditional elements through contemporary design (Scotthanson, 2004). The pursuit of constructing housing must go on and thus the current downturn in the current economy may well be the best time for the city to reduce its bizarre projects and begin to rethink its current image through the use of reviving this urban typology. Dubai must reconsider its current urban growth as a futuristic city and therefore a housing project that resembles its originality through its architecture will provide a linkage between residents of the country to the country’s heritage; something of which the national and expatriate residents of Dubai could identify with.

It is essential to bring back the traditional sense of living for the people of Dubai as it would keep them in touch with their traditions and help give a true identity to the city and the country as a whole. The United Arab Emirates continues to grow rapidly and with this growth comes about great change. It should not be a change to call for new design types but a change to call for the revival of the traditional sense of building form within our present time. By considering the social, cultural and environmental dimensions of the courtyard house, as discussed, architects in Dubai today can bring these factors together in contemporary form in which would successfully blend into Dubai’s current building tradition whilst representing the country’s true architectural identity and heritage, before it is completely lost. The originality of the central open air space and the privacy of the interior sequence of the home will add a sustainable and cultural touch to Dubai’s future residential developments, if pursued.

To conclude, reviving the courtyard house within today's contemporary design practices could well initiate the first step into bringing back the United Arab Emirates' long lost cultural and social identity through this beautifully sustainable building typology. The need to revive the architecture in which past generations lived and to meet the needs of today’s utmost necessity - the global need for sustainable design that adheres to a social community overall - must be realized today. Revival of the courtyard house will conform to those needs whilst benefiting the ever-growing communities of Dubai. Finally, to learn from the past will help adapt for the future. Dubai today can be the next great cultural city of tomorrow; a city that provides its residents a sense of belonging…a place they can truly call home.


Reynolds. Courtyards, Aesthetic, Social & Thermal Delight. John Wiley & sons. 2002.

Edwards, Sibley, Hakmi & Land. Courtyard Housing: Past, Present & Future. Taylor & Francis. 2006.

The Cohousing Association of the United States: What is Co-housing? - Retrieved February 2009.

Scotthanson. The Cohousing Handbook – Building a Place for Community. New Society Publishers. 2004.

AlSayyad, Nezar. Preservation of Traditional Lifestyles and Built Form. University of California at Berkeley. Vol. 115. 1998.

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