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How is Vernacular Architecture supporting a more sustainable Built Environment?

Buildings tell us a lot about the place it is set in. It is a reflection of the culture during the period it was built, and the resources it had access to. It tells the story of the people that lived in it and this story varies around the world. Modern architecture however, tells a lot of the story with few differences, with tall skyscrapers in major cities across the world looking very similar in the past few years.

Vernacular architecture is the simplest form of addressing human needs, and it has been seemingly forgotten in modern architecture. However, due to recent rises in energy costs, the trend has swung the other way. Architects are now embracing regionalism and traditional buildings, because these structures have proven in the past to be energy efficient and sustainable.

In this time of rapid technological advancement and urbanization, there is still so much to be learned from the traditional knowledge of vernacular construction. Traditional communities have more successfully weaved sustainability into the fabric of their everyday lives (Salman, 2018) and can be used as an example for modern architecture to take inspiration from: a tried and tested model that has withstood the test of time.

What is Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular architecture is defined by the use of traditional resources, materials, and knowledge. It is the built environment based on the needs of a community and is a direct representation of identity; it reflects traditions, culture, and religion.

Setting down roots always leaves a mark. Traditionally, people would scavenge and use any and all resources they could find to create a sturdy structure that would provide a hospitable habitat in harsh climates.

While modern methods of construction have made buildings more durable, it also generates a great amount of waste. In 2017, the industry generated about 20.4 million tons of waste from demolition and construction, such as for road maintenance and land excavation. Not only that, but commercial buildings also contribute to much higher use of energy consumption.

What is the purpose of Vernacular Architecture?

Vernacular architecture is rooted in a tradition that uses locally harvested and existing materials because of access to limited resources, and encourages sustainable practices and principles (Abu Hantash, 2016).

In the Middle East, vernacular architecture embodied sustainable practices with the integration of their unique cultural values, which are applied in conceptual designs for the present day. These values are seen in the techniques of construction that are made according to the climate, way of living, customs, and culture. The methods were simple, easy to implement, and environmentally friendly. Vernacular architecture characteristics play a major role in adjusting the climate in buildings.

One of the most troublesome elements of construction in the region is controlling heat. It is an age-old problem that cannot be solved by simply turning up the AC. There exists an interesting balance between traditional and modern ways of construction. It is something that Alpin has much experience with.

Alpin consultants use their expertise and experience with green building certifications to solve problems of modern construction. Certifications like BREEAM, LEED or WELL include some requirements that improve thermal comfort and lighting. One of the ways these requirements have been met are by including outdoor shading within a courtyard designed like a wind tunnel. All elements of middle eastern vernacular architecture.

Vernacular architecture examples

Sheikh Zayed Mosque pillars

The design and layout of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi is one of the best examples of vernacular architecture. It uses all of the most popular design elements such as the use of light colors, center courtyards; water features; and long, narrow corridors that provide shade and natural ventilation. The orientation and layout of the building also impact how courtyards function. Considering the openings of internal spaces to take advantage of direct wind flow significantly improves the temperature of the building.

Al Bahar Towers, AD
Photo credits: Christian Ritchers

Another iconic landmark that uses an element of vernacular architecture is Al-Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi. It maintains traditional and modern elements of design through its integration of mashrabiya on its facades. The technology implemented on this cylindrical building is extravagantly evolved and has never been achieved on this scale before.

The panoramic glass facade is in part covered by flower-shaped louvers that serve as a mashrabiya. The function of the mashrabiya is to regulate the light and air coming inside the building as well as making sure it remains cool and non-humid. The dynamic louvers of the office building respond accordingly to the intensity of light during the day. They cover the sunny south, east and west sides of the building all year round.

Al Bahar Towers AD
Photo credits: Christian Ritchers

The wooden panels are intricate in their design and form a grill that covers the windows providing privacy and cooling. The aluminum louvers are controlled by the building management system and control the light and heat that enters the building through the glass. They are powered by photovoltaic panels placed on the roof of the building.

The facade helps reduce glare and heat making it so that there would be less stress on the air conditioning inside the building. It also allows in a sufficient amount of daylight, and reduces the use of cooling and artificial light inside the building during the day.

The holes in the patterns regulate the light that comes in. The smaller the holes, the easier it is to increase cooling indoors. For north-facing buildings, the designs were less elaborate and have larger lattice patterns as there is no chance of increased heat or glare. The south-facing buildings used elaborate geometric patterns to dispel the amount of direct light that heated the building and provided a sharp glare that hurt eyes.

How do we move forward?

Vernacular architecture is a reflection of societies, time intervals, and places, while sustainability is the practice of a more sustained lifestyle for upcoming generations and not just the mere thought of reducing energy consumption. The combination of both vernacular architecture and sustainability is vital and shouts identity (Salman, 2018).

The announcement of the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi and the Habibeh Madjdabadi’s Museum for Modern Arab Art in Sharjah continues the return of a traditional form of architecture becoming more and more prominent. There is a real need to establish iconic landmarks within the country that proudly presents its history and heritage and these designs reflect the modern age, with a key emphasis being on their sustainable longevity.

Want to learn more?

At Alpin, we’re glad to have worked on several projects, from residential projects to museums and other cultural landmarks in the region, that feature many of these vernacular designs. To learn more about what we do at Alpin to promote sustainability in the built environment, Green Building Consultant.

Written by Noor Ahmad & Faiza Ali


  • Abu Hantash, T. (2016). Building a Zero Energy House for UAE: Traditional Architecture Revisited. 5th International Conference on Zero Energy Mass Customised Housing – ZEMCH 2016, 319-327.
  • Koujan, M. (2018). The Use of Barajeel and Mashrabiya in Contemporary Architecture in the United Arab Emirates. Pg 28,45,84.
  • Salman, M. (2018). Sustainability and Vernacular Architecture: Rethinking What Identity Is. Urban and Architectural Heritage Conservation within Sustainability.