Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | July 10, 2009

The Kuwaiti Home

What is a Kuwaiti home? How do we define it? To begin answering this question, we first have to define what being Kuwaiti and living a Kuwaiti lifestyle is and then attempt to manifest this into a built environment. A home has to find a balance between the environmental factors of the site and the lifestyle choices of it’s inhabitants.

Of course, no two people are exactly the same, but we can at least identify the basic needs, aspirations and cultural parameters that makes a person Kuwaiti. We all have a basic desire for personal privacy. Nobody wants to live in a Dutch house where the activity inside is visible to all passersby. We all have a desire for closely knit families where all three meals are shared and as much time is spent together as possible. Most people feel the need to have a dedicated public space to entertain guests.

Our climate is basically dry, intense heat in the summer with north western winds. Winters are cool and slightly humid. The dry heat can be mitigated through shading and evaporative cooling. The winters are gorgeous and need very little manipulation to feel comfortable in.

Taking these basic rules one would assume that we would be living in courtyard houses which are inward looking. This would allow for maximum privacy and create a microclimate which would lower the heat gain of the house and create comfortable outdoor spaces even in the hottest days of summer. This is how Kuwaitis traditionally lived. Courtyard houses in well established neighborhoods where all the amenities are available at a walking distance.

Urban-House-3

Yet as we look around today at the vast majority of houses in Kuwait we see that they are all giant pancake houses. We live in refrigerators in the desert. When did this change in mentality happen? Why did we blindly adopt the western model of a house in the middle of the plot with windows looking out in every direction?

Look around at all the houses in Kuwait with the giant windows facing the street. It seems that almost all of them always have the curtains drawn or simply shuttered completely. Why have the windows so big in the first place? The simple act of having them higher than your eye level means that you can see the sky and let the light in, but not have people look into your house from the street.

Why do people feel as if bigger is always better? Huge rooms for your kids means that they will have everything they need. They will not only sleep and study in them, but they will entertain themselves and their friends and you will never see them. If we think of a child’s room as simply being a place to study and sleep then you will find that you see them far more often. They will be forced to leave the room to be entertained. They will learn the art of conversation instead of being trapped in their big, fun playrooms. You would also save the reclaimed space for more important things, like a shaded outdoor area with greenery and natural light.

The choices people have in entry level real estate is pathetic. All the houses look the same and they don’t belong in Kuwait. In the coming weeks we will highlight alternatives that are cost effective and are adapted to our climate and culture. We cannot continue on the same unsustainable path. We have to wake up.


Responses

  1. i kinda agree
    kuwaiti houses are boxes of shame
    it’s make believe
    nothing that shows who they are
    just how much they have as long as it helps their ego and the public going omg you must have a lot of money

    i would go for a simple house enough space to live in and let each person customize his or her room to suite his life style

    simple and clean

    • I agree wholeheartedly! Are there actually homes like the picture you’ve posted? I love the clean lines. That’s the kind of home I’m looking for in Kuwait!!!

  2. Barrak, you ask a lot of plausible questions. I think taking the house model from the west was accompanied by many other changes in tradition, which are yet to question. It was a big shift in the Kuwaiti society, They were probably too overwhelmed by the sudden change that took place. But then it’s about time that we re-think the design of our houses as you said. I’ve actually been to a couple of new houses in Kuwait where they’re re-adopting the courtyard style. It was really effective not only in privacy but also in controlling the weather. The rooms where inward looking as well as having a view of the street. So when you have openings on both sides, you can minimize the size of the street window.

  3. The thing that I can’t comprehend is that you import ideas when you believe that they solve problems. Yet when you try to justify the architectural imports that we applied on our residential architecture, they simply don’t make sense.

    Having a central courtyard adds so much architectural potential. As you said, the function of the street facing ‘window’ transforms into a tool for cross-ventilation (to create a ‘tayaar’).

    I’ve been researching courtyard houses a lot these past few weeks. The writings of Kevin Mitchell (the same) on the subject have been particularly illuminating. The advantage of Kuwait in the summer is that it’s a dry heat. This means that we can use a process called evaporative cooling. This is a physical property where water evaporates taking with it heat energy. When sweat evaporates from your skin, it cools you down. The same process can be applied to our outdoor spaces and courtyards. That’s how those water mist things work. They spray you with water droplets which then evaporate, and cool your skin. The effect doesn’t work when its really humid outside, as the air would have so much water in it that it can’t absorb anymore. That’s why you sweat so much in humid weather but it never seems to go away and you feel hotter.

    Imagine an outdoor courtyard which is shaded completely by climbing vines. You’d have light aluminum or wood beams span the opening which can allow flowering vines to cover the entire courtyard roof. You’d have a shaded courtyard that would allow some light to filter and diffuse into the space, while allowing the hot air to filter out through the leaves. The great thing about that is that it would also stop the dust from getting in. There are several species of drought tolerant flowering vines in Kuwait that can serve this purpose.

    What i’m trying to say is that having a courtyard once again become the focal point of our homes is essential. We don’t have to run away from the sun. We can manipulate the weather, create micro-climates, and make the weather not only tolerable but pleasant.

  4. Totally agree with you, and revisiting the courtyard will employ sustainable techniques as well as preserve our heritage. Coming to think of it though, the old courtyard houses in Kuwait did have some flaws, like the circulation from one room to another was done from the outside (bordering the courtyard). Which is something very much intolerable with the heat and dust. Also, the house seemed to be like a continuous train of rooms, either one room leading to another or are back to back.
    Also, with this change that Kuwait went through, there were also many social changes and different requirements for houses developed. For example, the driver and chef now usually have their own passage to their rooms. This is very important in our time. In older times if they did have maids, they would be regarded as part of the family, hence they utilize the same entrance and the same courtyard.
    I think the “elders” simply shifted from one type of house to another type without thinking of improving on what they had already. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t go back and take the good characteristics of a past design. But just think of the many possibilities we could play with in the circulation and natural ventilation of the house!

  5. I’ve just stumbled upon your blog.

    read all your posts.

    I can’t express how much I enjoyed reading all the material here.

    good work.

    don’t stop blogging, I just subscribed to you blog ;P

  6. Why we have boxed housing:

    1. we have less space to build, traditional kuwaiti’s had more access to land, how do i build a house with a courtyard for a family of six in a 500m2 if i cant afford bigger land? The box embraces all the land and allows me to use every square inch for living space.
    2. I would love a courtyard home, but how would we walk from room to room in the dust and in the rain? not convenient.. it was in the past when there were less buildings and more trees.
    3. Big rooms are allocated because the design of a kuwaiti family has evolved, in the past the mother was the caretaker, now its the maid, less noise when given big rooms, more time for entertaining your friends. Oh and you can show your friends how big your rooms are. Values evolved as well you see.

    • I really hope you’re being sarcastic.

      1. That’s not an excuse. Go look at contemporary urban Japanese homes and you’ll find courtyard houses on 200m2 plots and less. Just because we haven’t tried to do it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I’ve seen courtyard houses that small, and i’ve designed some myself.

      2. Well, you would have to access the rooms from both sides. The courtyard facing rooms would be all glass, and the other side would be a corridor access.

      3. We have to ask ourselves if this is a good development or not. What do we really gain by having bigger rooms? What is the added value, and what are the opportunity costs? I personally think that bigger bedrooms are wasteful and create islands within the house where kids would retreat and feel comfortable to hide in. I don’t want that for my kids, and I know a lot of people that don’t either. Noise is not a factor in room size. I would argue that our values didn’t evolve, but that we forgot what our true values really are.

  7. I would like to have a house with a courtyard, but can you such a house with 400sq meters?

    • I just finished designing a courtyard house for a family of 6 on a 400m2 plot of land facing one street. It has two covered parking spots. An outdoor swimming pool and a lap pool in the courtyard. A large guest area accessible without walking through any private areas. Dedicated servant spaces. An outdoor kitchen. 4 bedrooms that have floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that face the courtyard. A master suite with a private balcony that faces the courtyard.

      The courtyard would also through passive cooling techniques be 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature (depending on relative humidity). There are wet walls, climbing vines shading the entire courtyard (which would block out the dust), a cold waterfall to create heat transfer through convection and constant evapo-transpiration from the grass. It’s also completely private. No one can look into it from the outside, or your neighbors. There’s also an option to have an outdoor projector on one of the courtyard walls for a big 5m wide cinema display.

      The trick was to sort of fake the courtyard into making it an L shape instead of an O. The pool and lap pool complete the L and make it feel like a courtyard. Also, the courtyard isn’t on the ground floor, it’s on the first floor. All the services (kitchen, guest, servants, parking) is on the ground floor. There is no basement.

      What i’m trying to say is that these things are all possible on a small site. Well, 400m2 isn’t really that small, compared to denser cities, it’s actually huge. We just have to learn how to utilize it in the best way to make it pleasurably habitable, and not just a big refrigerator.

  8. Barrak, your design sounds really interesting and would love to see it.

    I think one of the biggest points missing from this post while blaming older generations of abandoning the courtyard housing model is that, they didn’t know any better. you should remember they were more or less illiterate when it comes to modern living standards. they moved from old mud huts to new concrete villas, how can one expects them to understand what’s going on?

    Kuwaiti’s, like most oriental societies tend to prefer having several generations in a one single house. This is a tradition that is reinforced by the scarcity of land and the extremely high prices of property that forces most young couples to live with their parents after marriage. This is a problem that can only be solved by a massive government intervention.

    I think there’s also another very important point that was raised here, the size of rooms. One solution is the furniture size. Most people tend to buy the wrong furniture and end up squeezing them selves in their own spaces and blame it on the architecture when its a the fault of their own making.

    This is a very delicate subject in this country since a big part of it is showing off. People tend to cater for events that might happen every other month, and allocate so much of their limited resources to it. This is wrong and costs a lot. Some people i know now tend to stand against this now and want to have spaces that are utilized all the time, not a fraction of the time.

  9. I absolutely love your blog! I’m a writer and I’m coming to Kuwait in a few weeks or so to work on some stories for in-flight magazines for Gulf Life and Jazeera Airways, so I’m researching ideas at the moment. I’d love to talk to you about a way to feature you in a story that explores some of the ideas you’re promoting here. Could you please email me at laradunston@mac.com?

    Thanks!
    Lara


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