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A Future for the Past of Desert Vernacular Architecture

  • Marwa Dabaieh
Publiceringsår: 2011
Språk: Engelska
Dokumenttyp: Doktorsavhandling
Förlag: Lund University (Media-Tryck)


Popular Abstract in English

Vernacular (local) architecture is in danger and about to disappear in several parts of the world. What we call native, traditional and handmade will disappear gradually and then the true meaning of vernacular vanishes. The present thesis shows that the disappearance of vernacular traditional skills creates an increasing threat to the existence of desert vernacular architecture in Egypt. Global ambitions and socio-economic development are some of the factors behind inhabitants deserting their vernacular houses, leaving them to deteriorate or demolishing them to build new houses using industrialized materials. Such new houses unfortunately lack environmental adaptability and cultural identity. People are seeking a modern look for their homes and better living facilities which their desert vernacular houses sometimes no longer satisfy. It was clear from the research investigations that unspoken knowledge and skills with a lifetime tradition have been developed, perfected and handed down for generations by craftsmen, builders and locals in desert vernacular settlements. These vernacular skills can be found alive today, but may not be around tomorrow.

What makes this thesis different from previous research is first that it deals with the desert vernacular problems in an active and practical manner with locals’ contributions in all essential research steps. Second it looks at the future of desert vernacular architecture as a means to protect the existing desert vernacular values and its past heritage. Third, which is the most significant contribution, it uses a flexible methodology. This methodology provides an opportunity for wider application possibilities, which can be useful for many different vernacular communities suffering from similar or related problems.

The thesis novel outcome is a conservation model for thinking re-vernacular. It was designed, experimented and applied in the town of Balat in the Western Desert of Egypt. Its aim was encouraging locals to maintain a developing and sustainable loop of a vernacular building tradition as it used to be for centuries. The future application of this methodology will hopefully contribute to the necessary improvement in the conservation of vernacular architectural heritage. If desert vernacular know-how can be kept alive, it will not only preserve the old but can also contribute to keep desert vernacular alive in the future.

Finally the research proved that it is still possible to develop vernacular building techniques to cope with contemporary housing demands. The research opens a channel to look at desert vernacular as a mine in which we can still excavate to learn a great deal for future housing solutions. Such solutions can connect the environment with its natural building materials to be used by the local community. It can also give guidance and solutions to politicians and policy makers who are struggling to find effective alternatives for desert communities’ housing problems. The outcome can lead to cheap modern housing in traditional terms. It can improve the future houses by making them more environmentally friendly and also look modern while conserving desert vernacular architecture.
Desert vernacular architecture has always been the product of a sustainable building cycle. People inherited the traditional way of building from their ancestors and the knowledge was transferred and developed from one generation to another. Inhabitants responded to their environment and climate through trial and error in a way that satisfied their needs and aspirations to create a developing building tradition. This natural and cultural cycle is about to disappear in many desert vernacular settlements of the world, and in Egypt as well. Global ambitions and socio-economic development are some of the factors behind inhabitants’ deserting their houses, leaving them to deteriorate or demolishing them to build new houses using industrialized materials. People are seeking modern living facilities which respond to needs that their desert vernacular houses sometimes no longer satisfy. As a result of these changes, centuries of accumulated tangible and intangible tacit knowledge is being lost.

The aim of this research is to create a theoretical conservation model for thinking re-vernacular in a contemporary context and to develop a methodology for applying and testing the model. This theoretical model is a tool for conserving desert vernacular and for supporting its continued existence. To fulfill this objective, the research investigated the existing know-how used to design and build desert vernacular architecture in Egypt. The focus was also on how to adjust contemporary desert vernacular housing to contemporary life-style demands while still preserving the beneficial aspects of traditional vernacular techniques. The research applied a practical case study methodology in investigating the town of Balat in the Western Desert of Egypt.

In applying the theoretical conservation model, the research developed several survey methods and tools for documenting not only desert vernacular architecture, but also characterizing urban patterns and building know-how in Balat. To benefit from local know-how, a physical neo-desert vernacular model house was constructed using a transdisciplinary participatory action research method that engaged the local community throughout the design and building phase. The physical model house was a tool for investigating the needs of those living in contemporary desert vernacular houses. The model house was constructed based on an understanding of desert vernacular architecture as well as of the urban fabric and building technology.

In this way, the present research provides a methodology that creates a bridge between sustainable desert vernacular know-how as used for centuries, and contemporary vernacular housing demands. This approach proposes a new perspective for looking at the future of the traditional and contemporary desert vernacular through conservation by modeling. The methodology developed provides a way to benefit from tangible and intangible vernacular values in contemporary and future houses and to ensure the continuation of the natural desert vernacular architecture. The research has also developed a set of recommendations for continuation of further desert vernacular architecture research.


Lecture Hall A:B, A-building, Sölvegatan 24, Lund University Faculty of Engineering
  • SALMA SAMAR DAMLUJI (Architect, AA Dipl. PhD(RCA))


  • Architecture
  • participatory action research
  • transdisciplinarity
  • thinking re-vernacular
  • architectural conservation
  • desert vernacular
  • Balat.
  • neo-desert vernacular


  • Kerstin Barup
  • ISBN: 978-91-7740-102-5

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