Monthly Archives: July 2009

No Boxes, Please

By | Architecture | 8 Comments

I’m beginning to be concerned about a very bad trend in Kuwaiti residential design. Clients are asking for a ‘modern’ look and style without really understanding what it is they’re asking for. To most people, it means a cold, boxy, straight edged look with lots of rectangular windows and expensive furniture. Modernism is not a style, it’s a process. You can change the frosting on a cake, but it’s still going to be chocolate on the inside.

The most important thing, especially for residential architecture, is that the space improves the quality of life of it’s inhabitants as much as it possibly can within the available budget.

Belinda George Architects

Clients are demanding that they not live in boxes. When you ask them to articulate the reason for this, they usually end up arguing that everyone is building boxes and it looks boring and not very ‘creative’. I think that they’re worried that the boring shape represents a boring inhabitant. Who cares? Why should the outward appearance be the primary goal of a design? Homes are not something to be looked at. You live in them.

What I try to emphasize as much as I can is that the quality of life is the most important element; not the number of rooms or floor space. Those are just ways for developers to sell houses, they really are meaningless in reality. What’s the point in having more rooms than you need if they all face the neighbor, are badly lit and the furniture doesn’t fit right? Why have a grand entrance foyer if you end up living most of your life upstairs and hardly ever spend time on the ground floor? The opportunity cost of such a frivolous waste of space is enormous. People just can’t visualize the alternative and ultimately that is the architect’s failure because it’s our job to help illustrate what can be and should be done.

VillaSavoye

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye is a supposed masterpiece of modernism. Designed by Le Corbusier, it was hailed as a symbol of modernity and of the international style because it was completely new and different. It can be placed anywhere in the world. A machine for living. In truth, it was a disaster. The architect demanded that the roof be flat, because he believed that was how a modern roof should look. The roof leaked. The architect demanded that no furniture be added to his design. There are many good ideas to be taken from the Villa Savoye; the piloti mode (how the house was raised one floor on columns to free it form the ground plane), the wonderful interaction between the spaces and the courtyard on the first floor. The problem was the architectural vanity that allowed style to supersede practicality. As a result of this, modernism has gained the reputation of being impractical. In Kuwait, I see the same with people building homes with giant windows facing the sun. Of course they’re not practical, but hey, it looks Modern so the people living in them must be cool.

Peer-Based Learning

By | Education, Other | 7 Comments
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u-MczVpkUA&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0]

A wonderful collection of ideas on learning and teaching by John Seely Brown. Please take the time to watch the entire ten minute video. (Youtube)

I think we can all agree that the Arab pedagogical mode, with its absolute respect and reverence for the Teacher, is damaging to our children. It is a system that snuffs out creativity and imagination.

My experience in an architectural studio was profoundly enlightening and it was very much the way it’s described in the video. The first few critiques were uncomfortable and we were all very defensive and took every word personally.

After a few weeks it became clear that there really was nothing to fear. We learned to stop being so protective of our ideas and allow other people to tinker with them and show us things we couldn’t see from our own perspective. We began to not so much ‘teach’ each other but rather challenge each other to think differently.

This is different from the notion of critical thinking. It’s not so much the Socratic method, with it’s dialectical form of inquiry, but rather a framework that allows kids to experiment and to have the freedom to be bold. Peer-based learning is a way to foster the desire to be creative. Think of it like networked brainstorming, with kids gaining confidence from each other, engaging each other and learning from each other. The teacher becomes the coordinator or the orchestrator, guiding the team and providing the anchor to validate ideas and assumptions.

How can we incorporate the peer-based learning that architecture students experience into the broader educational environment? There are schools in the United States, such as the Seattle Girls School, that have been extremely successful by doing something very similar. They teach through long, project-based exercises where the girls are encouraged to experiment with ideas and allowed learn from failed attempts. Graduates from the SGS are sought out at colleges and are given preferential admission because they know how to imagine, create and ask good questions. All good schools have to teach kids how to create. Very few schools do, and none of them are in Kuwait.

Sadly, Kuwaiti youth now define themselves by their material possessions. ‘I am what I wear and what I drive’. What if every Kuwaiti identifies themselves not by their outward image but by the ideas they generate from within?

Edit: I have to admit that for a few years now there has been a successful local experiment in collaborative and peer-based learning. It’s an annual inter-school competition in Kuwait called ‘Battle of the Best’  where high school students are encouraged to create profit making projects. It’s a very capitalist oriented way of teaching creative thinking, but it’s a start. The project is part of Injaz Kuwait.

My hope is that the schools that participate will understand the value of peer-based learning and witness the progress made by the students that competed in ‘Battle of the Best’. This can’t simply be a voluntary extra-curricular activity. It has to be the basis and framework of all teaching starting from the earliest levels. Recitation for tests and regurgitation of facts has failed us. There is a better way.

Via synthesis.

Climate in Kuwait

By | Architecture, Social | 18 Comments

Kuwait is hot and arid. Most people complain that the sun prevents any kind of outdoor or pedestrian activity during most of the year. How can we manipulate the weather in such a way as to create microclimates that can produce tolerable and even pleasant local weather?

The weather in the winter is very pleasant, and can be controlled through appropriate clothing. The challenge is how to design for the summer. The three major obstacles are:

  1. Intense summer heat
  2. Dust
  3. Lack of precipitation

Picture 1

In a way, we can count ourselves lucky that we are not in a hot/humid region. As you can see in the above graphs, the humidity levels drop sharply during the summer months. This gives us an incredible advantage in that we can use the process of evaporative cooling to cool our buildings and ourselves. Our bodies regulate heat by many processes, one of them being the secretion of sweat. The sweat evaporates from skin and cools down the body. One of the properties of water is that when it evaporates, it requires a lot of heat energy, and it absorbs this heat from the area that surrounds it. The problem in hot/humid regions is that the air is usually saturated with water molecules. You still sweat, but it never evaporates. This means that you can’t regulate the heat generated by your body and you feel hotter still.

We can use this process to cool down our buildings and outdoor spaces. One of the easiest ways to do this is through water misting. These are simple water sprays that shower an outdoor space with small water droplets. The droplets begin to evaporate into the air and will slowly cool down the space. This can also be used to cool down roofs and walls by adding sprinkler systems, but the water waste becomes a problem as well.

Plants and trees can be used to control both heat gain and dust. They act as a natural air filter, trapping dust particles and filtering the air while adding oxygen too. They shade the ground underneath it and cool the air that passes through it. Trees absorb water from the soil which passes through it and eventually evaporates from stomata in its leaves. This process is called evapotranspiration and it cools down the air around the leaves in the same way as sweat.

p140a

Different materials absorb and reflect heat radiation at vastly different rates. Aluminum would heat up so much faster than concrete, which heats up faster than grass. The air that passes through these materials will heat up accordingly. The space around a building has to take all these factors into account. Hot air passing through trees will cool down considerably.

p139c

Hot air is lighter than cold air. This means that hot air rises and cool air drops low. A courtyard home therefore has an incredible advantage in that it creates pockets of space where cool air will collect. This property along with a well shaded space means that you can naturally and passively cool down a courtyard to a tolerable level even in the most intensely hot summer days.

p157a

There are many drought tolerant species of plants and trees that are able to survive and thrive in Kuwait. The example below is Bougainvillea, locally known as al-Majnuna. It is a flowering vine that is able to be trained to grow on trellises and along pergolas and arbors. It is fairly disease and pest free and requires little maintenance and watering. A courtyard entirely shaded with this vine would create a wonderfully pleasant microclimate where families can enjoy a private outdoor gathering in the hottest summer day while the sunlight filters through the beautiful colors of the flowers.

Greece_164_Mykonos

The cooler air dropping from above will be cooled further by the vines, which would trap all the dust that is in the air. The filtered cool air would collect in the courtyard and any air that heats up will rise and escape. I would suggest a large fountain, or a pool with a waterfall be added to the landscape of the courtyard so that a water misting effect is created to cool the space even further.

A courtyard home is not a luxury. It should become the template in which all homes in Kuwait are based on. We must remember how our ancestors used to live and adapt those methods to our contemporary, modern lifestyles. We cannot hide from these challenges in our sealed refrigerators. We have to take control.

pergolagnadiflickrNonCommercial2.0Generic_Full

The data used in this post was taken from this meteorological study: http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/energyplus/weatherdata/2_asia_wmo_region_2/KWT_Kuwait.Intl.AP_KISR.stat

The Kuwaiti Home

By | Architecture, Social | 12 Comments

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.