Monthly Archives: December 2009

Neighborhood Character

By | Neighborhood, Qortuba, Social, Urban | 8 Comments

We talked about varied urban densities in a previous post, but what would those look like? Most residential neighborhoods in Kuwait have lost all sense of character and have become glorified parking lots for bigger and bigger houses. Cars fill the sidewalk entirely. People are now sometimes forced to walk on the street.

There is simply no public space anymore, no invitation to linger and stroll. Neighbors have become anonymous to each other as there is no shared space for them to meet and for their children to play. Better rules and enforceable regulations can help us get back to a more livable and rich urban space. It’s really not that hard, but we do have to sacrifice something in return.

Streets are mostly designed by traffic engineers, which is evident in the lack of consideration for anything other than the automobile. If density was lower, a 2 meter sidewalk extension could be added everywhere. The sidewalk has to be continuous and allow for wheelchair access and bicycles; meaning no random changes in material and height. This would allow people to have the option to park their cars outside their house and still have enough room for people to walk comfortably and for trees to be planted to shade the street and filter the air. The trees are crucial. They, of course, shade the street and sidewalk, filter the air from dust and also provide some privacy for the upper floors of houses. There are lots of drought tolerant varieties that are adapted to Kuwait and I don’t think anyone would disapprove if every street in Kuwait was lined with trees.

Having a grass filled sidewalk would also cool the space significantly as the albedo (heat absorption and reflectance) of grass is different from that of concrete and asphalt. Heat is absorbed by asphalt but is mostly reflected by grass, and this reduces the ‘urban heat island’ effect. The difference in perceived temperature can be as much as 20 degrees between a sun exposed asphalt surface and a tree-shaded grass area.

It’s hard (but not impossible) to retrofit these ideas onto the more cramped residential neighborhoods, but it can be easily done on a lot of the older streets with big sidewalks and should be done on all new developments. I can imagine lots of people running and exercising, kids riding bicycles, couples out on walks pushing a baby stroller. Lots of people drive all the way to the Avenues to have a comfortable walk and exercise. That’s a sad indictment of the state of our neighborhood design and planning. We can do much better than this but we have to demand change from the people in charge and renew one street at a time.

Shamiya House

By | albabtain|design, Architecture | 9 Comments

I’m becoming very encouraged because of a perceptible shift in attitude towards outdoor space in Kuwaiti clients. People are finally understanding the outstanding value that a well designed roof garden or courtyard can provide. Maybe it’s just a reaction to the wonderful weather, but it’s a good sign of progress. A recent project of ours at albabtain|design is an example of this desire for change. A modern home for a small family on an exceedingly small 250m2 plot of land on which the client insisted on privacy with abundant natural light and green spaces.

The design calls for a building that is 8.5m wide and has a narrow private garden on the first floor. The front facade has no discernible ‘windows’ yet the spaces inside are all very well lit through the use of large openings behind a series of louvers and vegetation (the L shaped thing on the above image). This residual space filters the harsh light while also creating privacy.

The client values privacy and natural light and this solution has achieved both through the use of the private garden on the first floor. A small water feature adds to the material palette of the space as well as acting as an ambient noise generator to dampen the sound of the street.

The image above is the view from the master bedroom. A sliding door allows access to the private garden to create a natural ventilation current and to merge indoor/outdoor. The louvers are fixed and allow light to get in, but prevents the neighbor from looking through. The garden space is around 2.5m wide and becomes part of the main living space once the sliding glass doors are opened.

The image above is a transition space before entering the home on the ground floor. We talked about body shock and the need for this kind of entrance before. Most home entrances in Kuwait are simple doors, when in fact an entrance has to be a space. This allows ones body to gradually adjust to the temperature, light, sound and humidity differences between indoor and outdoor without being subjected to body shock. The project is currently under construction.

Residential Density

By | Architecture, Metro, Neighborhood, Social, Urban | 8 Comments

One of the main aspects of Kuwaiti residential neighborhoods is that they all have a sort of uniform density. There is really only one thing you can build, a house on a 400+ m2 plot of land. This would be more than enough for a single family to live comfortably in, with a large garden and all the things that make it feel ‘suburban’.

The problems arise when families feel forced to build larger homes to accommodate more people living in the same house; Kids get married and move into an ‘apartment’ above the house. In the past few years, most newly built homes have been designed as mini apartment buildings. This is because there is no other option. Land is so expensive that they can’t buy a house and they don’t want to move far away from their families.

What if we decided to create a residential block that has a varied set of dwelling types? Think of a generic residential area (something like Qortuba, Adailiya, etc). Most of them have a large complex in the middle, which is usually a big mess of shopping center, mosque, parking and government buildings. What if we demolished all of that and built a huge urban green park surrounded by several 15 to 20 floor apartment buildings? These would be well designed and sustainably built. On the ground plane, we could have shopping and entertainment and underground parking for all the residents. Imagine this being built in every major residential area in Kuwait.

Linked Towers, by Steven Holl

So who would live in these towers? I suggest that for the first few years, only people who already have family living in the same area be allowed to rent an apartment. This would give young couples an affordable option to live close to their family without having to alter their original house and still have the flexibility to easily move out in a few years. The active lifestyle afforded by having a dense cluster of towers around a park/entertainment urban plaza is also something that young people would love to be a part of. Another advantage is that everyone living outside the core now has someplace to walk to and visit that’s close by. As a result of the lowered density there will be far fewer cars lining the roads. Sidewalks can be much wider. We can plant trees to line both sides of every street to shade the whole thing and filter dust from the air. We can’t do that now because there’s no room. If we soak up the density from the entire area and concentrate it in the middle, we can make space for all of this.

We could even take this one step further and link all of these mini urban cores together with the metro. This would allow the people living in them to have the option of living a car-free lifestyle. They still own a car, but they don’t have to use it every day. People always say to me that only migrant workers would end up using the metro. This can be a very good solution to make it easy for Kuwaitis to find great value in using the system too.

SAM Street Analysis

By | Other, SAM Street | No Comments

Be sure to check out Tom Modeen’s latest post on SAM street at Kuwait School. He talks about how the street has the potential to become a place where you would go to just walk around and explore, having accidental and unexpected discoveries. He has some very interesting diagrams and analysis of the reasons for wanting explore the project.

“Some of the greatest pleasures in visiting a new city is just meandering, walking around almost at random, making decisions on the spot and ‘following ones nose’ according to various interesting features that catch ones fancy – let (the corner of) one’s eyes, ears, nose lead the way… ‘Doing nothing’ is a valid urban activity – chatting with friends, daydreaming, strolling, people watching… Shopping can be ‘a’ reason, but shouldn’t necessarily be ‘the’ reason for visiting a city.”

“The idea is not to change the area, as it’s exactly the inherent qualities of SAM Street which make it so appealing, but to, call it, ‘update’ it, to retain its idiosyncrasies whilst expanding its idiom.”

-Dr. Thomas Modeen

I always thought that the narrower side street on the western end has the greatest potential. The buildings are narrow and you can easily perceive them as being porous and permeable, and you can walk through them into the more intimate garden on the other side.

This photo was taken from the second floor of that trapezoidal building on the bottom right of the diagram above. This neglected and abandoned garden can easily be transformed into a lively and public space. This stuff is just right there, behind a wall!

Energy Rebate

By | Energy, Social | 18 Comments

People in Kuwait have no incentive to reduce their energy consumption. I personally don’t really care about the Earth enough to let that influence the way I make my decisions, and i’d be lying if I said I was. The planet was here millions of years before we came to be and it will be here millions more after we pass. What I do care about is the inevitable transition that Kuwaitis have to suffer through as our oil begins to run out and become useless.

It is myopic and childish to simply ignore the fact that our country is almost entirely dependent on a finite resource. Oil will run out eventually and sooner than most people think. How will this transition happen? What are we doing to make sure that it is as painless and seamless as possible? Over 90% of our labor force works for the government. Their wages come from oil revenues. We cannot sustain this incredible level of dependency on one single, finite resource. Seeing as how this is such a valuable commodity, and how dependent we are on it, shouldn’t we be trying to make sure that it lasts as long as it can?

(The data is a bit out of date, but the general idea remains)

I propose that we incrementally raise the price of gasoline over the next 4 years, raising it so that by the end it will have become 4 times the price it is today. This will be done without sacrificing quality of life or having it become a burden on people. The way to do this is by having an energy rebate. This was mentioned before in greater detail here and here. The government will have made 4 times as much money selling domestic petrol than it would have. This money will go straight back to Kuwaiti citizens in the form of a rebate check, or an added bonus onto their paychecks. The amount will be the average amount that every Kuwaiti has spent on energy that month. This means that if you consumed an average amount of fuel, the check will mean you broke even. If you consumed more than the average amount you will have spent more on gasoline overall that month, since the check is less than what you spent on gasoline. If you consumed less than the average you will have made a profit just by being efficient and not wasting petrol.

The point of this initiative is that it alters behavior towards efficiency. The increase in cost has to be made public through a massive public awareness scheme so that people know for sure that in a few years time gas will be very expensive. This will make them think twice when buying gas-guzzlers and maybe think about buying a hybrid. The quality of life is arguably the same between the two, yet one is far more efficient than the other. The problem today is that people just don’t have the incentive to make that decision, and I don’t blame them.

Of course, the revenues from this program will be much more than the rebate checks that get sent out, since the government will still be collecting from industrial, commercial and non-Kuwaiti residents. This extra cash must go into improvements in pedestrian infrastructure, bus subsidies and many more and better buses, and of course into building the Kuwait Metro.

The point of this is to ease the transition into our inevitable, oil-less future. Will we enter that new age as spoiled brats that can’t do anything for ourselves, or as independent, reasonable and rational adults? The word ‘sustainability’ has become dreadfully overused, but our way of life just isn’t sustainable. We don’t have to sacrifice the quality of our life to be sustainable, we just have to live differently. Who knows, maybe it will turn out even better?

SAM Street

By | SAM Street, Urban | 9 Comments

Salem alMubarak Street has the potential to become (once again) an integral urban element of Kuwait. What would happen if we simply remove the street? How would a pedestrian promenade work?

Please be sure to read through Tom’s excellent post on the subject at Kuwait School. I’d argue that it might be overkill to attempt to redesign the entire strip. The western part of SAM street is narrower than the east, and has a much better ‘human’ scale which feels very pleasant. It’s also more feasible politically to consider only the western half.

The western entrance to SAM street, from the 4th ring road



Proposed site

The site of the promenade is linear and anchored by large open spaces. The spatial character at each end is very different, with the west being loud and bright (advertising, 4th ring road) and the east quiet and mellow. The linear transition between the two ends should reflect this change in character of the space.

There are some really interesting buildings in there. The star of the show is definitely the alAnjiri complex, the big one to the right of the Z shaped thing on the left. Jasem is going to conduct a separate detailed analysis of that great building. The southern strip is also very intriguing. Some have a wonderful shared courtyard behind them (which is sadly not utilized well). This has enormous potential to allow for a porous ground level to allow people to walk through and into the courtyard.

The image above is of one of the courtyards behind the buildings along SAM street. My HDR software went crazy and tried be an impressionist painter. Anyway, you can see that there’s quite a lot of shade and great potential for some really wonderful uses for that space.

Parking will obviously be an issue, but there are three major lots, with the one on the top right being a large multi-story parking. Even so, I doubt that this would be enough seeing as how we’re taking so many away. A new large multi-story might have to be built where the lower left lot is now since that is conveniently located and to balance out with the other one.

Existing Trees

Proposed Trees

Well, maybe not that dense, but the point is that the southern side of SAM street will be shaded by the buildings, while the north side will need trees or some other form of shading device. The street is very wide, and can actually have a real linear park going all the way through it; with grass and fountains and landscape architecture and whatever. The existing trees are old and valuable and we have to keep them, so any landscape design would be generated from them.

This is just a quick and dirty example just to show the scale of the place without the street and curb. It’s actually a lot bigger than it seems at first. Any intervention has to be aware of this not to end up being too open.

The island in the middle of SAM street

I think SAM street is probably one of the best spaces in Kuwait where a real public space can happen. A place where people can go window shopping and listen to live music and buy food from street vendors. The intervention is relatively minor but the potential is incredible. We can ignore it and let it suffocate or we breathe new life into the street and create something that Kuwait doesn’t really have; a lively, free and open public space.