In the future, you will probably live in the desert, whether you want to or not. This is how you do it.
The house had stood there for as long as anyone could remember. Not that anyone went there, since it was the only thing manmade as far as you could see in any direction. Some people thought it was just a fairytale, but stories of this strange building in a sea of sand came from nomads, excentrics and crazy, adventurous kids alike.
Some refugees from down south talked of it as a mirage-like structure with magical powers. Rooms with water appearing out of nowhere along the walls, cold indoor breezes that would accelerate with the rising heat of the mid day sun, and warm spaces that kept comfortable throughout the cold of night.
One writer claimed he had actually found food growing in the basement and that he could have survived there forever had it not been for the mental impact of solitude.He was obviously a liar because everyone knows that nothing grows in the desert – or does it?
Why live in the desert?
We all know about the dangers of global warming and the rapid desertification of the arid and semi-arid regions of the world. But what does that mean for the living conditions of future generations? According to the US Agricultural Department and the UN, we risk desertification on a much larger scale than either of us knew when we started this project, and large areas of the world lack renewable water sources. When – not if – these scenarios take place, the other areas of the world will see a huge stream of climate refugees seeking to flee the desert. Arable land will be much more scarce, and the rural organization of the world will have to be reformed, as the large grainaries of several continents no longer will be able to sustain our needs.
With this in mind we have investigated the conditions of living in the desert, as we believe this to be a necessity for the future. So how do we want the future dwellings of the desert to be? Are the luxury homes of America with huge electricity and irrigation needs the answer? We think not. If the desert is to be more than vacation homes visited by helicopters, we need to think off-grid and build with simple and local materials and methods. We have taken inspiration from the extreme locality of the historical vernacular architecture, were people were forced, not for reasons of sustainability, but by economics to work with what what they had and what was present in the immediacy of the site.
Morocco and many other countries with similar conditions are today heavily dependant on irrigation, with miles and miles of water pipes running across arid areas to highly concentrated areas of arable land. Outside of these perimeters the desert waits in stark contrast to the artificial oases. This has in part been made possible by creating large dams, which resulted in even more desertification. Areas that historically were naturally irrigated such as river valleys are becoming depopulated.
With the rapid population growth of the Maghreb area, this strategy will probably have to be amended with local initiatives like fog harvesting, rain collection, salt water greenhouses, solar furnaces and other means to gather water without access to the official irrigation system.
As this project started out, we were intent on exploring the traditional living and building patterns of the region. We studied nomadic traditions, islamic patterns and traditional shapes of the households. This probably influenced us in some ways and the understanding of the local culture surely helped us realize some of our initial questions, but the more we learned, the more we realized that if we are designing a project for the future, we should learn from the past but not necessarily bring it with us. We also felt that some cultural patterns were for us so foreign that we did not want to perpetuate them. Besides, who knows what the future holds? Today moroccans are leaving their traditional multi-generational and patriarchal homes to pursue a more western but still family-oriented lifestyle.
We decided to create a house with as little programmatic value as possible, with undefined but generic measurements, a kind of modernistic idea of body logic space, but with freedom of adaptivity.
Another important aspect of our process was ofcourse our visit to Morocco, where we were able to observe local building techniques, but also question our previously held beliefs. One example would be that the winters and nights are so much harsher that we ever could imagine. Thermal mass in all its glory, but after a couple of freezing sleepless nights you really appreciate a well-insulated home!
But of course, the most prevalent need in a typical Moroccan home is cooling, but there are many opportunites to combine different strategies and concepts from different parts of the world.
With these lessons in mind, slowly a concept begin to take shape. How to dwell in the desert? A few keywords eventually found their way to cornerstones in the project.
The ability to generate water and electricity without being connected, and to do so anywhere. Our solar chimney would heat up, create convention and draw cool air through the mountain, while at the same time generating electricity from a turbine at the exhaust.
The need to utilize the sites resources as wind, thermal mass and sun, and to use them for both heating and cooling purposes. To do this we decided to combine elements of high thermal mass with lightweight, insulating components. In the wintertime you would use the whole building, while in the summertime the cooler side would be more comfortable
Local Materials and Techniques
We wanted to combine traditional techniques and materials with contemporary approaches for a rational and sensible construction, to create a sustainable and affordable dwelling. The concrete grid is widely employed in contemporary construction, but with not so optimal brickwork.
For us, some customs were harder to swallow than others. We couldn’t see ourselves designing a home that for instance isolated and controlled women, so we decided to leave the Islamic building tradition aside.
Eventually these ideas crystallised in to our concept.
At first, we were hoping to rechannel and distill the humidity from our solar chimney by leading the air back in to the mountain, but as the chart above shows, the humidity just wasn’t high enough. Instead we just focused on the integrity of the architectural spaces – two counterpoints, one hot tower and one cold, regulating a sort of sweet spot in the middle, with the main living areas. The water harvesting was solved by joining the two opposite towers with an all-covering undulating roof. The water is then lead down to the cool cavelike area, where you would also find our well.
The vault-like constructions in the middle areas are one of the few cultural indulgences, but also serve a functional purpose, by allowing the cooled air to pass above instead of through the living spaces, still effective but avoiding drafty situations.