Here's why old Dubai is cooler in temperature than the rest of the city

The designers of tree-less suburban streets and boxy homes could learn much from the archictects of the old quarter

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As the mercury rises in the UAE, the typical way to keep the temperature down is to crank up the air conditioning.

Yet before the modern era, such technology did not exist, so lower-tech methods, such as wind towers and shaded areas, were used to keep buildings and neighbourhoods cool.

Latest research in the Emirates has found that many traditional elements of design still have much to offer when it comes to minimising temperatures.

A recently published study showed that older-style neighbourhoods are likely to be around 1°C cooler than those with contemporary designs.

Traditional architecture is an environment-responsive form of architecture. Contemporary architecture focuses on style - despite the urgent need for sustainability
Researchers writing in Ain Shams Engineering Journal

"The organic streets and compacted semi-attached buildings in the organic urban layout of the old district created more shaded areas and decreased the outdoor air temperature in the old district," researchers from Ajman University and the University of Sharjah wrote in Ain Shams Engineering Journal.

The researchers used computer simulations to identify what makes traditional neighbourhoods cooler, comparing the traditional Al Fahidi area of Dubai with a modern district of Ajman, Al Raqaib 2, part of the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme.

Al Fahidi, which has about 60 residential buildings, dates back to the 1890s and is one of Dubai’s oldest districts.

Design elements to keep temperatures cool including barajeel or wind towers, and riwaqs, which are porticos or arcades that are open on at least one side. Many pathways are shaded, reducing heat gain.

Courtyards, along with the varied heights of the buildings in the district, some four metres tall, some eight metres and others 12 metres, improve air circulation.

In the Al Raqaib 2 area, there are only two-storey detached buildings, which are about eight metres tall, so airflow is not promoted, and little shading is provided by the wide, perpendicular streets.

"The new district’s detached buildings and straight, wide, perpendicular streets decreased the shaded areas and increased the solar gain," the researchers wrote.


In the UAE, modern buildings reflect the fact that, the researchers said, architects have "focused on imported designs with fixed functions or forms", instead of designing buildings to cope with the harsh desert conditions.

The study found that, in March, the maximum outdoor temperature in the traditional district was around 28.3°C, compared to 27.37°C in the modern district, a difference of 0.93°C.

During peak of the summer, in August, the temperature was 0.85°C cooler in Al Fahidi, at 42.38°C compared to 43.23°C in Al Raqaib 2.

The findings were made by Dr Muna Salameh and Ayat El Khazindar from the College of Architecture, Art and Design at Ajman University, and Dr Emad Mushtaha, of the College of Engineering at the University of Sharjah.

More sustainable ways to cool buildings are seen as important if the world is to limit energy use and reach net zero carbon emissions.

Globally, air conditioners and fans used to keep buildings cool account for nearly one-fifth of electricity consumption in buildings, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the UAE, according to statistics cited in the new paper, the figure is much higher, with 57.5 per cent of energy consumption of buildings accounted for by devices that keep them cool.

Energy consumption to keep buildings cool is set to increase substantially, with World Bank figures indicating that by 2050, there will be three billion air conditioners globally – three times as many as now.

While retrospectively adding certain design features to modern neighbourhoods (such as courtyards or variation in building heights) to keep them cool is not possible, the researchers said that things could be done to reduce temperatures.

Adding grass to vacant land areas reduces the solar gain, they said, while installing shading devices cuts heating from the sun. Installing shading was found to be particularly effective.

The researchers indicated that architects could incorporate elements from traditional design when crafting modern buildings.

"Traditional architecture has a strong capability to handle climate effects, as it is an environment-responsive form of architecture," the researchers wrote.

"However, contemporary architecture focuses on style despite the urgent need for sustainability."

Updated: February 28, 2023, 4:30 PM