Living in the UAE before all the technological advancements must have been hard. During summers, it gets extremely hot – the highest recorded temperature being around 52 degrees. Nowadays, we have the luxury of moving from one air-conditioned space to the next without even feeling the heat sometimes. However, the vernacular architecture of the region was centered on keeping the internal spaces within the structure as comfortable as possible. The factors that affect thermal comfort are: air temperature, radiant temperature, air velocity, and humidity. The air temperature and radiant temperature in the building were controlled by the selection of materials and building techniques. The air velocity simply refers to ventilation within the building. It is amazing what difference slight air movement can do on a hot day even if the temperature remains the same. It is for this reason that wind towers became a common feature in almost all buildings of the region. Wind towers or wind catchers were an integral part of buildings in the past.
Like the name suggests, wind towers literally ‘catch’ the wind and help ventilate the inside of the building. Thermal comfort in vernacular design was solely attributed to wind towers in the hot and humid climate of UAE. In addition to the wind tower the location and size of openings gave impetus to the movement of air within the interior. The wind tower channels hot air to the outside while bringing in cooler air inside. Typically it is a tall and narrow tower roughly 3-4 meters high extending above the roof of the structure. In plan the tower is generally square shaped divided into 4 across the diagonals.
While wind towers might have been the ideal solution to regulating thermal comfort in homes previously, it has been replaced with air conditioning systems nowadays. The wind tower is used mainly as an aesthetic feature in buildings serving no purpose to ventilation indoors. Having said that, we wanted to look into the feasibility of bringing the original purpose of this architectural element back to life. We looked into a few wind towers that are functioning and existing in buildings today.
Wind Tower in Dubai Museum
Wind Tower at RAK Museum
The Dubai Museum has a replica of a typical primitive house made of palm tree branches.
The wind tower in the RAK Museum opens into an airy and brightly lit room. The sketch illustrates the opening within the recess of the wall which helps with the movement of air inside the room. In the interior spaces of the both the museums you can occasionally feel a little breeze while standing underneath the wind tower as opposed to the constant flow of the air conditioning.
Today we expect to have indoor temperatures of 22 degrees all year round. That is not achievable with the traditional design of wind towers. However, a combination of traditional concepts and active technology can provide a solution for today’s time. An example of such an innovation is the wind tower at Masdar institute in Abu Dhabi. It is a hollow metal tube 45 meters high that captures the cool air from above. There are louvers at the top to catch the prevailing wind from any direction and channel it downwards into the courtyard. For added efficiency, there are mist generators that cool the air further as it moves downwards. While standing in the plaza surrounding the wind tower, it is passably more comfortable than any other place within the institute making it a viable element to consider including in modern structures nowadays.
The wind tower at Masdar Institute, Abu Dhabi
Designing wind towers for multi-storey buildings would be a challenge. Perhaps, these are the cases where active technology can be used to compliment regional architectural styles. Skyscrapers are literally closed boxes that minimally interact with natural climatic elements. With intelligent façade design and implementation of traditional design principles, there could be endless possibilities for ways to reduce the energy consumed by the building while retaining regional character of the built form.