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Designing dry

Date: Mar 05, 2024
Category: Insights
Kal City Centre 1
Kal City Centre with IPH Architects — Photography: Peter Bennetts

As the world grapples with the transition to a more sustainable future, we must also prepare for life in a drier, hotter climate. Tom Griffiths and Michael Rowlands, Studio Directors at ASPECT Studios in Perth, explain how their locally honed techniques for designing dry have global applications.

It is a testament to the tenacity of life that the Earth’s dry landscapes are home to millions of people and countless plant and animal species. But the already challenging business of getting by in arid places will only become more difficult as the changing climate expands deserts, intensifies heat, and makes water even more precious.

ASPECT Studios regularly encounters these challenges through our teams in Perth and Dubai. Both studios design for some of the driest places in Australia and the Middle East – often in collaboration with one another. The lessons we have learnt working in these regions, and by sharing knowledge between the two studios, will have increasing relevance to the growing populations living in drylands – currently 40 percent of people in Asia and Africa, and 25 to 30 percent of the entire global population.

While dry and remote landscapes are some of the most extreme places to live, they are nevertheless home to delicate ecosystems that support rich and varied cultures. Their survival depends on innovation, ingenuity, and a deep sensitivity to the earth's systems. By working across some of these extremes, we have continued to expand our understanding of and approach to dry climate landscapes, realising that success for the people and environment – simply looks different.

Ghadan LSP Waterplay Aerial
Foreshore Park Water Play – Middle East
A different life in a dry place
Climactic challenges are at the fore of designing arid landscapes. Public spaces must function differently to reduce heat, and the if you are helming such a project, you must:

— Develop a strong appreciation of the existing and future climatic conditions and structure your project around changing conditions with climate resilient and biodiverse landscapes.

— Understand how changing climatic conditions will impact the natural systems you design and restore, rewild and reconnect fragmented ecosystems.

— Extend the useable hours of a space in the cooler hours of the morning or evening with strategically placed shade, water bodies and planting. In summer, searing heat will mean a park in Saudi Arabia or Karlgoorlie will be used at different times of the day than a counterpart in Shanghai or Melbourne.

— Develop this thinking by recognising that cultural traditions and patterns of daily life in arid climates are time-honed adaptions to the extreme heat: communities in the Middle East favour recreational and social activity in the late evenings to avoid the heat of the day.

— Take a pragmatic approach to shading: not all areas need to be shaded all the time. By studying patterns of use, we can create a bespoke approach to thermal comfort that is cost-effective and realistic.

— Often past planning and development has taken a brute-force approach to “defeating” the heat – how can you build and expand on existing or lost natural systems?

— Lastly, you must develop a comprehensive range of responses to climate mitigation that extend into what we know will be a more extreme future. This could include using high albedo surfaces to reduce embodied heat.
Site visit at Murujuga Tourism Precinct
IMG 1170
Site visit at Wadi Tayyib Al Ism, Saudi Arabia
Reading the landscape
Whether we are working in Australia’s dry interior, or in a desert in the Middle East, we have become familiar with designing for dry environments with low levels of surrounding development. The scale of these projects demands a distinct perspective to appreciate the scale of the opportunities they present. For one, working at a vast scale affords the chance to connect and rehabilitate major landscape systems.

To achieve this, we have learnt to consider the complex ecological relationships that underpin dry environments – it is all too easy to misconceive such places as devoid of value, or as “empty” space. Careful examination can reveal a complex web of life beneath the surface. In the Middle East, our clients are increasingly embracing the distinct qualities of these landscapes, and projects are shifting toward lighter interventions and sensitive designs that reveal rather than exploit the natural environment. Often this is achieved through precise insertions, rather than large scale footprints.
Kal Sketches
Cultural narrative / site appreciation — Megan Salom

Detailed mapping is required to understand this complexity, and to perform the essential role of a landscape architect – to reveal and enhance the landscape. This embodies the “Design with Nature” approach first described by 20th century landscape architect Ian McHarg. McHarg said that the way we occupy and modify the landscape is at its best when it is planned and designed with careful regard to both the ecology and character of the landscape.

In this way, he argued that our cities, industries, and farms could avoid major natural hazards and become acts of profound regeneration. At a deeper level, McHarg believed that by living with, rather than against, the powerful forces of the landscape, communities would gain a stronger sense of place and identity.

This process therefore involves mapping both environmental and cultural values and identifying the confluences between them. Carefully reading the landscape in this way is the prerequisite for good outcomes.

Ghadan Plaza
Foreshore Park Water Play – Middle East
Careful listening
If detailed mapping reveals the complexity of the landscape, then the knowledge held by indigenous communities is a complementary process that can reveal the intangible value and culture of the landscape. Ancient knowledge of the landscape and the cultural practices that stem from it provide detailed insights that can only be understood by building relationships and sharing stories.

Our experience has shown that listening reveals new ways of seeing and understanding the landscape. In one sense, working with Traditional Owners in Australia adds another, multi-dimensional layer of mapping – one that is fundamentally outside the monoliths of Western thinking and conventional science. A project in northern Western Australia, for example, could not be understood and approached through a conventional planning paradigm. It contains sensitive cultural sites, with deep and complex spiritual significance to the Aboriginal people of that land. It is only through deep listening and ongoing dialogue with Aboriginal Elders that the intangible qualities of the landscape are revealed and can be sensitively integrated into the project.

The application of this process is not limited to Australia. The extreme nature of dry landscapes often means that communities develop particular and intense relationships with the landscape. Those relationships can in turn inform the design of projects that enhance and what is lying beneath the surface.
Kal City Centre with IPH Architects
Designing for the future
It is unfortunate that, soon, more places will deal with the challenges faced by arid environments. The question now is not only one of mitigation, but of adaptation. By working in arid places, we are incubating ways of designing that will have a wider application across the globe, helping communities adapt to changing climatic conditions.