The discovery of oil in the Middle East’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries brought about significant changes in their housing stocks, leading to a shift from traditional, environmentally-friendly architecture to energy-intensive Western designs, according to a new report. The result is that four out of six Gulf countries now rank among the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters on a per-person basis.
The GCC countries, situated in an extremely hot and arid region, face unique challenges in terms of climate and access to water. As leaders convene in Dubai for international climate talks, a Ph.D. candidate in NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Program, Sahin Akin, has published research that sheds light on how the abundance of oil wealth has impacted residential buildings in the region.
Residential buildings worldwide account for 21% of global energy use and contribute to 30% of the global carbon footprint for materials production. Akin and his team sought to understand the energy and materials use associated with different housing types, with the goal of informing policymakers and lowering greenhouse gas emissions in each country.
To conduct their study, the researchers developed average housing unit types, or “archetypes,” which represented different categories of residential buildings. They created a total of 153 simulation models, consolidating them into six distinctive housing types that are representative of the region.
Prior to the discovery of oil, traditional housing constructed using indigenous techniques and local materials such as mud, adobe, and wood were prevalent in the Gulf countries. These structures were praised for their low environmental impact, as they were built to cool naturally without relying on air-conditioning and did not require the importation of building materials.
However, the influx of oil wealth led to rapid urbanization and the construction of a housing type known as villas. These villas, which often comprised two or three floors with separate entrances for men and women in line with Islamic practice, quickly became dominant in the housing stocks of the region. Despite making up just 22% of the total number of units, villas accounted for more than half of the total floor area. They were characterized by their spaciousness, averaging 62 m2 per person, nearly double the global average of 32 m2 per person.
Unfortunately, villas tend to be energy-intensive. Akin’s analysis showed that more populous countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE exhibited high total energy use, while smaller countries with higher GDP per capita such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain had higher energy use per capita. This trend could be attributed to the prevalence of villas, which consume more energy compared to other housing types.
The rise in oil wealth also led to a surge in population in the region, increasing from 7.7 million in 1970 to 59.5 million in 2022, with expectations of reaching 73.4 million by 2050. The availability of resources and improved healthcare resulted in higher survival rates for children, contributing to population growth. Additionally, the influx of immigrants seeking employment opportunities further fueled the population expansion. While villas often accommodated household help, such as housemaids and childcare providers, many expatriates resided in apartments or condominiums.
Interestingly, Akin’s research found that Oman, despite having a relatively high percentage of villas, had lower energy use per capita compared to other Gulf countries. This difference may be attributed to Oman’s adherence to cultural habits that promote sustainable Islamic architecture. Building regulations in Oman mandate that structures be white in color, which effectively reflects the sun’s rays and reduces solar heating.
In contrast, Bahrain, the smallest and least populous country in the region, displayed higher per capita energy use than the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. Factors such as lifestyle, climate, and building design likely contribute to this disparity.
Akin highlighted the significant role that concrete plays in the region’s building stocks. Concrete, particularly its main component, cement, has an enormous carbon footprint, contributing nearly three times as much to global warming as air transport. Structures in the Gulf countries are predominantly constructed using concrete, and even traditional housing styles have increasingly embraced this material due to its affordability and ease of use.
Concrete structures in the region often lack insulation, leading to increased energy consumption as residents rely heavily on air-conditioning to maintain comfortable temperatures. Akin emphasized the importance of traditional houses built with local materials, as they have lower carbon emissions and are designed to efficiently cool in hot climates.
Akin and his colleagues hope their research will help countries in the region identify opportunities to reduce emissions and develop resource-efficient construction practices. Given the hot and sunny climate of the Gulf region, there is significant potential for renewable energy sources such as thermal solar, photovoltaic solar, and geothermal energy.
To address the climate challenges of the future, Akin recommends a comprehensive understanding of each country’s current situation and developing targeted scenarios for various building typologies, such as villas, apartments, or high-rise buildings. As the ratio among building stocks shifts in the Gulf countries, country-specific studies are crucial in formulating effective strategies to mitigate the environmental impact of the built environment.