The heritage houses in Dubai (and other places around the Emirates) follow a standard pattern – although it’s worth remembering that these elaborate stone mansions were far from typical of the living arrangements enjoyed by the population at large, most of whom lived in simple and impermanent palm-thatch huts. Virtually all traditional houses are built around a central courtyard (housh) and veranda (liwan). These provided families with their main living area, and a place where they could cook, play and graze a few animals in complete privacy; some also had a well and a couple of trees. Exterior walls are usually plain and largely windowless in order to protect privacy. Rooms are arranged around the courtyard, the most important being the majlis (meeting room), in which the family would receive guests and exchange news (larger houses would have separate majlis for men and women). More elaborate houses would also boast one or more wind towers.
Traditional houses make ingenious use of locally available natural materials. Most coastal houses were constructed using big chunks of coral stone, or fesht (look closely and you can make out the delicate outlines of submarine sponges, corals and suchlike on many of the stones). The stones were cemented together using layers of pounded gypsum, while walls were strengthened by the insertion of mangrove poles bound with rope. Mangrove wood was also used as a roofing material along with (in more elaborate houses) planks of Indian teak. Away from the coast, coral was replaced by bricks made from a mixture of mud and straw, or adobe (a word deriving from the Arabic al tob, meaning “mud”).
Local architecture is remarkably well adapted to provide shelter from the Gulf’s scorching summer temperatures: walls were built thick and windows small to keep out the heat, while both coral and adode have excellent natural insulating properties. Houses were also built close to one another, partly for security, and also to provide shade in the narrow alleyways between. And although most houses look austere, the overall effect of plainness is relieved by richly carved wooden doors and veranda screens, and by floral and geometrical designs around windows, doorways and arches, fashioned from gypsum and coloured with charcoal powder.