Arid Lands Newsletter No. 47, May 2000
Desert Architecture for a New Millenium

Selected resources of interest

Annotated by Elaine Cubbins


Profiting from Sunshine - Passive Solar Building in the Mountains: Collection of Papers on National Workshops in China, India, Nepal and Pakistan
edited by N.K. Bansal and Kamal Rijal
International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, 2000. 284 pages, US$20.00. ISBN 92-9115-099-1
G.P.O. Box 3226
Kathmandu, Nepal

In the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) Region, biomass is burned to heat homes during the long cold winters, which has led to wide-spread deforestation and contributed to health problems for local residents, particularly for women and children.

To explore the alternative of passive solar energy for heating in the region, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) organized workshops in China, India, Pakistan and Nepal to develop networking among institutions involved in passive solar building technologies and to share information among workshop participants. This work represents a compilation of the papers presented at those workshops.

Please note that much of this information applies to dry mountains. It may be applied to other mountain and hill regions of the world, and covers both low and high tech materials and applications. The following are selected titles, organized by topic:

  • Overview and synthesis of the national workshops
  • Potential benefits for building with passive solar technologies in mountain regions
    • Availability of solar energy in the HKH region
    • Principles of passive solar building design for cold climates
  • Fundamentals of solar energy and solar radiation
    • Climatology and passive solar building
    • The spectral characteristics of global radiation and surface albedo on the Northern Tibetan plateau
  • Passive solar technologies
    • Passive solar building construction at high latitudes
    • Natural cooling, heat insulation and improved wall materials for solar buildings Designing passive solar buildings for mountain regions
    • Thermal simulation for energy conservation: case studies of CPWD buildings in high altitude regions
    • Retrofitting traditional buildings by passive solar concepts in Jumia and Solukhumbu
  • Building materials for mountain and hill regions
    • Recent developments in materials for solar buildings
    • Appropriate design, construction techniques and building materials for thermal efficiency of buildings
  • Application and design of passive solar systems
    • Design of a solar heating system for a house in a model village in the HKH range
    • Energy efficient and environmentally sustainable designing of school building in northern areas Pakistan
  • Issues for the future

The book includes a list of acronyms, index, climatic parameters in the HKH region, and charts, graphs, maps and elaborate technical illustrations.

Sustainable Design: A Planbook for Sonoran Desert Dwellings
Edited by Eileen Alduenda, David Confer, John Laswick, Martin Yoklic, and Charles Alexander.
Tucson Institute for Sustainable Communities, 1999. 111 p. US$12.95, ISBN 0-9670011-0-2
Tucson Institute for Sustainable Communities
481 W. Paseo Redondo
P.O. Box 27210
Tucson, AZ 85726

The Tucson Institute for Sustainable Communities originated in 1991 to work with government, community and citizens groups to develop the Civano planned solar community in Tucson, Arizona. The Institute's mission is to work "with communities to become resource efficient, ecological, affordable, and equitable," and it accomplishes this through workshops, publications, presentations, and cooperative efforts. Its current publication, aimed at homeowners and homebuyers, seeks to broaden the concept of housing to focus on the residential site as "a geological, biological and agricultural whole."

The book's first section introduces sustainable design and its development through the Civano model community, and examines why so few dwellings conform to the six principles of sustainable design:

  • Mimic natural settings (everything related and connected without waste)
  • Simplify (thoughtful and elegant)
  • Reveal multiple functions (the value of a single element increases with multiple functions)
  • Evaluate true costs (life-cycle of materials; initial high building costs vs. later low operating costs)
  • Strengthen beneficial connections (connect to the community's history, economy and environment)
  • Strive for balance (according to environmental, economical and social values)

Using four Civano dwellings and five existing homes in the Tucson area as examples, section two shows the incorporation of sustainable design in residences, and highlights how such design enhances energy efficiency for the homeowner. Each example includes a site tour with photographs; a summary table of the Performance Requirements, the site's analysis results and how these are achieved; and how each site exemplifies the six principles of sustainable design. Houses are of many different floor plans and sizes, include those built to the principles' specifications and those redesigned to meet them.

The third section provides suggestions and resources for sustainable design of new homes and redesign of existing structures. Suggestions vary from watching the site and the path of the sun during the day, the flow of water and wind, evaluation of the site according to the six principles, and engaging the community in discussion and resource sharing.

The book is a pleasant blend of ivory, terra cotta and black-and-white. Photographs, illustrations, site maps and house plans, charts, highlighted boxes, and poetry make new concepts and technology easily accessible to the layperson and to the experienced builder. The resource section includes other books and Tucson organizations involved in sustainable design.

Although this work is specifically for the Tucson area, the concepts and suggestions presented herein may be applied across all regions, and by all peoples who are interested in applying sustainable design principles to their own living environments.

Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery
By Mary C. Comerio
University of California Press, 1998. 300 pages. US$39.95
ISBN 0-520-20780-7
University of California Press
Email: (from North and South America, Asia, Australia (from Europe, Africa, Middle East)

The author, professor and Vice-Chair at University of California, Berkeley's Department of Agriculture, is internationally recognized as an expert on post-disaster reconstruction issues. Her book examines how disaster financing operates, particularly for housing lost to recent earthquakes and hurricanes in the U.S., Mexico and Japan. She predicts that increased growth and development in disaster-prone areas will continue contributing to significant destruction, and that responses to disasters will be highly political due to international media coverage.

The phase of post-disaster relief known as the recovery phase is little researched according to the author, but consistent patterns do emerge in all countries for recovery activities, with the primary difference being where assistance funds originate. In developing nations, funds usually come from international governmental aid and charity groups, while in developed countries, aid comes from national and other governmental treasuries, insurance and private borrowing. Comerio states that governments should incorporate the following alternatives into their disaster plans:

  • Build structures resistant to local disaster events
  • Develop contingent sheltering programs
  • Understand how political and institutional opportunities contribute or hinder disaster recovery
  • Understand the housing market and demographics in a disaster-prone area to enhance mitigation and recovery

Recovery (anything after the first 72 hours of a disaster) in the U.S. needs to be rethought, according to Comerio. She suggests:

  • Offer tax incentives and insurance discounts for those who mitigate potential damage to their homes
  • Target federal funds for public rebuilding and low-income rebuilding, and private assistance for the general populace
  • Government and the insurance industry should cooperate to research and analyze data for improved hazard estimation, underwriting, and insurance products and services

The book includes photographs, illustrations, charts, graphs and maps, annotated notes, references and an index. The book is aimed toward governmental policy-makers, insurance professionals, and anyone interested in disaster recovery and mitigation of property.

The Adobe Story: A Global Treasure
By Paul G. McHenry, Jr.
American Association for International Aging, 1996. 124 pages. US$18.95.
[Reissued by University of New Mexico Press, 2000]
Order from:
University of New Mexico Press
Order Department
3721 Spirit Drive SE
Albuquerque, NM 87106-5631

Current estimates are that over half the world's population lives in earthen structures. Adobe is used worldwide for building purposes and in multiple forms, including adobe bricks, rammed earth, underground housing, and jacal (mud spread over a wood and brush frame). Although some people may think of adobe in terms of opulent haciendas with arched doorways and deeply set windows, others link adobe to obsolete technology and poverty. This is unfortunate according to the author.

This non-technical work is largely a visual celebration of adobe, taking the reader on an international tour through black-and-white photographs of South and North America, the Middle East, and Europe. As McHenry's photos show, adobe buildings range from sturdy one-room dwellings to elaborate palaces with arches, barrel vaults, domes and towers.

The easily readable text explores this versatile sustainable building material through thousands of years, and discusses some of the building methods and styles being used today. McHenry examines how earth has been used as a building material in dry and humid climates, as each necessitates different building styles. While he acknowledges that there are stronger and longer-lasting building materials, he emphasizes that their higher costs in production and transportation of materials, their impact on the environment, and their expense to the consumer, often keep these materials out of the reach of many peoples. Adobe, McHenry states, is labor intensive, but often the materials are free, lying beneath our feet. He considers experienced adobe builders to be artists, able to build beauty, serenity and quiet strength into their buildings.

This is a good choice for a library looking for a general pictorial treatment of adobe around the world. It includes a list of the illustrations and suggested readings, and a foreword by Dr. Helen K. Kerschner, Director of the University of New Mexico Center on Aging and Executive Director of the American Association for International Aging (AAIA).

Good Practices in Drylands Management
By Ragnar Oygard, Trond Vedeld and Jens Aune
World Bank, October 1999. 116 pages.
Order from:
Agricultural University of Norway
P.O. Box 5001
N-1432 Ås
The publication itself is also available online, either as a series of HTML documents or as a 1.2 Mb PDF file, at /49cce26c9e0c8530852568fe00695cb0?OpenDocument

The management of arid and semi-arid lands is often a defensive approach to mitigate the effects and progression of desertification. This work documents a study that examined "good policies and practices" of management that proactively increase the productivity of drylands. The study's purpose was to synthesize and analyze the experiences of the World Bank and other agencies involved in the management of arid lands. Africa was the dominant area of study.

One of the conclusions coming out of this work was that humans affect the perpetuation of desertification much less than what previously was believed. Drylands vegetation is often affected more by long-term fluctuations in rainfall than by human interaction, and local populations "have developed well-adapted and efficient resource management and utilization practices."

"Participation by drylands communities is crucial to impoved drylands management. If policies and practices of governments and donors are to succeed, they must be based on the knowledge, aspirations, desires, priorities, and decisions of the people living there. These communities have strong interesst in the preservation of the resources that provide for their survival, but they are often constrained by inappropriate government or donor policies."

The study focused on five topic areas:

  • Pastoral resources management
  • Improving dryland farming practices
  • Community-based resource management
  • Drought preparedness and drought mitigation
  • Utilizing indigenous knowledge

The study's results emphasized the necessity for inclusion of local communities and marginalized groups in the development of knowledge bases and practices, in authority and responsibility, and in policy-making and government. Some of the practical solutions that were determined to be essential for successful drylands management are:

  • developing and providing veterinary care and dry season water for herds
  • using organic materials in farming
  • addressing land degradation from the perspective of the local landholders, and setting aside reserves for times of drought
  • strengthening indigenous coping strategies

The book contains an extensive references section.

[The following review was submitted by ALN reader Sarah Delle Hultmark. You can reach her for comment by email at (]

Rangeland Desertification
O. Arnalds & S. Archer, eds.
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-7923-6071-0, 224 pp.
Hardcover US$95.00
Order from:

RALA Report 2000, Case Studies of Rangeland Desertification. Proceedings from an International Workshop in Iceland
$25.00 (plus $13.00 postage)
Order from:
Agricultural Research Institute
112 Reykjavik
Or download any sections of the proceedings volume from the web at:

In a short review I can only paraphrase the words of the editors: "the first volume focuses on concepts and principles. It provides an evaluation of thresholds and non-linear change with respect to vegetation, hydrology, nutrients and erosion. It examines socio-economic constraints and approaches for preventing and reversing degradation." The papers are all well written, fully referenced (the references are almost worth the price of the book), and some are sufficiently compelling to shake a few paradigms. As a Middle Eastern specialist I found Narjisse's paper a particularly accurate and compelling description of the double bind/vicious circle that is third world desertification and poverty.

The second volume is a compilation of case studies. In this volume, the paper by Thadis Box offers a vision of future deserts that is far more optimistic than the views of present deserts. But many of these scientists are working with native plants in restoration efforts. There are some wonderful plant lists, particularly the descriptions of Argentina"s grasslands. Let us hope that the next RALA Conference will report the successful results of these projects.

A respect for the natural desert suffuses most of the papers in both books. It is a joy to read them.

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents