Traditional House Typologies Revived.
A Case Study in Sabzevar, Iran

Karin Raith, Hassan Estaji

11th - 13th July 2017
Silk Cities 2017 International Conference
University College London, London



In Sabzevar, Iran, many culturally valuable urban buildings were demolished in the last decades, due to the rapid economic and physical growth of the city as well as the profound social changes. As real estate prices continue to rise, the density in inner city areas also increases, putting pressure on the historic urban fabric of low-rise courtyard houses. Moreover, the traditional way of living in large families has been gradually replaced by life in small households that cannot afford the spacious old-style residences any more. Thus, it seems that the evolution of autochthonous house types has ended and that in the future only apartment buildings will be constructed that conform to global standard schemes.


An analysis of fourteen listed residential buildings in Sabzevar – of which some have been demolished in the meantime despite being under heritage protection – revealed their qualities in terms of perfect adaptation to the desert climate and to the social requirements at the time of their construction. The less the influences from Western architecture on their spatial conception and design, the higher was the efficiency of temperature management, i.e. the oldest houses provided the best thermal comfort. Nowadays, electric air-conditioning is preferred to traditional principles of coping with the harsh climate. The habit of moving to different rooms within the courtyard houses depending on the season and the time of the day has been abandoned; people nowadays live in compact flats conforming to Western models.


The potential of the listed buildings to be adapted to changing family sizes and alternating uses was investigated as well; the analyses revealed a remarkable degree of flexibility. This flexibility would have allowed for the old courtyard houses to serve contemporary purposes of both living and working, but in many cases the prospect of financial profit through rebuilding the plot outweighed the appreciation of traditional architecture and its cultural significance.


While cultural heritage is carelessly dismissed in favor of progress, the loss of local identity is being mourned. The paper points to the fact that traditional house typologies offer surprising options of being transformed, typologically evolved and applied to new urban developments. Of course, most of the old houses, delicately maintained, would meet contemporary comfort requirements, but there are also strong arguments for a continued use and refinement of particular traditional house typologies:

  • As fossil fuel becomes more expensive, it makes sense to benefit from the principles of energy-saving architecture that have been developed over generations.
  • As cities lose their cultural identity, a re-interpretation of traditional typologies by use of advanced construction methods and contemporary design vocabulary is able to enhance the local character.
  • As the pace of social change increases, residential architecture which offers the benefits of traditional house types – neutral spaces that can be rearranged with minimal interventions – provides the best options for an adaptation to new lifestyles.