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Housing Typologies in Saudi Arabia

“We have our own factors, values and principles as the Saudi society and we try to make progress according to our own needs.” – Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has seen vast changes between its past and present in various aspects of life. The improved economy, government policies, and communication have positively impacted the residents’ lifestyle. The most notable is the continuous support that the country has provided to its residents through various housing programs. This is why housing in Saudi Arabia is turning out to offer such great in-house real-estate opportunities for the nationals.

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Located in the south-west corner of Asia, this land is home to various communities from all walks of life, so from villas to duplexes to palaces, you’ll find a variety of residential building genres. Out of the total 28.7 million population, 20 million are Saudis while the other 8 million are foreign settlers. With such an integrated community, Saudi Arabia has become an archipelago of various architectural and design thoughts. This definitely reflects in their housing typologies. There are some indigenous qualities that will forever remain a part of housing in Saudi Arabia, to preserve cultural heritage and Islamic/Arab values. However, the vibrant young population is embracing change as well.

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As the beloved Crown Prince MBS so aptly put, the country has their own factors, values and principles and they’ve been making progress according to their own needs. However, MBS’s initiation of the Vision 2030 program is one of the most forward strategies the country has ever seen. Introduced in 2016, this plan focuses on reforming Saudi economy by veering it towards a more “diversified structure” that includes non-oil revenues, and more importantly, sustainable development.

While in general, the different styles of traditional housing in Saudi Arabia is impacted by climate changes and regional variations, these days some external and internal influences affect them as well. These include the social hierarchy and traditions. To understand the current housing typologies in Saudi, let’s first take a look at what MBS’s Vision 2030 has to offer to the real-estate market. Here are some important facts to know:

  • Under Vision 2030 & National Transformation Program, housing is the biggest area of expenditure with over SR5 billion committed to the cause.
  • Significant amounts of funds have been allocated for developing residential and community areas in Jubail, Yanbu and Ras Al Khair. This will drastically improve real-estate opportunities and notably housing in Saudi Arabia.
  • The ministry aims to give citizens ownership of properties to improve the real estate sector.
  • Presently, 46 projects are underway to provide 13,793 housing units in the kingdom – 9 of which have already been delivered in Riyadh, Makkah, Sharkiyah, Qasim, Jawf and Baha.
  • One can expect to see an increased development in the real-estate market development in all major cities exponentially – Riyadh: 50%, Jeddah: 43% and Makkah: 43%.
  • The most highly sought-after property types are actually 4+ bedroom villas and 3+ bedroom apartments.

With these facts, we can conclude that Saudi Arabia is an up-and-coming real estate investment platform for all local and international companies – which brings us back to the housing typologies and their subsequent designs.

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Housing in Saudi Arabia has been perpetually transforming, as the evolution of contemporary needs always results in modifications. Here are a few fun facts to understand the housing circumstances:

  • Large Arab families tend to require larger houses.
  • Affluent families like to reside in large villas.
  • The middle-class tends to live in large apartments.
  • The poorer residents tend to live in small houses and smaller apartments in the shabbier neighborhoods that aren’t as well maintained.
  • Generally, the indigenous population of KSA (especially the middle and lower class families) are given low-cost loans for long span installments. This loan is even tapered off in some states for the poorer families if they aren’t repaid within a particular time limit.

Saudi architectural heritage

Like everywhere else in the world, housing in Saudi Arabia is entrenched in the country’s heritage. The area of Arabia has a human history that extends as far as 20,000 years. Many of its houses and monuments were built with a variety of materials. The main materials used were stone, wood, and mud. All buildings were built with mud and wood (mainly palm wood) except for the Western and Southern areas of Saudi Arabia, where mountains made stone the material of choice.

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Vernacular architecture of the Hejaz or Western Region, Saudi Arabia relies upon the use of locally sourced coral stone, volcanic stone, clay, palm wood, and other materials.

Unfortunately, like most countries in the world, much of this country’s housing heritage was sacrificed for the use of concrete from the 1970s on. New ways of construction led to the erection of skyscrapers and air-conditioned concrete villas, which left traditional mud houses abandoned and deteriorated – though they still exist in some parts of the country. Moreover, religious factors and Wahhabi intolerance played an additional role in the destruction of other architectural heritage.

This rapid destruction and development led in the past decades to nostalgia for the past traditional design. Housing in Saudi Arabia was very much affected by this phenomenon. New properties were built in the traditional style using recent building techniques and materials like concrete. This also led the government to preserve many of the royal monuments (mainly royal palaces and fortresses) and villages that are now recovered and open to the public in efforts of developing tourism.

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Culture in Saudi housing design

Islam is a very essential part of the Saudi Arabian Culture and thus has a huge effect on house designs. So how do these beliefs apply to Saudi house designs, making them unique and different from any other house design you’ve ever experienced?

The Islamic religion is family oriented, and this is why 60% of the land footprint is used for the house infrastructure while the other 40% is left for the gardens and courtyard which is an essential and traditional part of housing in Saudi Arabia. Houses are usually 2.5 floors, where part of the ground floor is reserved for the guests, and the rest of the floors are reserved for the family. The highest floor normally has a, often used for family gatherings and for Iftar during the holy month of Ramadan

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Different types of housing in Saudi Arabia

It’s important to note that the KSA is going through some extensive restructuring in the light of Vision 2030, so you can bet that the residential sector is going to have a new identity through all the redevelopment on the residential sector in the kingdom. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the existing housing typologies in Saudi Arabia:

1. Rooftop apartment complexes

First of all, you should note that all indigenous units of housing in Saudi Arabia – whether single-family houses or apartment complexes – have great urban planning. They are located in well-planned neighborhoods with public gardens, government service buildings, market zones, sports complexes, and mosques.

The trend of rooftop apartments in Saudi Arabia started with the influx of foreigners who wanted to have an outdoor space of their own, given the cultural privacy of the Kingdom. Since it could be difficult for them to own houses, these rooftop apartment complexes in nice neighborhoods seem like the best housing option for them.

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2. Penthouse Villas

Penthouse villas are an alternative living choice for Saudi nationals who cannot really afford an actual villa but are still looking for a residence with more than 3 bedrooms. This type of housing in Saudi Arabia is usually located at the top of a building, which usually features 2 penthouse villas. They can be either rented or bought by the nationals.

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3. Independent villas

This is an individual housing unit type usually used by a family that wants to accommodate up to three generations. They’re usually constructed on a 2,000 square meter of land and the inside is designed to accommodate family members from all walks of life. Saudis value togetherness, but the culture also respects privacy. The villa usually features a very private design with 3-meter high exterior walls that keep the villa façade from showing too much. You’ll find a small niche for cool water on the exterior of the wall built for thirsty passersby. These exterior walls are an integral part of the culture, not only demarcating the boundary of the property but also ensuring the privacy of the family.

This type of villa is extremely expensive, even for the nationals. The inside of these villas are built in the majlis style, which is the traditional style of housing in Saudi Arabia. It includes a guest reception area for men that is usually separate from the rest of the home to ensure women can maintain their privacy. Villas also have expansive gardens, courtyards and patios with landscaping.

You would usually find an additional room for the driver in Saudi homes, but due to recent laws that allow women to drive, this room might not be necessary anymore.

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4. Detached Duplex

Such types of houses are relatively newer in the kingdom, and seem like a smaller version of the villa. The land size of these units is usually 300 sqm and they are definitely the more affordable housing typology. They typically consist of two units with a dead-wall between them. They also have a boundary wall for privacy purposes, which has become a major part of the Arab and Islamic cultures. These duplexes are also designed according to the traditional majlis style housing with separate entrances for men and women.

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5. Palaces

Saudi royalty and capital owners like to spend their wealth on lavish residences that liken to actual palaces. Palaces are usually found in the capital city of Riyadh and are constructed on a land size of about 5000 sqm or more and are the most extravagant type of housing in Saudi Arabia.

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6. Compounds

Lastly, we have the ‘compound’ housing typology. These are designed in a more way for foreign workers. The last few years have seen a sudden influx of foreign workers in the kingdom, and steps have been taken to ensure that they feel as comfortable as possible in their provided accommodations. Since these residences had to be built quickly, they feature a rather apartment-like design. Their westernized features have been crafted to make the residents feel at ease.

Compound units are available in 1-4 bedroom layouts and the rent starts from around SR 50K per year. They’re more like a cluster of buildings with a shared purpose, like a fenced private estate. You should also note that some compounds are larger than the others, and the residents keep changing because of expatriate dispatches. Such type of housing in Saudi Arabia is designed to assimilate the foreigners, so they have lots of in-house western facilities.

A typical compound usually consists of a number of facilities including a mini market, a gym, outdoor areas, swimming pools, community halls and even a restaurant.

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These were the most commonly found modern residential typologies of housing in Saudi Arabia. However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is predominantly a desert area, and as such there are some areas that still follow the vernacular ‘Najd’ style of architecture.

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Najd style architecture

This zone comprises the middle of the kingdom. The climatic conditions of the Najd area are quite hot and dry, which has defined the architecture of this area. The average residents of this area are usually travelers and farmers. There is no posh urban cityscape, so the buildings are definitely more traditional.

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This type of housing in Saudi Arabia is especially vernacular, and sometimes even make-shift. Since the travelers usually move around along the desert in search of water, their homes can be tents. The tents are divided into 3 sections – the men’s part called the Al-Rabba’a, the women section is called the Muhramm and the third section is used for cooking.

As for the farmers and herdsmen, they live in a rather tribal setting and use local materials like wood or mud for construction of their homes. These houses feature a central courtyard with peripheral rooms and a simple exterior that ensures privacy of the residents.

Architecture in Saudi Arabia tells the story of its culture and tradition. Although, due to the foreign import into the country, most of the housing in Saudi Arabia has evolved to embrace the contemporary culture, at its heart the tradition of privacy and familial belonging stays true.

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At the end of the day, the hidden beauty behind the high exterior walls is lush and riveting. The unique design concepts and the merging of modern concepts with tradition has resulted in a unique aesthetic. You can definitely say that the land use provides the perfect snapshot of the local history and the socio-economic status of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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