Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
Building a home in the Southwest’s desert climate needs to be tailored to repel the heat and withstand the arid atmosphere year-round. This all starts with selecting the best building materials for the region because hot and dry air may sound like it is easy to deal with, but these conditions can stress home as the years go by.
The best building materials for a desert climate should be made of thick and durable structures to repel the high exterior temperatures. Additionally, lighter color schemes such as beige and grey and sturdy interior insulation are recommended to reflect and trap heat before it reaches the interior.
These are just a few of the recommended building materials to withstand the dry heat of a desert region. This article will take an in-depth look at nine of the best materials to utilize for desert-building to provide the best style and interior comfort for homes in the Southwest.
Before we dive into the best materials, take a look at this video that explains what a homeowner should keep in mind when building a house in a desert environment:
Insulation is probably the most important building material to utilize when building a home in the desert. Temperatures in the Southwest can reach triple digits during the summer months; when you add in the air’s dryness, it can feel like stepping outside into an oven.
Throughout the day in desert environments, dry heat has a building effect that rises towards the middle of the day and then crashes down onto a structure in the early evening hours.
Proper insulation can help to trap some of this heat in the following ways:
Inhibits Heat Transfer
Most desert environments see brilliant displays of sunshine throughout the year, but the summer months are the strongest in terms of temperature and UV rays. As the sun beats down on the roof and exterior walls of a home, the temperature can easily seep into the house and make it difficult for even air-conditioners to keep up with. Insulation can trap this heat and force it back out.
Since a desert climate doesn’t typically see large amounts of moisture form, the condensation reduction of normal insulation is reduced, causing a gain in the heat transfer process. This means that insulation in the desert doubles the heat transfer process due to the thickness of the hot air.
Drives Down Energy Costs
If a home is not properly insulated in the desert, waves of dry heat can quickly transfer through the roof and walls. Air-conditioners or evaporative coolers will then have to work harder to fight against the onslaught of heat, which has a thicker consistency than humid heat. Insulation can help reduce the need to power your cooling systems at all hours of the day.
Helps Reduce House Fires
House fires are easier to ignite in areas with dry heat like the desert. This is because the air lacks adequate moisture. Insulation can reduce the power of a house fire by a substantial margin.
You will want to take every opportunity you can to reduce the desert’s high temperatures from entering your home. Insulation is an easy way to ensure the scorching outside temperatures are blocked and repelled as much as possible.
If you live in the Southwest or have ever visited, you have probably noticed a majority of homes that feature adobe as the primary external building material. This is a signature look of the Southwest, but it is used for an excellent reason: the adobe conducts heat transfer slowly.
A desert environment can be scorching hot during the day and somewhat chilly at night; the adobe can transfer the daily heat to release overnight for interior comfort.
Adobe is a great building material for desert homes in the following ways:
Limits Water Absorption
This may sound like no big deal considering rainfall is scarce in desert climates, but when it does rain in the desert, the shock of large amounts of precipitation to normally dry structures can be dramatic. Adobe is made of clay, which is molded with water and then baked in the sun; this counteracts additional water absorption, limiting cracking.
Creates a Thick Wall Barrier
Adobe is incredibly versatile and can be molded to reflect the desired thickness at the homeowner’s discretion. Suppose you are in a desert region where triple-digit temperatures are typical.
In that case, the adobe can be applied thick to create a massive barrier between the outside heat and the interior of the home, causing the outdoor heat to stall during the transfer process and repel back outdoors.
Lowers Energy Costs
As previously mentioned, cooling a home in the desert can be costly without adequate building materials to help drive down the cost. Adobe’s ability to repel outside heat slowly to make indoor temperatures cooler during the day and warmer at night reduces the need for constant cooling and heating appliances.
Adobe makes sense in desert climates both as a long-lasting alternative and an easy way to ensure that fluctuating desert temperatures are regulated without the excessive need for appliances.
Most desert climates are located in major Southwest cities that feature a high altitude; higher altitudes mean that UV rays are stronger in these areas compared to lower altitudes. Solar panels are entirely optional but represent a great way to switch to alternative energy sources that can thrive in the consistently sunny desert regions of the United States.
Solar panels function best in a desert environment and can offer your desert home a way to utilize the sun.
Let’s take a look at how solar panels can be a wise building material for desert environments:
- Solar panels lower energy costs. To pay zero in electricity costs, you would need to install a lot of solar panels–but even with just a few solar panels, you can experience a drastic reduction in your electricity bill.
- Solar panels can increase the value of your home. If you ever consider selling your home, many homeowners in the Southwest will be attracted to the cost-saving benefits of purchasing a home with solar panels.
Solar panels are a smart and efficient building material to consider for the desert. You will be helping the environment by using solar panels, but these materials can also keep more money in your pocket over the long term.
The paint you use on your home in the desert can go a long way in helping to repel the high temperatures of the desert. Heat and UV radiation are the two significant factors in home construction in the desert; therefore, you will want to utilize any material that can help keep the heat out of your home.
When living in the desert, the lighter the color, the better this will perform in repelling the scorching daytime temperatures away from home.
Light-colored paint helps keep a desert home cooler in the following ways:
Have you ever noticed how hot you feel when you wear a dark-colored shirt during the summer? This is because dark colors pull heat in, whereas lighter colors manage to reflect the heat. While thicker building materials are still relevant, a light color of paint, such as white, can bounce off powerful UV rays before the rays have a chance to absorb into the walls.
Fade Less in the Desert Heat
Since darker colors absorb a great deal of the intense UV rays in the desert, they are prone to fade and crack much easier than lighter paint colors that reflect the UV rays. In the desert, UV rays are powerful, which means that chemical components in the paint will break down much faster. A lighter color holds longer since the UV rays are not absorbed.
You can certainly make up for using a darker paint color by utilizing adobe and insulation. Still, a lighter shade of paint can be useful before the desert heat reaches the interior of the walls.
Summers are brutal in the desert–but this doesn’t mean that late-autumn and winter do not occur in the desert. Building materials that can utilize the year-long power of the desert sun are worthwhile investments to consider.
Trombe walls were designed in the 1970s to offer an energy-efficient way to trap daytime heat from the sun to slowly cool the interior of the home during the cold nights.
Trombe walls are smart building materials for desert environments in the following ways:
- Trombe walls trap heat from the sun. A Trombe wall is designed with thick material that sits behind a glass or plastic wall known as glazing. As the sun shines on the wall, heat from the rays is trapped inside the enclosure. Then, it slowly passes into the home through vents at the top of the wall. Since a Trombe wall is meant to face the equator, this gives optimal heat transfer during the winter months.
- Trombe walls can be closed off during the summer. This may sound wonderful during the winter, and horrible during the summer but a Trombe wall only releases the enclosed heat through vents that can easily be closed during the summer.
- Trombe walls can lower heating costs. The outside temperature is lower in the desert during winter, even though the sun loses very little of its power. By enclosing the heat from UV rays and slowly passing it inside during the evening, a Trombe wall can effectively work as a natural heating system for your home.
Trombe walls can be costly to install, but the benefits far outweigh any initial upfront investment.
Heat is only one attribute of a desert climate that can be uncomfortable; the dry air of the desert can also pose problems for the skin over the years. Vinyl windows are excellent window choices from the desert since heat reflection, and airtight construction are the type’s trademarks. They are also durable and require very little maintenance due to the drier conditions found in desert environments.
Vinyl windows are excellent building materials in the desert in the following ways:
- Vinyl windows can withstand intense UV rays better than traditional windows. Vinyl is less prone to sagging and deterioration in the triple-digit desert heat. Modern vinyl windows are typically reinforced with metal and other compounds to withstand the harsh rays of the desert sun.
- Vinyl reflects sunlight. You may have noticed that looking through a vinyl window can reveal a minimal amount of blurring. This is because vinyl works to repel sunlight and only allow a standard amount of light to pass through. This is beneficial if you want to reduce the heat of the inside of your home.
- Vinyl windows are cost-effective and easy to install. Vinyl windows will cost far less than traditional window types due to the easier manufacturing process for vinyl. This window type is also much easier to install due to the conformity of the edges. And the lighter weight of vinyl compared to glass.
Vinyl windows are the best window choice for withstanding the intensity of the desert sun. These windows also require very little maintenance and do not tarnish or crack as easily as other window types–which will come in handy during a sandstorm.
In addition to adobe, you will likely see many homes in the desert made of stone. Stone is incredibly thick and works well to keep exterior heat from the sun from penetrating the exterior of the house. Building a home with stone will cost more than adobe–but the thickness of stone for repelling desert heat cannot be matched.
Stone is an excellent building material in desert climates for the following reasons:
- Stone creates an impenetrable barrier to the outside elements. Heat, dry air, and dust/sand are major environmental factors when living in the desert. Stone creates a barricade from heat, dust, and even rodents that is nearly impossible to breach.
- Stone requires very little maintenance. Stone is a durable material; there isn’t much that can fade or crack stone when used as a building material.
If you can afford the investment, building with stone is smart to withstand the harsh elements of the desert.
When it comes to building a roof in the desert, the sun is the biggest environmental threat to keep in mind. You need a building material to withstand harsh UV radiation, which makes shingles a poor choice for your roof. Clay tiles are standard for homes built in desert climates due to the durability of the material, and the easy relationship clay tile has with sunlight.
Clay tile holds up well in desert environments in the following ways:
- Clay tile can last for decades. As long as the tiles do not loosen and fall to the ground, this type of tile can withstand harsh desert conditions for sixty years and longer.
- Clay tile reflects heat and doesn’t fade as fast as other roofing materials. Clay tile is lighter in color than other roofing materials like shingles. Due to the light color, sunlight does not absorb into the tiles and pass heat through the attic. This type of tile will also resist the sun’s harsh radiation, which can cause fading.
Clay tile makes the most sense when it comes to constructing a roof in the desert. The tiles also make easy pathways for water drainage in the rare instances when rainfall occurs in the desert.
Tile is also a great choice when it comes to flooring for a desert home. You likely already know that the desert produces a lot of dust and sand blown through the wind. With the absence of moisture in the environment, dust and sand are even easier to spread into homes. Tile flooring is easy to sweep and can clean when compared to carpet or wood.
Consider building your floor in a desert home with tile for the following reasons:
- Tile flooring requires little maintenance. Tiled floors can be easily swept daily, which limits the need for a vacuum cleaner. Quick cleanup of sand and dust is a breeze when you have tiled floors.
- Tile floors are cooler in the summer months. When the desert heat is at its hottest, even the slight temperature variation felt when walking across a cool tile floor opposed to the fabric can be refreshing.
Tile floors are an easy choice for desert environments. Tiles are easy to clean and remove dust and sand, and you don’t have to worry about a carpet vacuum clogging all the time.
These nine building materials will make a living in the desert much easier. Remember, you want to prioritize two things when building in the desert:
- Reflecting heat as much as possible
- Reducing energy costs as much as possible
The desert is incredibly hot, and this heat poses the number one environmental factor when it comes to building a home in this environment. Keep these materials in mind when you construct your home.
- Arizona State University: Delving into Deserts
- Semantics Scholar: The Physical and Thermal Properties of Adobe Brick
- New Mexico Tech: Adobe as a building material
- The U.S. Energy Information Administration: Southwestern states have better solar resources and higher solar PV capacity factors
- EnergySage: Are Solar Panels Really Worth It?
- Wikipedia: Trombe walls
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