6 Lessons We Can Learn From Traditional Mediterranean Building Techniques

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By Kate Reggev / Published by Dwell
You don’t have to live in the Mediterranean to learn valuable lessons from the building techniques and architectural designs found there.

Although the Mediterranean lifestyle—including the diet, weather, and architecture—are native to the region that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea, the type of weather found in this area actually occurs throughout the world. It prevails in parts of California, Australia, South Africa, Central Asia, and South America, and the local architectural and construction techniques that were developed for the region’s strong sun, hot summers, and windy winters is applicable in areas across the globe. Let's take a look at some of the defining features and typical characteristics of Mediterranean homes.

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Clay Roof Tiles

One of the most distinct elements found in many Mediterranean buildings is the use of clay tile on the roof. Typically manufactured from terra-cotta, they hail from ancient Greece over 4,000 years ago and are still used frequently throughout the region today.

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The tiles can be flat—so that they're laid out next to each other—or curved, so that they interlock with their neighbors. Clay roof tiles do an excellent job of keeping out rain, shielding buildings from the sun, and using local clay for its production. Because of these benefits, they can now be found everywhere, from the United States to Chile, China, and northern Europe. Because they're thick and heavy, they also retain a lot of the heat they absorb during the day, and release it at night. This allows for a natural adjustment to temperature peaks and dips throughout the day and night.

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Interior Patios and Courtyards

Another common element of Mediterranean building and design is the use of interior patios and courtyards. These spaces are inspired by the central atriums that were typically found in Roman villas, which would be open to the sky and surrounded by a columned hallway or loggia that would connect to individual rooms. 

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Though the sun is desirable in the winter in the Mediterranean, cooling and ventilation is necessary during the summer because of the hot conditions. Naturally, these central courtyards provide both winter sunshine and summer breezes. The use of central courtyards or atriums continues today. In fact, it's often considered the focal point or center of the home where people can gather to eat and spend time together.

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Clustering of Buildings

Many regions in the Mediterranean experience strong, seasonal winds in the winter that can carry salty water, sand, and cold air from other regions. So, homes are frequently protected from these winds through their design and orientation. By clustering together several buildings, for example, wind can be diverted around individual homes. Similarly, vegetation like trees, vines, and shrubs can provide shade in the summer and act as a wind blocker or buffer during the winter.

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Shaded and Protected Views

Another method of mitigating the challenges that come with wind and sun is the frequent use of exterior shutters, screens, and pergolas (a trellised porch area covered with plants and vines) to either keep out cold and wind in the winter, or allow for sun and wind to pass through during the summer. One of the many benefits of these elements is that they usually allow for views to the outside to be maintained, so vistas of the sea aren’t lost. 

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Small Windows

Mediterranean homes also typically feature smaller windows rather than larger picture windows because of the desire to reduce direct sunlight. This is especially the case on the east and west sides of homes, which receive most of the harsh sunlight in the morning and afternoon. 

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Light-Colored Walls

Finally, the use of light-colored materials and paint on exterior and interior walls is a common design characteristic found throughout the Mediterranean. Typically, it's not paint that's used to cover walls, but rather whitewash (a mix of water, lime, and salt that's easily accessible, quick to make, and inexpensive). Adding in minerals can vary the color or tone.

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However, whitewashing is not permanent and easily deteriorates with water and wind, so buildings have to constantly be re-washed to look bright and fresh. The use of light colors not only reflects the majority of the sunlight that comes into a home or hits the exterior walls, but also brightens up interiors that might not otherwise receive a lot of sunlight because of small windows or thick masonry walls.  

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