NEONOMADS is an ongoing series of projects to design and build prototypical desert survival shelters deployed into the Arabian desert as research stations for environmental scientists. Neonomads represents a synthesis of thinking and mak-ing. Students designed through building with few drawings while operating across a sequence of short-term, distinct but linked studies that gave us the rare opportunity in design-build to reflect and iterate. We structured the project around a series of smaller, faster builds where each outcome responded to the last, then conceptually and physically folded into the next. Mimicking the lean flexibility of nomadic people of the region, our ability to look forward and shift direction allowed us to adapt to contingencies. As vehicular access to sites is restricted, students carried all build-ing components, materials, and supplies two kilometers across the desert on foot. Our goal was fundamental shelter with access to off-the-grid technologies, allow-ing scientists to carry in less gear to support longer term site visits. We practiced strategies based on weight, deployability, and durability, using component-based assemblies constructed as temporary structures with a mindset of permanence. We utilized reuse, repurposing, and recycling when possible and employed innovative materials, systems, and technology resistant to the unique climatic conditions of the environment. 

Technical Description

We moved immediately into making, beginning with a deployment exercise asking students to design and fabricate working prototypes of conveyance systems to move building materials over the loose-sand desert floor. We abandoned construction drawings throughout the process, not to save time but to develop students’ ability to design through building. Due to environmental constraints, material options that students were comfortable with, such as steel and wood, were limited because of their weight, corrosive qualities, and need for coatings and maintenance. Aluminum was selected as the primary structural material due to its strength to weight ratio and the students’ acquired familiarity with it. MIG and TIG welding was employed to create modular elements that could be later assembled on site using a single type of connection requiring fewer than thirty bolts and only one, easy to use hand tool. Recycled wood was selected to infill as flooring, resting, and storage surfaces due to their workability, renewability, and durability to the harsh desert conditions, as well as their ability to add ballast to the overall structure. Fabrics, including canvas and Dacron sailcloth, provided overhead and lateral solar protection, serving as a final weight-saving measure in terms of self-weight and consequently minimized associated structural member size. In conjunction with analog methods, we explored aluminum tube construction and used digital fabrication tools to create jigs to facilitate accuracy and speed of construction. 


American University of Sharjah


Environment and Protected Areas Authority of Sharjah, UAE
Design Build Initiative, American University of Sharjah
Other Function
Other Function
Desert Shelter and Research Station
Construction Methods/Techniques