Hands-on Activity: A House for Me: Materials and Design for Different Climates

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Three photos: (bottom) A home with a peaked roof covered in many feet of snow. (left) A low-pitched, river-side home on stilts. (right) White-washed stone buildings sit on an open plain with distant storm clouds.
For a house to best protect its inhabitants, it must be designed to suit the climate and building resources of its location.
Copyright © (bottom) NOAA, (left) FEMA, (right) 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. http://www.noaa.gov/features/02_monitoring/images/snow1.jpg http://www.fema.gov/photolibrary/photo_details.do;jsessionid=A046FDBC1D403C052CB2D57EFB2684C0.WorkerPublic3?id=12792


Students brainstorm and discuss the different types of materials used to build houses in various climates. They build small models of houses and test them in different climates.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Civil and environmental engineers are involved in designing structures. They must take into consideration the climate and type of land where they are building to ensure that the type of structure chosen will suit the environment. If an area is known for earthquakes, precautions must be taken to build a structure that can withstand as much of the impact of the earthquake as possible. If the area is extremely wet, the foundation must be made deep enough and solid enough for the house not to sink or slide.

Learning Objectives

  • The impact climates have on the building of structures
  • Details about several types of climates
  • Basic structural design
  • Basic experimental skills

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Construct and Test Roofs for Different Climates

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information to describe climates in different regions of the world. (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Measure areas by counting unit squares (square cm, square m, square in, square ft, and improvised units). (Grade 3) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Tools, materials, and skills are used to make things and carry out tasks. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Creative thinking and economic and cultural influences shape technological development. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Materials have many different properties. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Individual, family, community, and economic concerns may expand or limit the development of technologies. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • People have made tools to provide food, to make clothing, and to protect themselves. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Requirements for a design include such factors as the desired elements and features of a product or system or the limits that are placed on the design. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Models are used to communicate and test design ideas and processes. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify materials used to accomplish a design task based on a specific property, e.g., strength, hardness, and flexibility. (Grades 3 - 5 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify a problem that reflects the need for shelter, storage, or convenience. (Grades 3 - 5 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify relevant design features (e.g., size, shape, weight) for building a prototype of a solution to a given problem. (Grades 3 - 5 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Differentiate between weather and climate. (Grades 3 - 5 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • hay or long grass
  • clay
  • Popsicle sticks
  • sugar cubes
  • LEGOs
  • small stones
  • flour (snow)
  • fan (wind)
  • water (rain)
  • hairdryer (heat)


If you could live anywhere in the world and in the climate of your choice, what kind of a house would you construct? What would you need to build your house so that it could withstand the climate? In the next two classes you are going to use the given materials to create a house of your choice. You will need to choose materials that are suitable for the climate you have chosen to live in. Your house must still be standing after we have huffed, puffed, and tried to blow your house down!!


adobe: A brick or building material made of a sun-dried mixture of earth and straw.

arctic: The northernmost area of the Earth centered on the North Pole, characterized by long, cold winters and short, cool summers.

climate: A region with specified weather conditions; the average weather conditions of a particular place or region over a period of years.

climograph: A graph that demonstrates the precipitation and temperature for an area.

hut: A small and often temporary dwelling or shelter.

igloo: An Eskimo house usually made of wood, sod or stone when permanent, or of blocks of snow or ice in the form of a dome when built for temporary use.

lodge: A house set apart for residence in a special season.

pagoda: A Far Eastern tower of several stories erected as a temple or memorial.

Taiga: A subarctic, evergreen coniferous forest of northern Eurasia located just south of the tundra and dominated by firs and spruces.

tepee: A cone-shaped tent usually of skins used as a home by some Native Americans.

tree house: A structure (as a playhouse) built among the branches of a tree.

wigwam: A hut of the Native Americans of the Great Lakes region and eastward that usually has an arched frame of poles covered with bark, rush mats or hides.



People in different parts of the world have different materials that they can use to build their homes and other structures. When building a home, they think about how to best use these materials to build a house that works well for where and how they live. In the southwestern part of the US, where people have a lot of clay and little wood, they build houses from adobe, a mixture of clay, straw and water.

Photo of a low, wide earthen home.
An example adobe house.
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1983-2001

Adobe houses have very thick walls that keep them cool in the hot dry desert weather. Adobe houses would not be good in places where it rains a lot because too much water makes adobe crumble. The weather in certain tropical islands in the Pacific ocean is hot, but wet. People there make their homes from materials that are easy to find, such as palm leaves, woven grasses and bamboo. Sometimes they build the houses on stilts to keep them off the wet ground and let the breezes move under the house, helping to keep it cool.

A snow-block domed structure.
An example igloo.
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igloo#/media/File:Igloo.jpg

In ages past, the Eskimos in Alaska and Canada built their houses out of sod or snow. These dome-shaped houses are called igloos. The dome shape of the igloo makes it very strong and able to withstand powerful winter storms. Some Native Americans built dome-shaped houses made of poles, leaves and tree bark. These houses were called wigwams. Native American tribes that moved a lot often built cone-shaped tepees using buffalo skins or bark. Tepees could be easily built and taken apart quickly. Some Native Americans lived in more permanent structures called lodges made from logs and sod.

Two photos: (left) A small stone house set into the hillside. Two women in hardhats with tools and blueprints stand near wood-framed walls and roof of a house under construction.
A stone house with a sod-covered roof, and a house structure made of wood.
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved.

When early American settlers came to New England, they found the ground covered with large stones. They used these stones to build houses and walls that you still see in New England today. The northwest part of the US and Canada has plenty of forests, so most houses in these areas are made of wood. In areas of China with few forests, it is rare to have a wooden house. Instead, the Chinese people use tile, concrete and stone to build beautiful pagodas and other structures.

Drawing of a tall, narrow building with curved roof lines at each level and a tall steeple.
An example pagoda.
Copyright © https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8D#/media/File:YakushijiPagoda.jpg

In parts of Africa, where tall grasses grow, people weave the stems of dried grass together to make thatch huts. In Tibet, some people even make their houses out of wool! They shear the wool from ox-like animals called yaks. The wool walls keep the houses warm through the cold winter months. Most houses in the US today are built of wood, brick, stone, concrete, aluminum or even glass!

A pointed hut made from poles joined at the top and covered with material.
An example teepee.
Copyright © https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipi#/media/File:Tee-pee_g%C3%A9ant_sur_le_site_traditionnel_huron_Onho%C3%BCa_chetek8e,_Wendake.jpg

Recommended Resources:

Biomes are distinct ecological communities of plants and animals living together in particular climates. Learn more about biomes at: http://kids.nceas.ucsb.edu/biomes/index.html

See photos of snow-block igloo construction at: http://www.primitiveways.com/igloo.html

See many photographs of teepees at: http://www.photovault.com/Link/Cities/Southwest/Teepee.html

Hoberman, Mary Ann. A House Is a House for Me. The Viking Press: New York, NY, 1978.

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials.
  • Read Mary Ann Hoberman's book, A House Is a House for Me.

With the Students

Present the Engineering Design Challenge:

  1. Have the class think about why people need houses, what materials are needed to build a house, and what the various parts of a house include.
  2. Pair students and have each team choose an environment where the students want their house built. Have students figure out what type of climate their house must be able to handle in that environment. Instruct them to design and sketch a house to withstand that climate.
  3. Have each group to present their concept to the rest of the class. Have the class comment and make suggestions on each other's ideas.


  1. Have the groups build their designs with the available materials. Have students construct their houses on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper with a grid printed on it.
  2. Estimate the area of the house by counting the squares.


  1. Test the houses against the elements that would be appropriate for the climate they built their houses to withstand.
  2. Compare each of the groups' houses and discuss what materials are needed in different climates.

Worksheets and Attachments

Investigating Questions

  • What different kinds of homes are you familiar with?
  • Why are houses around the world made of different materials?
  • Why do people and animals need shelter?
  • What types of materials are used to build houses?
  • What materials are best for certain climates? Why?
  • What would happen if the wrong materials were used for a given climate?
  • What does climate mean? What is one type of climate?
  • Which house withstood the elements best? Why?


Final Evaluation: Use the attached rubric to evaluate student teams' success in three areas: quality of design and construction, performance of house against climate tests, and demonstrated understanding of concepts. Show students the rubric criteria in advance to clarify the grading process.

Additional Multimedia Support

Have students read and then discuss an example in west Africa where a school was built to work with the climate and local materials and labor to withstand weather conditions ranging from blazing sun to torrential showers. The designer, a native of the community, reverse engineered everything he was taught at school, using principles of heat to figure out natural cooling, and learning to design windows that would protect from the blazing sun but still offer ventilation. See "Homegrown Hero" in the Architectural Digest at: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/diebedo-francis-kere-opera-village-burkina-faso-article.


Kessler, James H. and Andrea Bennett. The Best of WonderScience: Elementary Science Activities. page 20. Boston, MA: Delmar Publishers, 1997. ISBN: 0827380941


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Last modified: November 16, 2018