Picture this...the sun sets over an orangish red desert, in the distance you see a town rising from three hills, a river snaking between them. The buildings rise from the hills and spread between them. Atop the highest hill sits a magnificent cathedral that rises above the rest of the city, its red stone walls reflecting the orange of the sun.

I have a concept for a desert city wherein most major buildings are made of sandstone. I am unsure of the utility of sandstone for construction though and have a few questions.

  • How strong is sandstone, meaning how many stories tall could a sandstone building be?
  • Lumber is available from the river that flows through town, it is floated down-river from the nearest forest. So it is available but is pretty expensive.
  • Can sandstone be red or orangish-red?
  • How ornately can sand stone be carved?
  • Are there any durability concerns if it can be used?

Real world examples (if available) would be appreciated in answers.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Chaco Canyon contains multiple multi-story buildings constructed of sandstone with no morter. The earliest are in excess of 1000 years old. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 2:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If there's a river from a forest area, the city will be in a wet zone in a desert. Like Cairo. $\endgroup$
    – Zither13
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ Do Minecraft desert temples count as real-world examples? :D $\endgroup$
    – DonielF
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 1:07

4 Answers 4


Yes. Please do.

For inspiration, you can google image search one of the most amazing places I've ever been to: Petra. It is very complete from residences to commercial and community facilities, as well as rudimentary utilities, including a stormwater drainage system. Other answers have given you examples, so I will build off of theirs by adding my experience of Petra.

It took us three full days of exploring, and while the Bank was made famous by Indiana Jones, El Dier was incredibly complex inside.

Height - Your mountain is the limit, you can build as high as the environment allows, or as deep as the material allows. Petra's highest residences were G+6 (ground +6 stories), but because it was in the sandstone mountains, the entire site, with abundant 'roads' and staircases rose about 300m from the base of the city to the higher residences - maybe more (I can't find this information online).

Lumber - You can limit lumber to the functional spaces, as you like: doors, etc. In this example, lumber survived the years and served to close portals such as windows and doorways.

Color - Petra is called the Rose City by some, and it is exactly the color you seem to be describing.

Ornate-ness - Very. As you will see from your google-image search, the precedent that I'm discussing had very ornate carving, which held up against the elements because half the site is below ground level, and there is limited rainwater. I can't imagine how much more intricacy has been worn away by the wind.

Durability - The only threat to your city is from the elements. Please protect it, since I'm now kind of falling in love with your city, from rainwater, and keep your river from washing it away. Petra has been known to exist for over 2,000 years in a relatively dry climate.

If you want more elaborate utilities, sandstone is very pliable, as shown in the examples provided by other answers.

Another beautiful example was the beautiful horizontal and vertical troglodytes of Tunisia. Horizontal 'cave dwellings' are carved into the sides of (in Tunisia) sandstone, while vertical are carved down. They were occupied until about the 1960s (no source), but we helped a guy from a nearby University establish an eco-hotel out of one of them. They are between 1 and 10 stories vertically ("the mountain's the limit"), and being rock, they moderate temperatures in your desert.

In fact, one of the very real troglodytes is in a town called Tataouine, whose name has been transferred to a popular movie, which filmed there several times, and took the name.

  • $\begingroup$ It occurred to me that lumber may have been added to the site in later years (or even weeks before I saw it, who knows), so don't automatically assume it lasted the full 2,000 years. Enjoy your worldbuilding! $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the type of sandstone, weather won't affect it much. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent, can you kindly provide a link to where they might find hardier sandstone? It makes total sense, but I have no idea where to find it. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 1:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sandstones Sadly you'll have to browse them to get their caracteristics etc... :/ Also, 'Some sandstones are resistant to weathering, yet are easy to work. This makes sandstone a common building and paving material including in asphalt concrete. However, some that have been used in the past, such as the Collyhurst sandstone used in North West England, have been found less resistant, necessitating repair and replacement in older buildings.[1] Because of the hardness of individual grains, uniformity of grain size and friability of their structure.' $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Mikey, they will find hard sandstone wherever James decides to put it. I would guess that the three hills not being worn away by the river indicates hard rock right there. $\endgroup$
    – Zither13
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 10:03

Some points for your question:

  1. Sandstone Buildings actually exist, and are common. As you can see if you search for them, they come in a variety of colors.
  2. A look at wikipedia's Sandstone article, an informal source of knowledge, claims that it has been used for buildings since time immemorial.
  3. GSA.gov has a good overview of sandstone as well. Depending on the sandstone, it can be orange, red, pink, and perhaps a few other colors.
  4. Sandstone can be great at weathering; that is, it is resistant to wear from rain and wind.
  5. As seen here, sandstone has a much higher compressive strength than most bricks and concrete. This means bigger buildings!
  6. Sandstone is very easy to carve. Google "sandstone lamps" to see just how detailed they can get!
  • $\begingroup$ I think James wants the common red/orange/buff spectrum, but since it's a fossil beach, white, pink, black, & green should be possible. $\endgroup$
    – Zither13
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 10:20


'Sandstone has been used for domestic construction and housewares since prehistoric times, and continues to be used.'

You can easily google multiple story buildings made out of sandstone.

Qutb Minar is the 2nd tallest minar in India and made of red sandstone

Looking up more pictures and sandstone building, it seems sandstone is a pretty good material for building and allows for rather fancy carvings and decoration etc... (not to mention you do have different colored types of sandstone)

  • $\begingroup$ Look at the Red Fort in Delhi for a huge ornate building of red sandstone. Then check all the Anasazi ruins in sandstone country. $\endgroup$
    – Zither13
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 9:40

Its difficult to have a city wholy made from one material. Even if rich people can afford sandstone, poor people will still build shanty towns made of adobe all around the walls. The richest people will import other types of stone for their palaces, or use less frequent (more expensive) types of sandstones. A realistic city will have variety, unless: a) everybody is wealthy b) sandstone is very abundant c) government enforces building regulations on using only sandstone

Adobe is a mix of mud, clay and straw. Cheap and abundant materials for most peasants. Bonus points if there is a shortage of alternative materials.

In Spain, poor people in the 19th-20th Century made buildings out of adobe, because they couldn't afford the more expensive materials. Whole cities made of adobe, with rich people building with normal brick, and churches being the only buildings made in stone.

Adobe houses are very fresh in summer and very resistant. I am told that walls had to be very thick: at least 30 centimetres of thickness for a 1-store building.

Wood is still necessary! Storied buildings will still need wooden beams for the floor. Wide roofs need thick beams for support. Poor people will build one-storied houses. The poorest will make small buildings with funny-shaped roofs to avoid using expensive wooden beams.

The outer side was covered with plaster to protect from erosion. Exposed adobe will slowly trickle back into plain sand. If your roof fails, the rainwater will quickly damage the walls. Looks like sandstone doesn't have this problem.

Of course, poor people are more worried about getting a floor over their heads than about long-term durability. In some cases, it might be cheaper to build a cheap and replace with a new house than to build a solid house and repair it with good materials.

  • $\begingroup$ The book Cottage Building in Cob, Pisé, Chalk and Clay a Renaissance gives a wider range of materials & a good estimate of durability even in damp places. archive.org/details/cottagebuildingi32048gut I agree this is likely to be the commoner's hut out in the farmlands. $\endgroup$
    – Zither13
    Commented Apr 18, 2015 at 10:16

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