The reflections and observations of a sustainable practitioner on the recent International Union of Architects World Congress (UIA) in Durban

As a senior lecturer in the Architectural Technology department at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology I get the opportunity to write and present papers at conferences, congresses and symposiums, with the benefit to see what is happening in the field and to consider where my own work is situated and where it could be going. Last week I was privileged to attend and present at the International Union of Architects World Congress in Durban. Besides the wonderful weather, I got to experience being part of an international discussion on practice and education, attended by about 4500 people from around the globe.

In the words of the conference organizers, the theme was ‘OTHERWHERE – looking elsewhere for other ways of creating a better future. The subthemes were ‘resilience, ecology and values’. ‘Resilience‘ explored questions around ideas of emergence, poverty alleviation, and the spatial economy. The second subtheme of ecology sought to “acknowledge the role of the architect in a bigger, interlinked, and systemic network and encourage a longer term view in the design of the built environment”. The third subtheme, ‘values‘, explored approached to “practice in Africa with a feeling that the agency of external donors needs to be tempered to benefit local inhabitats – who are currently being excluded from their own self-determination”. These themes resonated with my own experience as an educator and someone that is passionate about natural building.

The underlying tone of the Congress was self-reflexive, and a lot of presenters questioned the role of the profession while almost demanding it to become more responsive to both social and climatic issues facing the planet. There was a call to move from the “starchitect” syndrome to a more huminatarian and appropriate technological approach. This call resonated strongly with the paper I presented there with Rudolf Perold entitled “Towards Entrepreneur-Activist Architectural Practice”. We started with this quote:

“For we may soon find that we have too many architects skilled at designing museums and mansions and too few able to work with indigent people and communities in need of basic housing, sanitation, and security” (Fisher 2008). 

One of the key note presentations was by Toyo Ito, winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2013. The form of the buildings presented could have one swooning, but the underlying tectonic principles of that form took so much steel and concrete that one cringes at the environmental effect. The formal ideas of most of the buildings were apparently inspired by nature and natural principles, for example, the way in which a tree grows or the bones in a human body connect. But that is where the analogy to the natural ended for me. Such a form executed in steel and concrete, in my opinion feels entirely inappropriate and becomes an empty albeit beautiful response.

But then there were also keynote presentations by the likes of Cameron Sinclair who started Architecture for Humanity in 1999 together with Kate Stohr, with a cellphone and laptop and one or two projects. Currently the organisation is involved in designing, developing, managing and financing the construction of a variety of projects in over 20 countries (Aaronson & Architecture for Humanity, 2012). Their modus operandi is to embed architects on site that volunteer and help restore or rebuild community facilities, often in the aftermath of disaster. What wonderful work they have been doing over the past decade or so!

Another personal highlight was from keynote speaker Francis Kéré who you probably know of if you are reading this blog. Francis Kéré came from a small village in Burkina Faso, studied in Germany, then returned to his own country to work in his own community. He went on to win the Aga Khan award for Architecture with his very first building! He does work similar to that of Architecture for Humanity, but he works mostly in African countries, almost exclusively with natural materials and has a deep understanding of local passive design strategies. It is worth reading the “about” page on the website, and browsing the projects that they have done and are involved in.

There were many “side shows” at the congress. I presented in two of these with my colleague Rudolf Perold. The first, was the Architectural Education Forum (AEF), a locally initiated forum which “critically discuss how to improve architectural educational practice here and now and to exchange relevant information. Its main focus is issues that are relevant to architectural education in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, which includes global and regional concerns. Its membership consists mainly of teaching staff from schools of architecture from over Africa, but there has also been support and interest from other associations concerned with architectural education based on other continents” (Janse van Rensburg, A. 2014).

The presentation that followed ours in the AEF was by Professor Vasanth K Bhat from Bengaluru, Karnataka, India, where he is Dean at Acharya’s School of Architecture and has his own practice. He presented “A Case for Inclusion of Appropriate Building Technology and Sustainable Building Design in Undergraduate Curriculum in Developing Countries” and discussed the inclusion of local earth technologies into the undergraduate curriculum. Often architecture programs follow a very generic curriculum without specific local content and he is making a concerted effort to include locally relevant technologies.

Our second presentation was for the Global Studio. This studio focuses on work in and for communities. Again there was much discussion that resonated with our paper about the architect becoming a more active participant in society. We discussed the idea of “architectural professionals that have re-defined the manner in which they work, and for whom they work, specifically addressing informality and poverty in their practice. These professionals are changing from being predominantly pre-determined problem solvers into a problem identifiers or project initiators” (Cary & Public Architecture, 2010, p.xii). This change in work approach asks of the architect to become an entrepreneur, identifying the project and problem and then finding the funding to pay for both the professional services and the execution of project. A place has opened, locally and internationally, for this new kind of professional – one that works on the ground, close to the needs of the broader community”. (Voulgarelis and Perold, 2014)

In my opinion, UIA 2014 was all-and-all successful and gives me hope for the future of (earth) architecture in the world.



Aaronson, D., & Architecture for Humanity (Eds.). (2012). Design Like you Give a Damn (p. 335). New York, New York, USA: Abrams.

Fisher, T. (2008). Public-interest architecture: a needed and inevitable change. Berkeley Prize. Retrieved April 02, 2014, from

Van Rensburg, A. (2014). Architectural Education Forum. (p.1). Internal discussion document. WITS. South Africa.

Voulgarelis, H. and Perold, R. (2014) Towards Entrepreneur-Activist Architectural Practice. International Union of Architects World Congress. Durban, South Africa.


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Reflections and observations on a recent visit to the former Transkei

I had the pleasure of recently visiting a really magical place, Mdumbi in the former Transkei. Mdumbi is about 30km north of Coffee Bay in the typical rolling green landscape. Travelling with fellow architects Carl Morkel and Wim Els at a slowish pace, either walking or watching from the car window, one is aware of a soft silence, endless, gentle rolling hills with the silhouette of small pastel huts and sometimes the ocean in the background. Grandmothers moving peacefully and slowly, a shout from one hillside to the next, fishermen just appearing as almost out of nowhere.

Figure 1: Typical Transkei landscape, round huts in pastel colours.

Figure 1: Typical Transkei landscape, round huts in pastel colours.

One would like to think of this place as the ultimate sustainable example of natural building. Huts have been made here forever with soil and clay, either with using the wattle and daub or with mud brick method. You could easily imagine that all buildings here are still made with the smallest possible footprint on the earth. There are tiny mud brick making “factories” all along the roadsides, with clay being excavated directly out of the hillside and the small holes being covered with grass growing over it fairly quickly. People are going about making the bricks, talking, mixing, moulding, laying the bricks out to dry.

Figure 2: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 2: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 3: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world

Figure 3: Local mud brick factory with possibly best view in the world


Deep-rooted traditions, foreign to outside observers, is visible in the very nature of the buildings, with huts in ruins not because of a lack of maintenance but out of respect for the inhabitant that has passed to another life, with contemporary car tyres forming the crown of the round roof and sharp pieces of glass embedded in them, not for adornment or ornament, but to keep the evil owl away.

The “evil” that has crept into this landscape dispels the romantic idea that all here is inherently sustainable. The landscape is pock marked with entire hill sides being bull dozed to mine sand and left un-rehabilitated. Thermally poor performing materials with a high environmental cost, such as concrete block have become the status symbol for affluence. Understanding of all the reasons behind these changes, which are many, is the topic for another discussion, but the low maintenance of a concrete block building cannot be left out of the picture.

The “charm” of the degradable, organic buildings is thwarted by the very aspect that makes them charming. If just left, they can degrade. Easily. The national “eradicate mud schools” agenda is by now well known. It is a multibillion-rand programme. This year alone the delivery delays on this programme have apparently cost 7 billion rand. (Legal Resources Centre, 2014) The mud school has developed a very bad name. And it is only through involvement and education that this will change.

Figure 4: Wattle and daub degrading

Figure 4: Wattle and daub degrading

The reasons for the mud schools have a bad name is given one blogger as “having no toilets, having no electricity, having not water, coughing in a dusty classroom where the roof is caving in”…………..this from Also read this and this

Why do these school buildings perform so badly? Traditional Transkei buildings require constant maintenance, since most of them lack the two really important protection criteria that natural buildings need to survive. A proper hat and boots. In trying to convince role players that it is not necessarily the “mud” that is the problem in these schools, Lesley Freedman and Andy Horn recently met and then sent a letter to Equal Education to introduce ideas around proper “mud” building standards that will not only improve the schools but also houses in the surrounding villages.

This brings me back to our reason for visiting the Transkei. We went there to take part in discussions regarding the development of a wonderful initiative, Mdumbi Green Destinations. This is a project envisioned by Mdumbi Backpackers in association with the Mankosi community. The Mankosi community will develop a community owned tourist facility where, amongst other sustainable aspects, the buildings will be made with natural, local materials. The local community will be integrated in the design, development and building process and will, apart from getting ownership and employment during and after the process, they will learn about using their local materials in an effective way that makes it last longer (and of course food production and other environmental sustainable things, but we are concentrating on this blog on natural building).

Spin offs of the initiative is that the Mdumbi Backpacker community has learned some valuable lessons and skills about natural building in the long process (read years) towards the project becoming a reality. And some of them learned these skills at Berg-en-Dal.

Through the Transcape “arm” of Mdumbi backpackers that focuses directly on assisting the community, an Eco Centre has been opened. Already here mud brick making, proper building methods (and food gardening) is taught to the local community. What is interesting that we observed when visiting the Eco Centre is that it was predominantly young men and women that took part in the mud brick making workshops, where at the “factories” next to the road it was mostly older women working.

Figure 5: Me at the Eco Centre mud brick training facility

Figure 5: Me at the Eco Centre mud brick training facility

Figure 6: One (wo)man mould_I like the size of this for when you work alone

Figure 6: One (wo)man mould_I like the size of this for when you work alone

Figure 7_Local stone_great to use for “boots” of the building

Figure 7_Local stone_great to use for “boots” of the building


Figure 8: Volunteers house at the Eco Centre – putting in proper floor

Figure 8: Volunteers house at the Eco Centre – putting in proper floor

So, I am really looking forward to being involved in this great project and will keep you updated……………..


Figure 9: Sunrise and fishermen at Mdumbi Point

Figure 9: Sunrise and fishermen at Mdumbi Point


Photo credits

Figure 1-8: Carl Morkel

Figure 9: Hermie Delport-Voulgarelis


Natural Building in the Architectural Curriculum

The first time I made cob I was knee deep in trouble, there was no way of ever leaving this muddy business again. I simply love the smell and feel of wet earth being mixed. I guess it started when I lived in Prince Albert as a 5 year old and mixed “chocolate milk” in the empty-from-plants-but-not-from-soil flowerpots on our big stoep. My sister and I had to do it quietly and secretly, since my mom did not really appreciate us drinking the soil and water mixtures………….. (In that same garden we had plenty of chickens and ducks, figs and apricots, what a great place for a child to live.)

Currently, I try to impart my love of earth building to my students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). If possible we have an actual physical experience of working with earth and at other times it might be more theoretical knowledge, but applied in design and technological projects. Studio projects that deal with earth technology have become an integral part of the education in our Architectural Technology Department.

What interests me now, are ways in which natural building methods are both taught in the architectural curriculum and expressed in a contemporary manner.

Within the architectural education realm, I love Ithuba Science Centre, which was designed and built by students of the Faculty of Architecture of the RWTH Aachen University.

leon krige 1

Design-build projects are of special interest to me and are defined within the architectural curriculum as “essentially the full-scale investigation of the built form. The typologies of projects are varied, but share the characteristic that it typically gives students the opportunity to engage in a project from design to actual construction” (Delport and Perold 2012).

The project embodies for me the essence required in an architectural student project. It is real, hands-on, design-build, incorporates natural building methods, contributes to a real need in a community and does all of this in an elegant architectural manner.

leon krige 2

The Ithuba Science centre is part of the Ithuba Skills College, which is in Montic just outside of Johannesburg. The College caters for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaches them “English and Natural Sciences, but also practical basic skills like bricklaying, carpentry, sewing or electrical fitting during a five-year training”. (Faculty of Architecture RWTH Aachen University 2014)

leon krige 3

The light steel frame of the Science Centre was erected first and it was then filled in with a straw/clay mixture, creating a highly insulated monolithic wall according to traditional German practices. The mixture was placed into formwork which was moved upward as the work progressed. The building has large roof overhangs to protect and shade the walls and the roof structure is separated from the walls to let hot air out. (Designboom 2013)

leon krige 4

The Departments of Building Typologies and of Structures and Structural Design of The Faculty of Architecture supervised the project as part of their design-build program. A full construction booklet is available as well as a short video of the construction.

Students thoroughly enjoy hands-on, design-build work and work with more enthusiasm than on traditional studio bound projects. (Sara 2006) Where this practical work has meaning in both environmental and social contexts, the learning becomes incredibly relevant.  The more this type of work is integrated within the architectural curriculum, the bigger influence education will have on future practices within the architectural and building industry.


Delport-Voulgarelis, H and Perold, R. (2012). Creating a New Curriculum. ARCH SA Journal of the South African Institute of Architects. Issue 58. (Nov/Des 2012). p. 50-51.

Designboom. (2013). s2arch and RWTH aachen university build a new school in south africa. [Online]. July 2013. Available from [Accessed 24 Feb 2014].

Faculty of Architecture RWTH Aachen University. (2014). Student-constructured-projects Ithuba Science Centre. [Online]. August 2012. Available from . [Accessed 24 Feb 2014].

Sara, R., 2006. Live Project Good Practice : A Guide for Live Projects, Available at:

All photographs by Leon Krige who granted permission for the use thereof.

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