Q&A with Paul Marais, award-winning architect specializing in rammed earth

First off, congratulations on winning the Afrisam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture + Innovation for Sustainable Product/Technology for your design of the rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. 

Thank you, I am very pleased for recognition of this off grid, rammed earth building , where I designed and built the house, energy & water systems and sewerage.

The award-winning rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

The award-winning rammed earth Otto cottage in Maun, Botswana. Designed and built by Paul Marais. Photo courtesy of Paul Marais.

How did you first get involved in natural building?

I have been always interested in natural buildings and as a student studied natural building in Malawi and Zambia.  I have travelled a lot in remote Africa and have an interest in indigenous architecture which is both material and energy efficient.  Continue reading

The dynamic qualities of African Vernacular Architecture

In this guest post written by Jon Sojkowski, he chronicles common misperceptions of African vernacular architecture and how it is being abandoned for the status that comes with living in conventional Western style buildings. He asks whether these modern materials are truly better than the vernacular options.

By Jon Sojkowski

African vernacular architecture is a subject that has had very little attention. The lack of documentation and available data on the internet has led to a severe misunderstanding of a type of architecture that a large percentage of the population in Africa living in on a daily basis. The lack of data has led to negative perceptions regarding African vernacular architecture, mainly that it is temporary, primitive or for the poor. Most people, when they think of a mud hut, get an image of a dilapidated mud structure which is quite small and has a thatch roof. Sadly, this perception exists both inside and outside the African continent, but it is simply not the truth. Continue reading

All good things must come to an end

… and 2014 is no different.

2014 course collage

It is with pride and joy that we look back on the successes and new connections made during 2014.
We launched our blog in March and have had over 5000 visits from people in 98 countries! The blog contributions included knowledge shared by our expert natural builder Peter McIntosh, to fly-on-the-wall takes of life as an architect and educator interested in building naturally and sustainably by Hermie Delport, personal lessons learned by owner-builder Laurie Simpson, and Amanda de Gouveia’s contributions as social development researcher at Qala Phelang Tala, a grassroots community upliftment and alternative building project focused on vulnerable communities in Bloemfontein. Other contributors included heritage consultant Lesley Freedman who about using indigenous earthen architectural knowledge, and green architect Malcolm Worby shared his thoughts on a comparison between natural materials.
Peter wrote a special piece for The Green Times, South Africa’s Green News Portal, on the relationship between building naturally and building sustainably; and our most popular posts this year on the blog has been his three part series on Understanding Earth, how to test earth, and how to make the appropriate decision with regard to plaster and mortar mixes.

Peter McIntosh facilitated three courses this past year: two CPD accredited courses at Magic Mountains in Barrydale, and one 6 day Natural Building: Materials and techniques course at Khula Dhamma in the Eastern Cape. All-in-all 33 people attended these three courses and got to do the mud dance and experience the art of natural building. Hopefully, that translates to at least 33 more natural buildings in South Africa!
Khula Dhamma reckons the course is a winner:

‘It’s hard work but huge amounts of fun, highly therapeutic and more rewarding than one could ever imagine. With the different techniques and materials and their thousands of capabilities, you are literally only limited by your own imagination and there is something so beautiful about that!’.. Read more.

If you want to see what other participants had to say about the courses please visit our updated Testimonials page. Or if you’re interested to see photos of the courses, you can either go to our albums on Facebook, or visit the Gallery page on the blog. Thanks to everyone who has liked, commented on, and shared our posts and events on Facebook! Our page has continued to grow, and we now have over 1200 likes, all thanks to you. If you’ve attended one of our courses, please note that we’ve now added the option to review us on Facebook.

Finally, Peter McIntosh has been part of an amazing project at the Lebone Village Arts and Culture Centre in Bloemfontein as one of the Mentors4Change. This collaboration with Qala Phelang Tala (Start Living Green) started on Mandela day, July 18th when Peter trained a few hundred people in the art of making mud bricks. Amanada de Gouveia wrote about the day here. Since then they have had a team consisting of volunteers and outpatients from the  University of the Free State’s Occupational Therapy clinic in Rocklands location, hard at work on the Shack Replacement project. This team was also privileged to attend the course at Khula Dhamma.
In recent weeks though, the focus has shifted to the Lebone Arts and Cultural Centre and the existing above ground cistern at the local orphanage. The crew includes volunteers, outpatients from the occupational therapy centre, a crew from Guatamalan NPO Los Técnicos (arguably world experts in alternative building practices [tyres, bottles bricks etc.]), and Peter McIntosh . Here you can see the progress from day one to day nine (photos courtesy of Los Tecnicos). For more photos of the building progress, please visit their Facebook album of the project.

The project is set to continue for another week or so, and hopefully they’ll get it all done in time. A great partnership has been fostered between these three organisations and holds great promise for other projects in 2015… Watch this space!

Finally, thank you to old friends and new for a blessed 2014. We’re looking forward to continue this muddy journey in 2015 as we explore new relationships and exciting new projects, more photos, knowledge and experience in how to build naturally and sustainably, to bring you, our supporters. We’ll be publishing our course dates for 2015 early in January so do keep an eye out for that if you missed out this year.

Thanks for joining us again, and we’ll connect with you sometime, somewhere soon…

Warm regards,
the Natural Building Collective

PS If you would like to get involved and write for us, be it a once-off, or more regular contribution, please send us an email with what you have in mind.

Mud house design competition

Reinventing the African Mud Hut Together

Nka Foundation invites entries for Mud House Design 2014, an international architecture competition open to recent graduates and students of architecture, design and others from around the world who think earth architecture can be beautiful.

Registration and submission of entries run from March 15, 2014 until August 31, 2014.

The challenge is to design a single-family unit of about 30 x 40 feet on a plot of 60 x 60 feet to be built by maximum use of earth and local labor in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The client of your design is the middle-income family in any township of your choice in the Ashanti Region. Total costs of constructing the design entry must not exceed $6,000; land value is excluded from this price point. The entry should serve as an example to the local people that mud architecture can be beautiful and durable.

What is the design problem? The cause is this: in Ghana, as in other countries in West Africa, stereotypes about buildings made of earth persist because of poor construction. Earth architecture is fast giving way to modern dwellings made of cement blocks and other modern materials that are not simply expensive but thermally and acoustically problematic. From the cities to the low-income villages, use of concrete – despite its dependence on imported resources – is considered indispensable for building. The rising cost of the modern building materials manufactured from imported resources makes it very difficult for low-income families to become homeowners. Yet an excellent, cheap and local alternative called laterite, red earth, is available everywhere in Ghana.

Contact: info@nkafoundation.org

Read Disclaimer

 

 

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 http://realisingrights.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/we-do-not-have-toilets/ Also read this http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-08-00-forgotten-schools-of-the-eastern-cape-left-to-rot and this http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/Mud-schools-gone-by-2015-minister-20130226.

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

Disclaimer

Mapping the earth buildings of the world

CraTerre – the leading innovation and research organisation into earth building in France – has launched an initiative to map the earth buildings of the world. If you know of one near you, no matter how humble or crumbling – please log it onto this map… 

https://cartoterra.net/?lang=en-US

Using Indigenous Earthen Architectural Knowledge

By Lesley Freedman

In South Africa’s rural areas, indigenous earthen architecture can be seen everywhere. Indigenous Building Systems form the core of most of South Africans’ architectural knowledge, passed down through generations, solving the challenges of waterproofing in the most inspired, resourceful ways.

Pondoland, Eastern Cape

Pondoland, Eastern Cape

Some of this knowledge continues to be used, but increasing homogenisation, control and authority threaten these expressions of our cultural identities. Knowing and valuing and defining our cultural identity contribute to our overall wellbeing.

“Earth has been one of the most widely used building materials ever since people began to build homes and cities 11 000 years ago. Earthen architecture is the world’s most ancient and most prevalent existing architectural expression. In most places in the world, earth is the conventional building material” (Houben & Guillard: 1994). For example, in Peru, 60% of the dwellings are built in adobe or rammed earth and in Mendoza, Argentina, more than 80% of the rural population has built their dwellings in adobe. In Uganda, 90% of people live rurally, in earth structures.

Earthen building in rural South Africa

Earthen building in rural South Africa

Today millions of us continue to house ourselves using these building methods, but not in urban areas where they are most needed.  Urban human settlements are being built with materials that contribute little to the comfort of the inhabitants in terms of thermal content, safety or fire resistance. Earth has good insulation properties. It does not consume much non-renewable energy, uses very little water and is recyclable. Earth is a porous, breathable material with a constant relative humidity of 50%, creating a healthy environment in which to live and work; and its transformation into a building material is realised without any chemical processes and produces no chemical or industrial waste. Earthen architecture offers crucial advantages for a sustainable future and the sustainability of the planet (Doat, Hays, Houben, Matuk, & Vitoux 1996) (Norton 1997) (Conti 2007) (Rakotomamonjy: 2006).

It is the revival of identity that will give us back what we lost through the negative attitude towards indigenous black people. The racist discourse started early on in South Africa and went on to be refined into a way that increasingly denied indigenous knowledge, which then lay dormant in urban areas because of official regulations, like these of 1915, which required that “… each tenant shall erect a decent Cottage … and whitewash it at least once a year. No Kafir or Beehive huts will be allowed” (Rodriquez & Pettus 1990). It was these attitudes that put an end to our valuing our customs, forms and cultural ways of knowing and being.

Houses in McGregor

Houses in McGregor

As a result of the political economy of knowledge production and textbook publishing in the world today, educational institutions tend to teach the superiority of the economic processes and political systems of western, modernist society. There is, in consequence, an emphasis on technical answers to social and environmental problems. The energy and vitality and creative use of space found in informal settlements must be a lesson to us in recognising our ability to create our own settlements.

Hassan Fathi (1986) said: “it is this population that has an intimate knowledge of how to live in harmony with the local environment. Thousands of years of accumulated expertise has led to the development of economic building methods using locally available materials, climatisation using energy derived from the natural environment, and an arrangement of living and working spaces in consonance with social requirements. This has been accomplished within the context of an architecture that has reached a high degree of artistic expression.”

While attending the 10th International Conference on the Study and Conservation of Earthen Architectural Heritage, Terra 2008, held in Bamako, Mali, in February 2008, I saw people wearing traditional clothes and creating their own traditional homes and workplaces.

Segou, Mali

To me, this connoted pride and the giving of value to those aspects of ourselves through which we sustain our sense of identity.

Djenne, Mali

Djenne, Mali

The past few decades have witnessed the evolution and enormous advancement of earthen architecture through international conferences, training initiatives and the creation of national and international committees on all the aspects of natural and earth building technology. The literature is vast. Architects, archaeologists and conservation practitioners, academics and scientists around the world, meet regularly to discuss chemistry, soil science, seismology, hydrology, structural engineering, archaeology, sociology and sustainability, biodeterioration, wind and water erosion, mineralogy, clay and soil science and chemistry and their effect on earthen structures.

Current examples are VerSus 2014, an International Conference on Lessons from Vernacular Heritage for Sustainable Architecture, whose conference themes are the study of vernacular architecture and its mechanisms for sustainability, the conservation and restoration of vernacular architecture and, most importantly, the application of sustainable lessons of vernacular heritage to contemporary architecture. Mediterra 2014, the second conference of Earthen Architecture in the Mediterranean Region, and ResTAPIA 2014, the second conference of earthen architecture conservation in general and rammed earth conservation in particular, are both being held at the VerSus 2014 Conference, from the 11th to the 13th of September 2014 at the Universitat Politècnica De València in Spain.

The use of earthen architecture upholds traditions and recognises the human ingenuity, used for 11000 years, to adapt the environment for human needs. These ancient ways of building form part of our culture, give depth and quality to our lives, and need to be acknowledged, revived, resuscitated, given status and a place in our history and architectural books. The best way of reviving and valuing them is to involve women, youth and men in South Africa, who possess all the qualities needed to build their own sustainable natural and earth centres and housing.

References

Conti, A.P. 2007. Villa Ficana in Macerata, the restoring work of a raw earth quarter. In: Fourth International Adobe Conference of the Adobe Association of the Southwest. AdobeUSA.

Doat, P., Hays, A., Houben, H., Matuk, S. & Vitoux, F. 1991. Building with Earth. The Mud Village Society: New Delhi.

Fathi, H. 1986. Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Houben, H. & Guillard, H. 1994. Earth Construction: A Comprehensive Guide. Intermediate Technology Publications: London.

Norton, J. 1997. Building with Earth. A Handbook. Intermediate Technology Publications: London.

Rakotomamonjy, B. 2010. Conservation of Immovable Cultural Heritage in Sub-Saharan Africa.. CRAterre-ENSAG: Pont du Claix.

Rodriquez, A. & Pettus, K. 1990. The Importance of Vernacular Traditions. APT Bulletin. Vol. XXII: np.

All photographs are by the author.

Read this for more on the Djenne Mosque, Mali.

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Lesley FreedmanLesley Freedman graduated as an architect from the University of Cape Town. She restored an historical area of Cape earthen architecture, recording the process in the book Bokaap: Faces and Façades, travelled and then worked as Manager: Architectural Heritage Landscape for the South African Heritage Resources Agency. Through Heritage Management Planning for the sites of Mandela in the Eastern Cape; studying at CRAterre (International Centre for Earth Construction), France, visiting Mali; and attending earth building courses, Lesley discovered that sustainable settlement is still practised by rural South Africans, and by a third of the world population. She established the Whole Earth Building Foundation, registered as a Non-Profit Organisation in 2012. Its Mission is to provide vocational training and livelihood skills in sustainable building and food security technologies within the Permaculture paradigm. The foundation is lobbying for National Codes of Practice for Earthen Structures to be incorporated into South Africa’s Building Codes.