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

Introduction to Cob building – Kenya

Earthen Shelter in collaboration with the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) in Kenya

WHAT: A hands-on course appropriate for both first-time builders and for professionals in the building trade who are interested in natural materials. In this seven day cob workshop, the focus will be on the characteristics of the natural materials most commonly used in construction:  clay soil, sand, and fibers.

WHO CAN PARTICIPATE: The course is appropriate for both first-time builders and for professionals in the building trade who are interested in natural materials.

WHERE: Laikipia Permaculture Centre is a 1.6 hectare farm located on the Laikipia Plain, north of the Rift Valley in Central Kenya. Founded in 2012 by permaculture teacher Joseph Lentunyoi and Permaculture Research Institute Kenya, the project aims to illustrate how regenerative agricultural practices can improve local food security and community health while preserving and rehabilitating precious ecological resources impacted by overgrazing and other unsustainable use patterns. As a demonstration site for water harvesting and conservation strategies, soil fertility building, holistic pastoral management, natural building and many other sustainable practices, LPC is developing a model with far-reaching potential for Laikipia, Kenya and East Africa as a whole.

WHEN: January 18- 24, 2015

PROGRAMME HIGHLIGHTS: The course aims to be a part of the revival of natural building in Kenya; to help revitalize an ancient art and incorporate new techniques learned through past decades as natural building has gained traction internationally. Benefits to participants and the local community will include acquisition of the skills necessary to build climate-controlled, sustainable, non-toxic, affordable housing without acquiring substantial debt.  The artisanal and ancestral skills of natural building have largely been lost through the 20th century. Commercial materials and conventional building styles have benefited from industry biased-regulations and are now largely associated with status and prestige. This is the case in Kenya, a country that is integral to the history of natural building and that still contains communities reliant on natural housing.

In this seven day cob workshop, we focus on the characteristics of the natural materials most commonly used in construction:  clay soil, sand, and fibers.

(1) The main focus will be cob, which combines these readily-available materials to hand-sculpt beautiful walls, benches, ovens, and fireplaces.

(2) Various other building techniques that utilize the same materials, including adobe block, light straw-clay, wattle and daub, and plasters will also be touched on.

(3) Discussions will be held on how to find and choose appropriate soil for construction, how to create various mixes and plasters, how to incorporate timber and stone, and how to use earthen materials to build walls, sculpt niches, shelves, and furniture.

(4) As a complement to the hands-on portion of the course, slide shows and discussions of the science and theory of natural building will bring deeper understandings and answer any questions.  Subjects include building design and siting, passive solar design, foundations and drainage, earthen floors, appropriate roof design, and wiring and plumbing for natural structures.

APPLICATION: To apply, please register online with the PRI .

For details on the project go to:

Please contact the Natural Building Collective to send us more information about your natural building events.


Owner-builder journey ~ Building ‘home’

In the first edition of the Owner-builder journey, Laurie Simpson writes about the challenges of building with mud in on the edge of Hwange National park, Zimbabwe.

Seven years ago, after years of travelling, looking for the next adventure and never feeling like I belonged, I followed my partner to live in his home, Zimbabwe. The moment I arrived I knew I had arrived ‘home’, even though I had never set foot there before. It was a strange and beautiful feeling and one that kept me from leaving despite many difficult times over the years.

Dance like an elephant

Dance like an elephant

Two years ago, I started building ‘home’ using mostly materials that are found around us. It’s been an amazing journey of self-discovery. It started with reading books and articles that inspired me to live a life that was in sync with nature. Previously, I felt like we were just spectators watching nature go by as if we were not a part of it. From all this research I quickly realised just how destructive modern building techniques were and how much sense it made to build with natural materials.


I decided I needed some hands-on experience before I could start building ‘home’ for our family. I discovered Berg-en-Dal eco-village and enrolled myself on the natural building course. The course was both practical and theoretical and I had an amazing time with the two facilitators Peter McIntosh and Neil Smith. Other than this short one week course I had no building experience at all, but I felt it really gave me the confidence I needed to throw myself into my own project.

I went home and started to test soils and plan my building project. I wanted to build this home totally by myself as it felt so personal and I loved the process. I also saw how in the community around me some women were still building traditional huts using natural materials. The huts are made from very high clay soil, usually from a termite mound and so crack a lot. Since restrictions were set for where people could live (there are no fences, so wild animals move freely) homesteads are no longer temporary, and the longevity of these buildings began to matter. These days, people opt for more modern materials that are costly both financially and environmentally. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that it was possible to build a home from natural materials that was comfortable in our climate, could last a long time and meet all our needs.

Sculpted spiral plaster detail

Sculpted spiral plaster detail


From the beginning, I fell in love with the process of cob building, mixing sand, clay and straw with my feet and making big balls of this mix to sculpt the walls. I was so in love with cob in fact that I was blinded.  I had made up my mind even before trying cob building on the course; and once I started ‘mud dancing’ that just sealed the deal for me. I was also set on doing everything 100 % natural and making no concessions, that I ended up making some mistakes.  I started to see this after a year of building a somewhat large round cob house. I had built the stone foundations and half of the cob wall, but as I was building alone it was very slow and the rainy season was approaching. I had to cover the walls to protect the cob as there was no roof yet.


One of my biggest fears when I was first researching cob building was termites. There are many termites where we live and they go everywhere. Still, I didn’t want to put a metal termite barrier between the foundation and the walls as this was both an added financial and environmental cost. Yet, when I covered the walls the dark moist environment was perfect for them, and they moved in to the walls. It was very difficult to face, but I had to reconsider everything!

I had started to be interested in natural building because of Permaculture, a process of designing systems that work with nature rather than against nature. I realised I should have done a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) before doing a natural building course, as this would have given me the tools I needed to think through all the elements and design a home with nature in mind.

So back to Berg-en-dal I went to do a PDC. I had to re-think and re-build my confidence to continue, and after two amazing weeks, a lot of emotion and good advice from Peter McIntosh and the PDC facilitators, I had the energy to go back home and rethink and re-design. It has been just over a year now, and I am almost finished building what has changed into a small home. It has just two small bedrooms and a small living space, the rest are verandahs and outdoor spaces. I will still use the previous structure, but in a different way.

Sun baked mud-bricks for the wall and termite barrier between rock stemwall and brick wall.

Sun baked mud-bricks for the wall and termite barrier between rock stemwall and brick wall.

I learnt my lesson and adapted: I could still do mud dancing but now made sun-dried bricks. I made many new tests using the same clay that my neighbours were using. The difference being that I added sand to stop the bricks cracking and made very thick walls. I made sure I had finished these in the dry season and put the roof up on poles before the rains started. I had one person helping me some of the time and I called for help whenever I needed more specialised information. The foundations are stone again and this time I made a metal termite barrier between this and the walls.

Cob bench

Cob bench



Local clay tiles for the floor.

Local clay tiles for the floor.

To see our dream come to life is amazing. It’s been an exciting journey thus far and it’s only just begun, in the next couple of months I hope to move ‘home’ with my family and carry on testing and promoting natural building and Permaculture in our community. There are many challenges living with wild animals such as elephants and lions and surviving from the land. The soils are very sandy and the dry season can stretch out for very long periods, but I believe that there are simple and practical solutions so that we can take care of both people and wildlife.


You can follow what I am doing on my blog