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.

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