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

Exterior

Exterior

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

http://dancelikeanelephant.blogspot.com

 

 

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

 

 

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.

See Disclaimer

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.