African vernacular architecture

Documentation for Preservation- creating a data base for the preservation of African Vernacular Architecture
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EiABC… Ethiopian Institute of Architecture and Building Construction. is an Architecture school in Ethiopia. On the schools web site is a page titled vernacular architecture… and that page from May 30, 2011 is titled Research project catalog of Vernacular Architecture in Ethiopia. The background begins with a quote from Paul Oliver, who is a significant contributor in vernacular architecture. The background continues by saying, “Vernacular Architecture in literary terms may be defined as the architectural languages of the people. Related to their environmental context and available resources, Vernacular Architectures are built by utilizing traditional materials and with it appropriate technologies. Vernacular Architectures usually meet specific needs, accommodate cultural and social values, and relate to existing economic possibilities.This research aims to explore the Vernacular Architectural system in Ethiopia and its contribution to a possible future sustainable housing theory for several ethnic and tribal groups in Ethiopia.” This is great!! I have been beating the drum that African vernacular architecture must be documented… the articles I blog about state this… many people say this. So now we come to the objective, “The main objective of this research is three fold: Documentation(analysis and documentation of existing house typologies), Improvement (improvements by combining traditional materials and new building techniques and methods), and Replacement (new housing typologies using traditional techniques giving a social identification).” Again… great!!! Let’s not even consider the last two objectives, Improvement and Replacement… which are very relevant and important. Let’s focus on the first objective… documentation… very, very important. Without documentation there can be no analysis… no improvement let alone replacement. On the web page there are 2 pictures which I take to be 2 pages from the catalog… they are incredible. Pictures and sketches backed up with text…. just really well done So I applaud EiABC for this vernacular catalog… except… it is not there. The 2 pictures are just thumbnails that do not enlarge.. and there is no way to access the catalog. I have no idea why. This is the information that must be shared… this is the raw data. Is it possible that these 2 pages were the only ones produced? Maybe… but I do not not know… my attempts to contact EiABC brought no results. I hope this becomes available on line, because it truly looks like an incredible documentation and analysis.

De Zeen magazine is an on line publication which states. “Our mission is simple: to bring you a carefully edited selection of the best architecture, design and interiors projects from around the world”. On January 14, 2014 they published an article, African Children’s Library with Rammed Earth Walls by BC Architects. The project is located in Burundi and utilizes the open structure network. The article says, “The Library of Muyinga is the first building of a project to build a new school for deaf children, using local materials and construction techniques, and referencing indigenous building typologies.” The Open Structures Network is a source of information that is open for people to use. A floor plan was taken and modified with an added porch, where a good part of daily life occurs. “Rammed earth blocks form the richly coloured walls and were produced using a pair of vintage compressor machines. They create rows of closely spaced piers around the exterior, supporting a heavy roof clad with locally made baked-clay tiles. “The challenge of limited resources for this project became an opportunity,” said the architects. “We managed to respect a short supply-chain of building materials and labour force, supporting the local economy and installing pride in the construction of a library with the poor people’s material - earth.” That’s one great point about this project… instead of importing expensive materials… mainly metal roofing.. they sourced out local solutions. There are a few pictures, and they are pretty cool. Every vernacular structure has a different coloring to it… depending on location… due to the difference in soil content. This library has very deep earthy colors… and the building itself is just a solid structure and a great example of vernacular materials being utilized in an effective way.

Association la Voûte Nubienne - AVN, is a group whose motto is “Affordable, sustainable housing for as many people as possible, as soon as possible”. The group is dedicated to the construction of Nubian vault structures. AVN’s mission, "In sub-Saharan Africa, the struggle to obtain decent housing plunges millions of families into a vicious circle of poverty. Association la Voûte Nubienne (AVN) offers a solution to this problem, based on three integrated concepts: A roof + a skill + a market. AVN organizes the training and support of local teams to promote this solution on a large-scale. As a result, families can acquire affordable, sustainable, and decent housing, at the same time improving their economic conditions, their quality of life, and their environment.” Well.. that just sounds like a “win- win” situation… and in reality it is.  “Nubian vault construction uses local skills and labor and renewable materials for sustainable low cost homes and other buildings. They are environmentally friendly and far cheaper, more comfortable and longer lasting than the widespread, but expensive and sub-standard cement block, metal roofed buildings. NV building creates jobs, reduces poverty and releases scarce resources to go to improved nutrition, health, education, and capital for improved economic productivity.” The web site has videos and numerous galleries. The group addresses this importation of western materials by saying, “People in rural areas have to buy sheet metal (corrugated iron), sawn timber beams and rafters for roof-building. These imported building materials, with their deplorable thermal, acoustic, and aesthetic properties, must be paid for in cash, a problem for those living mostly outside any formal economic system.” You can not be more sustainable than using soil right on site. It also brings up the issue that these materials are expensive to import and they do not perform as well as vernacular ones for insulation, sound and beauty. This is a great organization and the web site is well done with a lot of information.

AS.Architecture-Studio is a group that “aimed at promoting dialogue around contemporary architecture by means of a specific cultural venue, Campiello Santa Maria Nova in Venice.” The group is hosting a design competition Young Architects in Africa, and is described by, “The aim of this competition is to underline the essential role played by African architecture and architects today. Architects younger than 45 or organizations can submit a project until March 15, they will be selected by an international jury, and the awards ceremony will be held in Venice. The winning projects will then be exhibited at CA’ASI Venice during the 14th International Architecture Biennale, whose opening is in June, 2014. Other exhibitions are planned in arc-en-rêve Bordeaux, Academy of Architecture in Paris and some other venues in Africa. However, as we deepen our researches on African architecture, we have come to think that it would be a pity not to have some illustrations and examples of a form of architecture that is very dominant in the field of African architecture: self-built projects or architecture without official architects.” I think that this is great!! I have read numerous articles and papers that state that African architecture has no voice in the world… that only western architecture receives all the attention. Well… here you go… you have a voice now… lets here it!! I am looking forward to seeing the entries and hope that there will be projects that utilize and celebrate vernacular materials and techniques.

This is another article from e-architect, a major on line resource for architecture…. This article titled, Uganda Architecture – Brick Making : Article 25 Development in Africa, was updated on February 15, 2014 and written by Article 25 for e-architect. Article 25 is a remarkable organization, that was originally called Architects for Aid and deserves to be described in a future blog. Go check them out: This specific project is about bricks in Uganda and begins by saying, “In all of our projects we aim to use the most sustainable – environmentally, socially and financially – materials available. Determining what these are requires undertaking an initial materials audit, a study of vernacular technique, and a skills audit to determine the best approach and where it might be possible to improve existing techniques and skills.” One of the most common vernacular material is brick, sun dried or burnt. Being common all through out Africa, it is not surprising that they have different properties from one location from another. Article 25 utilizes bricks in many projects and have experienced poor quality in some of these locations. Article 25 states, "In Uganda, we are building a vocational training centre for former child soldiers with Jubilee Action. The project is nearing completion, but at the outset we required around 750,000 bricks for the job. The quality of existing brick available in the market was extremely poor. As a result, our solution was to source murram, a type of sub-soil, from a local quarry about 6.5km from the site to produce pressed stabilised soil blocks (SSB). We chose not to fire the bricks as is common practice in the region due to endemic shortages of timber and the subsequent negative environmental impact that that process has. Instead our project partner Jubilee Action bought two brick presses from Kenya for the community to keep and use in the future.” They bring up a good point about the firing of bricks, the kilns do use a lot wood, and in some areas this is a scarce material. Burnt bricks are a stronger material and there is a trade-off by not firing the bricks… to achieve strength, concrete is added as a stabilizer. The article then goes on to describe the technical details about mixes, curing time and strength tests. The article finishes off by saying, “ There are a number of complexities involved in humanitarian work including access to skills, materials and information that require innovation and flexibility. We are also working in extremely complex social and political contexts with communities recovering from years of Civil War or dealing with extreme privation. These factors must be considered in all of Article 25 projects and addressed to ensure that building projects become a conduit for skills training, building community trust and ultimately peace building.” Once again I applaud Article 25 and the work that they do.

Bukisa is “a one stop shop for how-to, informational & educational content. We are both an aggregator and a UGC website. We provide content in the form of articles, videos, presentations, audio recordings and image slideshows.” This article titled Traditional And Cultural East And North East African Homes, posted on October 1, 2010 is the second article on this subject (there is no link to the 1st article). The article provides a picture and a brief description of vernacular structures in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Sudan, for a total of 16 examples. The article starts off by saying, “The houses in East Africa are made with materials that make them cool in the hot weathers and warm in the cold rainy seasons. The materials used range from mud, brick, dung, grass and stone depending on the area. The homes would be huddled together in a homestead in a village based on the African communal nature. The close promixty identifies the relatedness of the people and also traditional acted as a form of protection against outsiders.” The article then begins to describe specific structures, an example being “Square house with cone like top, Southeren Sudan: This house is square at the bottom and is made with bricks and mud. The top is thatched with the traditional African thatch. All the lower parts of the house around have been painted black.” The descriptions are not in depth but do have more information then many other articles I have seen. The article does provide a picture and description from some unique structures in Tanzania, “This is a rare sight because these are traditional homes with a chimney. Most African traditional homes do not have a chimney like this. This may be a refurbished traditional houses retaining the traditional design while incorporating some modern materials.” The structures are actually part of a game lodge and is not a refurbished structure… but it is unique and stunning. I wrote a blog about it:

INTBUA, International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism, is a group that is doing a lot for vernacular architecture around the world including Africa. I will have to write a blog specifically about the group in the future. An article written by Robin Kent titled Towards a Heritage Inventory in Rwanda, looks at the vernacular architecture of Rwanda and how it is being threatened by modern materials and techniques. The article states, “while the cultural significance of arts and crafts is acknowledged, there is as yet no inventory of sites and buildings and the survival of these heritage assets is now threatened by rapid modernisation.” People who had read previous blogs knows that this is one of the constant themes we talk about. That there is little to no documentation about African vernacular architecture… and that it is vanishing!! The article has an unique perspective because it deals with refugees returning from the 1999 genocide, “Traditional vernacular buildings also survive throughout the country, from thatched round houses and clay-walled circular huts in various regional styles to timber and clay structures…. the pace of change, especially since the genocide, has been extraordinary. Although the 416 genocide memorial sites are protected, the current drive for development to accommodate returning refugees and a fast-growing population, and to raise living standards, is threatening Rwanda’s other historical sites and traditional buildings. There is a pressing need for an intensive study to be carried out to identify, classify and record Rwanda’s vanishing heritage sites and buildings.” The author then says this project will be two steps, “The first stage will comprise a pilot study to gain understanding of what constitutes Rwandan cultural heritage ‘places’, recognising the need for this to reflect local understanding rather than be imposed from outside." and the second "will develop and test a user-friendly toolkit for wider identification and classification of Rwanda’s cultural heritage by local communities.” I do not know if this project/ research ever happened… but I hope it did and I hope that I can find out. There must be documentation for the preservation of African vernacular architecture.

PROTA… Plant Resources of Tropical Africa is a web page/ data base that provides scientific information on plant species. This entry is on Alpine bamboo known as Sinarundinaria alpina. Here are the facts: “Origin and geographic distribution, African alpine bamboo occurs in scattered populations on mountains from southern Sudan and Ethiopia southwards to Malawi. Uses, The whole stems of African alpine bamboo are used for hut construction, particularly as rafters, and for fencing… in Uganda they are made into beehives. Properties, The mean density of the stem wall of African alpine bamboo is about 0.7 g/cm³ at 8% moisture content. Dried stems used in construction and fencing are susceptible to infestation by the powder-post beetle Dinoderus minutus. Nevertheless, the stems are considered durable and houses and fences made from them in DR Congo are said to last for more than 20 years. Harvesting, Natural stands of African alpine bamboo can be clear-felled but recovery is slow, development of full-sized stems taking 9–10 years. Stems must be full-sized and at least 3 years old before they can be exploited for structural use.” There are many other properties provided, but the ones quoted here relate to construction. The main PROTA page is currently under construction, and hoping to check back to see how much data is on the entire site.

African Vernacular Architecture has joined the Creative African Network, “An initiative of PUMA.Creative, Creative Africa Network is both a live and virtual platform with global reach, connecting the creative world within and outside of Africa, giving visibility to the talents working in architecture, dance, design, fashion, film, fine art, literature, music, new media, performing arts and photography." Not only have we added our profile.. we also have created an opportunity, conducting interviews about African vernacular architecture," is about getting the word out. There is value and beauty in traditional architecture. But because of misconceptions, African vernacular architecture is marginalized, misunderstood and definitely not represented on-line. That’s where you come in. wants to share what your thoughts on the issue. All you need is an opinion, Skype and 5- 10 minutes for a chat. The interview will be posted on YouTube so all the world can learn more about African vernacular architecture! Please contact us at:" If anybody wants to talk about this subject… please contact us!!

Weekly Trust is “an on-line news source that is”a national weekly newspaper based in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. The paper reports current general interest news and commentary.” On June 26, 2010 they published an article titled In Kano, traditional Hausa Architecture is Vanishing. The article begins, “Traditional Hausa architecture appears to have long gone out of vogue, no thanks to the twists of modernity. For over a thousand years, it is said that traditional Hausa architecture has been part and parcel of the Hausa civilization itself. In every city, town or village, there was a clan of building experts who exclusively built and maintained buildings in their domains. Richness in the architectural design often signifies royalty, power, wealth and scholarship. From Kano, Rano, Gobir, Hadejia, Zaria, Katsina, Daura, Sokoto, some Niger Republic cities and other ancient places, the architectural design that once adorned these towns have now been replaced with the modern architectural designs – often laced with the traditional Hausa architectural touch.” I have been to Kano… about 6 years ago and I was amazed by the beauty of the vernacular architecture. Unfortunately this “vanishing” is happening all over Africa. One reason given in Kano, “Maintenance is another factor. People find it very difficult to maintain the traditional designs because the materials are difficult to find and the expertise is also fast-vanishing.” Musa advised that people dealing in building materials should supply traditional building wares so that people can easily access and obtain them in the market. “Once the traditional materials become difficult to obtain, instead of people adopting the traditional buildings styles, the existing ones too will be phased out,” he said. According to him, lack of research and transfer of technology to the younger generation are some other factors militating against the development of the traditional designs.” Once again, we hear the phrase “lack of research” or… lack of documentation. We also hear about the “myth” of vernacular architecture, “The other problem is inferiority complex. Because people believe that living in mud houses is a sign of backwardness, forgetting that there is a lot of science in mud houses.” This was a very insightful article that makes arguments that we at also believe in.