African vernacular architecture

Documentation for Preservation- creating a data base for the preservation of African Vernacular Architecture

I wanted to share with you a very short and very cool video.  For the past year I have been reaching out to people on Linked In… anyone who believes that African vernacular architecture should be documented.  I connected with 14,000 people… in every African country and around the world.

When I decided to document Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland I reached out to people on my network and asked if they wanted to be part of the project and asked if they would shoot a video that I could share with the world.

Simon Mclloyd Chimwaza, an Urban Planner in Malawi, did just that!! The video really brings out Simon’s passion that Malawi vernacular architecture should be documented.  I applaud Simon and his friends for a great effort.

This is the link to my Indie GoGo campaign to document African vernacular architecture:

Part 1.

One of the 1st blogs I wrote… I tried to make a point.  The point being that African vernacular architecture has very little presence on- line. Part of the consequence is that it remains to most.. misunderstood and therefore not appreciated. 

For my blog I looked at google images “african vernacular architecture” and then I looked at google images “twilight”.

"twilight" brought forth images from the popular movie…. pages and pages… and… more pages.  "african vernacular architecture"… not so much.  The images did not even fill a page.  Quite quickly images of "african-american vernacular architecture" and "asian vernacular architecture" started to populate the page.

That was well over a year ago.  A search today?  Well "twilight" is still going strong (people really like this Jacob guy). A search for "african vernacular architecture" brings many more images then a year ago.

We will take a look at the reason why.. but let’s first look at the top results on the search. The images come across my screen 5- 6 images a row.

The 1st row… 1st and 2nd image… is from a blog titled

Great pictures… great blog… I blogged about it. 3rd image is about “african-american vernacular architecture”. 3rd image and the search is already incorrect?  Sure… it’s similar… but not really. 

2nd row… 1st image from an article titled shipping a vernacular village out to Africa. I did a blog about this… I do not agree with it. The project itself I do not have a huge problem with… it’s the title.  How can you import steel and glass and then call it vernacular? It is not.. and it is crazy to label it thus. Just because you label it vernacular does not mean it instantly becomes so… oh wait… it turned up so on the google results so it must be so!!

2nd row… 5th image.. that is an article about my Zambia vernacular architecture web page.

The next blog (part 2). will look at more of the images.  It is important to be aware of what is being “considered” or more importantly “labeled” African vernacular architecture.  That is the goal of my research project.

I have been  blogging about African vernacular architecture for well over a year .  I have a few basic “truths” that I keep pointing out in the blog… article.. video.. web page that I blog about.

1.Architecture is a major component of a country’s culture.

2.African vernacular architecture is disappearing.

3.People do not believe in vernacular materials and construction techniques.

4. People do believe in western materials and construction techniques

5. Vernacular materials and techniques have worked and still do.

6. Vernacular materials are sustainable.

7. Building with western materials is a status symbol… an indication of wealth.

8. Documentation of African vernacular architecture is very limited but it is an important task that needs to be done.

Because of these truths.. I have decided to do something about it!

I just launched an Indie GoGo campaign to raise funds to document the vernacular architecture of Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland.

If you feel this is truly an important project you can help…

1. Open the link to my Indie GoGo campaign page.

2. Make a comment about how important this project is… and it is.

3. Share the link with your network.. Email… Twitter.. FaceBook….

4. Contribute to the campaign

Here is the link again to my campaign:

Thanks for helping me preserve a piece of culture.



I am back from a break on blogging about African vernacular architecture.  It is not that I was tired of blogging… or ran out of things to blog about.

I took a break because I had to take time to move forward on this project of documenting African vernacular architecture…. and very soon I will announce the launching of my campaign.

One of the countries I hope to document is Malawi.

I have just launched the Malawi vernacular architecture web page where the pictures, sketches and analysis will be placed.

Stay tuned for further updates.



Naijatreks is a travel blog all about Nigeria written by Folarin Kolawole. On March 7th 2014 he posted a blog titled The Genius of our ancient Yoruba Architects. I have read a few of Folarin’s blogs and I think that he is a powerful writer… he really brings you to the spot he is writing about. The blog begins, “I stood upon a hilltop in Idanre land, 900m above the surrounding plains. Before me sat the ancient Oba’s Palace, surrounded by thickets of verdant forests, outshoots of granite rocks and relics of the ageless Oke-Idanre village. The mud buildings stand bold and strong, through centuries they endured countless downpours of fearsome rains and inestimable volumes of raging solar heat. Bold, sturdy and resilient they stood, radiating their timeless beauty and charm through well structured layouts, carefully crafted columns, windows and doors, bearing the artistic patterns and imprints of the ancient African art. Old Oke-Idanre is a relic ancient settlement, located up on the gigantic hills of Idanre area, in Ondo State, southwestern Nigeria.” I can really see this place in my mind. The structure has numerous courtyards which allows connection to the exterior but still having privacy. He goes on to say, “Also, it is quite interesting to note that ancient builders in Yoruba land had a good knowledge of roofing structures. The buildings at Old Oke-Idanre has varying roof types, ranging from heap roof types, to gable roof and lean-to roof types. Some of the well built houses in the village has thick and sturdy columns supporting the roof at the front of the houses, while others has simple wooden poles as pillars. At the Oba’s Palace, the roofs are supported by creatively and artistically carved human figures.” The really great thing is that he has quite a few pictures on the blog… and the pictures really tell the story. He finishes up talking about the magistrate court, “The ancient magistrate court shows a simple design and a little ‘formal’ character, as its columns were made of mud, but strong and well defined, unlike the columns of the Oba’s Palace which were composed of wood pillars carved into different figures, giving an aura of cultural significance. The witness box in the court room is made entirely of mud.” Check out the picture of the witness box! He concludes by stating, “Nevertheless, as advanced as architecture is in our world today, there may be countless lessons and ideas to pick from these structures.” This structure and all African vernacular architecture. Well said Folarin… and great blog!

Architecture In Development is an open architecture platform whose mission is, "to re-connect sustainable development to architecture by developing a user-generated knowledge platform.” Not only do I think it is a great project… the web site itself is just beautifully done. Well laid out.. very clean and easy to navigate. One of my favorite features is the map which makes the site very organized! On July 17, 2011 Ilse van Winssen posted a project titled Mousgoum Dwellings, Pouss Cameroon. Each project on the AID site is described by Introduction, Image gallery, Technical Drawings, Cultural and Social Context, Materials and Building Techniques, Earth and Climate and External Links. Again… greatly organized. In the introduction it is stated, “The Mousgoum tolek, a freestanding dome made of clay, was said to have been disappearing as early as the 1930s through the combination of forced labor under French colonialism, Mousgoum emigration, changes in societal structures, illness, and death. Tourism played a vital role in the regained popularity of the dwellings since the 1990’s. Furthermore it has been argued that Mousgoum architecture has been preserved is the clear visual distinctive differences with the Western architecture. In that sense the Mousgoum dwellings went “from house to indigenous monument and tourist attraction.” The structures themselves are very unique and there are a few images that show this. Under the section Materials and Building Techniques the author says, “The Mousgoum buildings are an example of cob buildings and feature geometrical raised patterns. The architecture of Mousgoum houses follow the shape of a shell. The doorway is heavenly framed and really marks the entrance. The construction of Mousgoum houses is very solid, even though they have no foundation. Thicker walls at the base and thinner walls at the top of the construction enhance its strength. The top of the houses have an opening to allow for air circulation.” Great explanation of Mousgoum dwellings and again… great site!!

Wired magazine is a print and on line source that covers how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy and politics. On March 28, 2014 an article written by Joseph Flaherty was published titled A Giant Basket That Uses Condensation to Gather Drinking Water. The article begins by saying “ Around the world, 768 million people don’t have access to safe water. Designer Arturo Vittori believes the solution to this catastrophe lies not in high technology, but in sculptures that look like giant-sized objects from the pages of a Pier 1 catalog. His stunning water towers stand nearly 30 feet tall and can collect over 25 gallons of potable water per day by harvesting atmospheric water vapor. Called WarkaWater towers, each pillar is comprised of two sections: a semi-rigid exoskeleton built by tying stalks of juncus or bamboo together and an internal plastic mesh, reminiscent of the bags oranges come in. The nylon and polypropylene fibers act as a scaffold for condensation, and as the droplets of dew form, they follow the mesh into a basin at the base of the structure”. The cool thing about this project is not only the direct benefit it offers.. but also the source of inspiration. “Instead of looking to Western technology for a solution, Vittori was inspired by the Warka tree, a giant, gravity-defying domed tree native to Ethiopia that sprouts figs and is used as a community gathering space.” Even though the towers use mesh… a non vernacular material.. I feel that is not the same as using metal panels instead of thatch. A structure is protected from the elements using either metal roofing or thatch… metal roofing being expensive to transport. But for the water towers… importing this mesh is not expensive and the alternative is a deep well which the pumps have to be maintained or walking miles for not so clean water. This is a great project which I hope has great success.

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.