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10x10 SHELTER CHALLENGE: How to Reinvent the African Mud Hut

Valentina Dall'Orto, Politecnico of Milan at Piacenza, Italy

In February 2013, Valentina Dall'Orto completed a 10 x 10 Shelter Challenge at the Abetenim Arts Village Ghana. Dall'Orto participation in the design-build project was to enable her write her thesis on African architecture in fulfillment of the requirements for a bachelor degree in Environmental Architecture at Politecnico of Milan, Piacenza, Italy. She had 20 days onsite to complete the design process and build the project. As follows are the process photos, drawings and the video report. Seeing the photos from Dall'Orto’s statement prior to onsite immersion, you will notice that the ideas participants bring to the village are subject to factors such as site conditions and time participant has onsite to complete the project:

My project's idea is based on a combination of traditional techniques of African architecture and the concept of recycle. Interstitial spaces are filled with a moisture of concrete and earth. Also the covering roof is made with an unusual material: I have planned to use cans, which are pressed and modeled with a template. Using these technologies, the built environment causes the least possible impact on the environment, but at the same time it can guarantee an high functionality and living comfort. I am really interested in participating in this workshop, not only because I have always been fascinated by African architecture, but also because I'm doing my thesis on this argument. So, for those reasons I think that an experience of learning-by-doing is very important and interesting.

Valentina Dall'Orto can be reached via valentina.dallorto@libero.it.


Sang Round House by Design-Build Team of Nico Smith, Humphrey Lloyd and George Bell from Wales, UK
For example, in February 2012 Nico Smith initiated and collaborated with Humphrey Lloyd and George Bell to design-build “Sang Round House” at the Sang Arts Village in the Northern Ghana.
This film documents a collaborative project between the NKA foundation and Red Kite building - Designer/builder Nico Smith along with Humphrey Lloyd and George Bell went to Sang, a small town in the north of Ghana to build a community centre using a mixture of traditional and non-traditional methods, collaborating and learning from local tradespeople and craftsmen.

In February 2012, Nico Smith initiated and collaborated with Humphrey Lloyd and George Bell to design-build the Sang Round House at Sang Arts Village in Northern Ghana. The team now operates as Red Kite Build (redkitebuild.org). The contact e-mail is redkitebuild@gmail.org or SKYPE the team leader with the following information: Nico Smith and telephone number 07725572834. See their web page about the Sang project at http://redkitebuild.org/community-arts-centre-in-sang-ghana/ and here are additional images from the project.





Our true initiation came at the Damba festival where we were forced to dance in front of 500 people including the chief, which was met by huge cheers and laughter- to truly let go was a huge adrenaline rush, and afterwards I felt more at home.


Timber Frame


Opening event
In the end the opening event turned out to be a memorable affair, and a success.


Method – the walls were constructed using a method traditional to the Dagomba region- that is a monolithic earth wall using a mixture of subsoil and topsoil.






Plastering and Flooring
The plastering and flooring were the two sections of the build that were performed by women. For both parts of the build we worked with the same group of women, led mainly by Pasta's mother, consisting of around 19 women of all ages. Compared to working with the men this was a hugely energetic affair, with fast work, jovial banter and singing and chanting. The women sang many traditional songs, often call-and response, and when flooring this formed an important part of the rhythm when compressing the floor with bats.


 Progress Report
(How to Reinvent Vernacular African Mud Hut)

The design-build team of Karolina and Wayne of Atelier Switzer has completed a 10x10 Shelter Challenge at Abetenim Arts Village in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.  The 10x10 Shelter Challenge is a hands-on, site-based design experience focused on learning-by-doing in African architecture that is run by Nka Foundation till October 2013.  The challenge is to design and build a learning shelter that measures 10 feet by 10 feet in a location outside of the Western culture, most precisely deep in the village in Ghana, where the convenience of development has not reached.  The goal of the shelter is to suggest a relationship between art and architecture by maximum use of local materials.

Karolina and Wayne of Atelier Switzer are both architects with about 8 years of experience in Europe and the United States.  They, along with 5 builders, had 6 weeks to conduct the site analysis, design and construct their proposal which consisted of a pavilion that made use of corrugated zinc roofing over rammed earthen walls.  Here are photos from the project stay at Abetenim from September 7 to October 17, 2012.

(photos- from walling to completion)


As follows is except from their progress report from the site:  
"…We are happy to report that construction is underway on the workshop and that the team here is working well together to make this project a collaborative one.  The first few days were spent observing the local earth-building methods and the condition of these structures- including the projects of past Abetenim Arts Village residents.  We finally settled on constructing a rammed earthen building which would feature in essence two rooms: an "indoor" room and "outdoor area" for conducting classes- both of which would be sheltered beneath a large shed roof.  Our site is a clearing adjacent to a sprawling mango tree, and visible from the road leading into the Arts Village. 

Several reasons led us to pursue the rammed earth construction method.  Practically speaking, the local soil is an ideal mix of sand, clay and gravel, as well as being readily available.  The method of formwork and casting the earth is also a skill that is easily learned by almost any builder.  With a proper foundation and roof overhang, the earthen walls should prove to be very durable and serve as an example for the village that an earthen building can be both contemporary and withstand the natural elements over time.  Finally, we were inspired by the daily sight of residents using a large pole to pound fufu (the cassava diet staple).  This pounding is exactly the same method used to ram the fresh soil into the forms… which has led to our project being dubbed “obruni fufu” (white man’s fufu) by the local builders.” 

Gross Area: 140 sf
Total Area (footprint):  496 sf
Project Cost:  6,500 Cedi (equivalent $3,500 USD)
Construction Duration:  5 weeks

(photos- showing detail)

The rural design-build challenge proffers a change in the way the young creative practitioners think about their work in our interconnected world.  As the participant, your ability to generate a locally responsive design concept is only one aspect of the site-based design challenge.  Unless your team is many in number, you must find a way to engage the community throughout the construction process.

One of the primary challenges you will face is to effectively communicate your idea to the community.  Keep in mind that this is a multi-faceted obstacle, for instance:
1.  Unless you speak the local dialect of Twi, you will be dependant upon the community coordinator to interpret your intentions.  This can be taxing for both the designer and the coordinator.  Local builders also have little to no experience with drawings.  You should plan in advance how best to illustrate your project to enable the local builders bring their gifts to the project.  Simply stated, learning to deal well with the cultural and linguistic differences will turn what seems a difficult task into a most rewarding experience for everyone. 
2.  There is a stigma associated with mud architecture, and the community is likely to resist any attempt to utilize it.  The sentiment is that mud buildings are only for the very poor and impoverished.  However, their belief is not ungrounded.  The local community has many examples of cob constructions which have eroded over time due to poor construction and water damage.
3.   As in most developing areas, the people of Abetenim will likely prioritize earning a daily wage over volunteering for you project.  Your challenge will be to negotiate a wage that is fair to everyone involved, at the same time encouraging the community to view this project as one beneficial for themselves.  Expectations for typical wage rates can vary greatly depending on the person involved. 

The Abetenim project site is a rural flat land.  The top soil is red earth mixed with gravel that is right for cob construction or the rammed earth method.  The nearby forests provide lumber for house roofing for a population of about 500 peasant farmers, small scale traders and craft persons.  The site-based 10x10 Shelter Challenge is open to all students and graduates of design, architecture, art, engineering and school teams interested in rural projects in Africa.  For the local community, the realized space, as the design team of Karolina and Wayne of Atelier Switzer puts it, thus serves as an “example for the village that an earthen building can be both contemporary and withstand the natural elements over time”.  For students, the design-build challenge is a unique opportunity to learn hands-on the intricacies of working with vernacular constraints of economy, material and social dimensions in a real-life project aiming to sustain social harmony through art and architecture.  In the process, the student will learn to design what is buildable to make a well rounded graduate.  For the professionals, you will find the hands-on design and construction experience a pause from your office work stress to rediscover the rudiments of architecture and nuances that can refresh your practice.

The 10x10 Shelter Challenge will run till October 2013 involving the following sessions: February 10-March 10, 2013; May 1-30, 2013; July 7-August 7, 2013; and October 3-31, 2013. Join us!  Show the world how to re-invent the vernacular African mud hut!  See press release on the 10x10 Shelter Challenge at http://prlog.org/11891895 and http://www.archdaily.com/269126.




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