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The Vernacular architecture as a model for

Sustainable design in Africa.

Mr Bonginkosi G. Mabaleka


In this piece of writing the writer will make particular reference to vernacular
architecture in Africa in the country Libya and Zimbabwe and how it has developed
and what determines the vernacular architecture in these selected countries. The
writer will examine how vernacular architecture has developed over the years and
how modern sustainable design has adopted elements of vernacular architecture.

The aim of this research is also to explore and evaluate the architectural design
elements that can be adopted from the vernacular architecture in Africa and seek
solutions from traditional architecture, in order to come up with cheaper and better
ways of providing good standard sustainable buildings and spaces for rural areas
and cities. The research mainly addresses the Africa situation and we expect this to
assist in the process of eradicating poor perception of the vernacular architecture by
most Africans. This paper will examine some vernacular architecture in Africa to see
how it has impacted Africa and it has been in harmony with the environment.


Vernacular Architecture is increasingly becoming a subject of major interest not only

to architecture theorists, but also to designers and technologists for very many good
reasons. It has now become very apparent, that although technological
advancement brings modern civilization to our communities, it also accelerates the
disappearance not only the style of life which has been developed over a span of

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many centuries, but also the very veins of cultural identity which are so vital for the
survival of any society.

The onslaught of modern technology has robbed our communities of the construction
skills and environmentally sensitive design of their dwellings. “Modern Architecture”
is becoming more and more environmentally unfriendly not only to people, but also
to the surrounding natural environment, including the excessive use of energy in
cooling buildings. That is why we have to revert back to vernacular architecture to
see how we can be salvage the vernacular principles and use them in sustainable
architecture. There has been a turn around after years of environmentally unfriendly
materials and bad architecture to sustainable building materials and construction


Vernacular architecture concepts where developed and used through the centuries
by many civilizations across the world through trial and error, hence architectural
styles are different and based on the local conditions. Vernacular architecture around
the world is impressively rich with indigenous techniques early ancient people used
to protect themselves from the diverse weather conditions they were subjected to.
These early dwellers survived by sheltering themselves in the traditional buildings,
which have been experimented on through the ages.

In vernacular architecture, not only the climatic problems were resolved, but also the
aesthetics, physical and social functions of the dwelling is considered this is why the
designs are so different across Africa. Generations after generation, the dwellings
provided comfortable life conditions as a result of the great architectural experience.
Very good examples can be drawn from the cross section of Africa that is from
northern part of Africa, Libya to the southern part of Africa, South Africa. The design
or structure of these early dwellings or settlements was determined by things like
climate, culture, environment and materials. Their dwellings seemed to live in
harmony with their surroundings, other words they were sustainable.

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Architects are responsible for most modern construction and can be considered to
be the people responsible for the enormous consumption by the building industry of
the very scarce energy resources available. More and more architects are becoming
aware of this big problem and are advancing the concept of "green" and sustainable
design. The architectural community has had a strong and continuing interest in
vernacular architecture. This has been rekindled by the need to design an
architecture that works well with climate and environment, rather than against, hence
the need to create more sustainable buildings.

This awareness means that the new designs and any refurbishment have to be
sustainable. Vernacular architecture in the past produced a built environment which
met people's needs without deteriorating the environment. This paper discusses the
concept of how we can use vernacular architecture principles to create sustainability
in building design with the search of the vernacular in Africa.

Chapter 1

Vernacular Architecture


Defining vernacular architecture is not easy as there are a lot of definitions. This
paper will start by trying to define the word “vernacular”. It is derived form the Latin
word “ vernaculus” which means native domestic, indigenous ,therefore it could
mean “ native science of buildings” Paul Oliver in Dwellings says “the term
vernacular generally refers to language or dialect of the people”.

R.W.Brunskill (2006) has defined in vernacular architecture as “buildings designed

by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by
a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be
fashionable”. The function of the building is the dominant factor, aesthetic
considerations, though present to some small degree, being quite minimal. Local
materials would be used in the construction.

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R.W. Brunskill (2006) goes on to say that “vernacular architecture is not to be
confused with so-called "traditional" architecture, though there are links between the
two”. Traditional architecture can also include buildings which bear elements of polite
design; temples and palaces, for example, which normally would not be included
under the fabric of "vernacular." In architectural terms, 'the vernacular' can be
contrasted with 'the polite', which is characterised by stylistic elements of design.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1996) describes vernacular architecture as a primitive form of

design, lacking intelligent thought. Many scholars disagree with his definition, when
he says that the designs lacked an intelligent thought .The designs saved a purpose
and that his definition does not look at the general vernacular architecture, he
probably looked at a small section of vernacular architecture and did not look at the
wider spectrum of vernacular architecture.

Oliver (2006), in Dwellings, goes on to say that, “as yet there is no clearly defined
and specialized discipline for the study of dwellings or the larger compass of
vernacular architecture. If such a discipline were to emerge it would probably be one
that combines some of the elements of both architecture and with aspects of history
and geography”.

Many scholars now use the term "vernacular architecture" to refer to structures made
by empirical builders, without the intervention of professional architects and without
the use of industrial components. It is still the most widespread method of building
homes across the globe according to (Rapoport 1969). All forms of vernacular
architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies
and ways of life of the cultures that produce them.

From the different definitions above of vernacular architecture one concludes that it
is a term from academic architecture to categorize structures built outside of
academic tradition. The term “vernacular architecture” has many interpretations, but
its core definition suggests structures made without the intervention of professional

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architects, an indigenous but anonymous architecture, it is “architecture without
architects” says Bernard Rudofsky's (1964) in Architecture without Architects

The definition can include a wide variety of domestic and agricultural buildings,
industrial buildings, commercial structures, etc.

1.2 Types of Vernacular Architecture in Africa

Paul Oliver (2006) points out that, “vernacular architecture comprises dwellings and
all other buildings constructed by the people related to their environmental contexts
and available resources”, and they are customarily owner or community-built,
utilising traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet
specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of living of the
cultures that produce them.” The study of vernacular architecture explores the
characteristics of domestic buildings in particular regions or localities, and the many
social and cultural factors that have contributed to their evolution. Paul Oliver goes
on to say that “a culture without the presence of its history is a culture without roots
and meaning”.

Vernacular architecture can divided into three categories namely domestic,

agricultural and industrial. In the traditional African set up, there were two main
categories the domestic and industrial, which we shall look at in detail and industrial
in passing. The domestic architecture buildings were mainly constructed for living
and security. The domestic dwellings ranged from just a simple dwelling to bigger
and more sophisticated dwellings. The distinguishing feature of traditional vernacular
is that, design and construction are often done simultaneously, onsite, mostly by the
end users, which is the family. Some of those who eventually use the building are
often involved in its construction or at least have direct input in its form.

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Fig. 1 Clay buildings in Libya Fig 2 Clay and grass thatched
huts in Zimbabwe

Agricultural vernacular comprises of granary, clay or grass/wood barns, these were

mostly for the purposes of their personal produce and were located within the
homestead for security reasons ,so as to deter thieves from stealing. The materials
used varied with areas and partly influenced by climate, culture and environment.
This is shown by materials used is the Libyan granary and Zimbabwean granary
respectively as shown below.

Fig. 3 Granary in Libya Fig.4 Granary in Zimbabwe

Industrial architecture is less common because in came with the early settlers who
brought in the western influence in later centuries. The buildings included mills,
workshops, and kilns and for commercial building chapels and schools. (Brunskill

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Chapter 2

Vernacular architecture in Africa

2.1 Factors influencing vernacular architecture

Many architects have studied vernacular architecture history their studies have
resulted in the imitative and cosmetic way of designing. This was done by the use of
indigenous building methods. The building knowledge of vernacular architecture is
passed by local traditions. This is based on knowledge achieved through trial and
error and then passed down through the generations, in contrast to the architecture
planned and designed by architects. In order for us to see how climate, culture,
environment and materials influence vernacular architecture, the writer will look at
three different regions in Africa. In North Africa we look at Libya, Central Africa –
democratic republic of Congo-DRC, and in southern Africa Zimbabwe. The above
names counties are different in climate, culture and environment.

African architecture works on a traditional village scale, rather than following global
architectural styles. African architecture is a direct evocation of its physical
environment, and it is stylish depending on tradition. The climate of Africa is
extremely varied, from forests to grasslands and to deserts. The availability of
building materials is also varied, from mud to stone and to thatch, and they change
region by region.

Vernacular architecture in Africa

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South Africa `

Fig.4.1 Map of Africa

2.2 Libya

Libya is situated in at the northern part of Africa surrounded by countries like Algeria,
Niger, Chad, Sudan, Egypt and Tunisia. Libya is 4th largest country in Africa mostly
covered by the desert and has Islamic influence on the architecture. The climate of
the most Libya is distinguished with dryness with a big difference in temperature.
The area of Great Sahara plays a very important part in determining the climate of
the country. In the coastal area, the winter season is considered moderate, despite
the fall of snow in some high areas sometimes. Where the summer season is
considered hot relatively temperature reaches the maximum average in August and
the monthly temperature average does not exceed 30 Celsius degrees throughout
that period. There is no rain in summer.

Libya has Mediterranean climate at the areas near the coastline on the
Mediterranean Sea and Saharan climate as one moves away from the sea in land.
Some parts of Libya is covered by the Libyan Desert and some by the Sahara
desert, hence the climate has had a very big influence on the vernacular
architecture. The Mediterranean climate in Libya the dwelling often include a
courtyard with a fountain or pond so as to allow air to be cooled by evaporation and
air is drawn through the building by the natural ventilation set up by the building form.

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In the Saharan climate buildings have high thermal mass so as to keep the inside of
the building cool during the hot day and warmer at night when the building
discharges the heat accumulated during the day. The buildings also have chimneys
not for fire but to draw air in through the internal spaces to cool the building and
small windows to keep the occupants cool by not allowing too much hot air.

Climatic influences on vernacular architecture are substantial and can be extremely

complex. Climate is one of the most significant influences on vernacular architecture,
as a result of the inhabitants tried to overcome the weather conditions of the area.
Such specialisations are not designed, but learnt by trial and error over generations
of building construction, often existing long before the scientific theories which
explain why they work.

2.3 Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean vernacular architecture is integrated with nature in an agricultural

society of subsistence farming. The homesteads are laid out in different ways
depending on a tribe's culture. A typical Zimbabwean homestead includes a main
house with several related structures for various functions. The warm climate makes
outdoor spaces usable year-round. Buildings in warm climates like Zimbabwe, by
contrast, tend to be constructed out of lighter materials and to allow significant
ventilation through openings in the fabric of the building.

Zimbabwe has a sub-tropical climate, temperate by altitude and it is located in the

tropics, temperate conditions prevail all year. The summers in Zimbabwe are hot with
heavy rain falls in the mountain regions and forest areas. Zimbabwean winters are
renowned for being dry and cool. There is little rainfall in the southern regions of

Seasons in Zimbabwe

Spring: September - October

Summer: November - April

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Autumn: April - June
Winter: July – August

The traditional buildings in southern Africa ,like Zimbabwe , South Africa etc are
mainly constructed using clay moulded bricks or stone for the walls and grass
thatched roofs with opening between the roof and the walls to allow air-circulation.
The huts have reasonably size windows to allow air circulation during hot days.

Fig.5 Thatched huts Fig 6 round thatched hut with small


2.4a Climate
The people living in colder climates heat themselves burning wood or organic
disposals. The people living on warm and humid climates have utilized the air
currents for minimizing the effects of humidity. The people living in the hot dry
climates built houses with high thermal mass as a result of the big temperature
differences between day and night, and very low humidity. What they have in
common is that, they all have picked up the right forms, using the local building
material, and they have overcome the negative impacts of the climatic conditions.
The buildings have to be protected from bad weather conditions, for instance in
areas with high precipitation , the clay bricks have to be recovered almost every year
with some thin clay plaster, to protect and preserve bricks.

2.4b Culture

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Culture also has a great influence on the appearance of vernacular buildings. The
women often decorate buildings in accordance with local customs and beliefs. The
way shelters are used, is of great influence on building forms. The size of family ,who
shares which spaces, how food is prepared and eaten, how people interact and
many other cultural considerations will affect the space and size of the dwellings.
The decorations are done according to the customs and beliefs others express their
beliefs by decorations and other don’t. Libya has Islamic and Egyptian influence on
the architecture.

Fig.7 Decorated buildings Fig.8 Coned shaped huts

Family units of several Zimbabwean tribes live in family compounds, in which

separate single-roomed dwellings are built to house different members of the family.
In polygamous tribes will share the spaces and taking into account privacy, separate
dwellings for different wives, and children. Social interaction within the family is
encouraged by the setup of the homestead, where the family sits to socialise.
Privacy is provided by the separation of spaces within the homestead.

In other cultures in Zimbabwe in the Ndebele tribe women lay the floors, mud plaster
the walls or decorate them. The preparation of the materials and erection of the main
structure done by man. But, in either case it is the passing on of methods and the
training of the children, who will be the builders of the subsequent generation, which
are vital to societies and the perpetuity of their shelter

The homesteads are carefully crafted and maintained, showing the owners' pride in
their homes. Many Zimbabwean houses are decorated with wall paintings and may

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also decorate by way of variations in thatching patterns, brickwork, or woodworking

2.4c. Environment and materials

Vernacular is sustainable, and will not exhaust the local resources if done properly. If
it is not sustainable, it is not suitable for its local context, and cannot be vernacular.
Oliver, in Dwellings (2003), claims that “vernacular architecture is influenced by a
great range of different aspects of human behaviour and environment, leading to
differing building forms for almost every different context; even neighbouring villages
may have different approaches to the construction and use of their dwellings, even if
they at first appear the same”. Despite these variations, every building is subject to
the same laws of physics, which shows that vernacular architecture is not
thoughtless, as Frank Lloyd Wright suggests in his definition of vernacular
architecture, hence significant similarities in structural forms .Vernacular can be seen
everywhere in the world in it different forms where humans and have been
influenced by climate ,culture and materials.

The local environment and the construction materials it can provide, governs many
aspect of vernacular architecture. Since Libya has two types of climates, the
Mediterranean and the Sahara climates, the architecture is different near the cost
compared to inland. Materials determine the architecture e.g. clay, wood, grass
stone in some parts of Libya whereas inland clay is mostly used. Sun dried clays
bricks for the walls and then bricks are plastered with clay. The roofing is normally
packed with clay and reinforced with timber or palm then plastered with clay for
thermal reasons (Oliver 1997 p2101). In Libya because clay, the readily available
and locally sourced material that is why it is the common building material.

Vernacular architecture reflects the use of local materials and the acquisition of the
tools and skills with which to make them. Whether they’re nomadic or sedentary,
such subsistence or expanding economies will still be largely dependent on the
climate, soils, vegetation, seasons and other natural resources and phenomena. In
areas rich in trees will develop a wooden vernacular, while areas without much wood
may use mud or stone like in many parts of Zimbabwe

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Fig. 9 Grass/timber hut Fig. 10 Clay/timber/grass huts

Some of these structures have no distinction between wall and roof, their cladding
converges at the peak, and they look like temporary structures. These vernacular
dwellings are structurally sound , with timber frames or walls of stone or earth
supporting the separately constructed roofs. Exposed roofs to high precipitation, the
roofs may be clad with layers of grass thatch, or slate, or tiles of fired clay, which are
usually attached to a wooden framework. During construction the raising and placing
of these various building elements will often involve family and community members
working to construct the whole or a part of the shelter.

How these structures are built depends on what materials are available locally.
Some areas have good quality clay that is used to make fire dried earth bricks, burnt
fire bricks rammed earth (Velinga Oliver Bridge 2007 p24). The main materials of
brick, bamboo, thatch, and poles are used in various combinations and techniques.
The colour of brick and plaster depends on the colour of the local clay, which can
range from deep red or orange to brown or grey and white.

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Fig. 11 Fig. 12
Zambian women beautify and African Painted Houses: Basotho
strengthen their homes with plaster. Dwellings of Southern Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa produced some large-scale works, such as the Great Zimbabwe
in Zimbabwe, but on the whole we do not find "architects" in traditional African
building. What we find instead are traditional builders, who combined a certain
priestly function as well. Fig 11 and 12 above are all symbolic imagery of traditional
African building. Using mud may have certain technical disadvantages, but it is
probably the most expressive and inexpensive of all materials. It not only lends itself
brilliantly to surface decoration, but the very shapes of the buildings express their
functions and their ideology.

Zimbabwean vernacular architecture is organic, sustainable, and most importantly,

comfortably integrated with the local climate. The building culture is no longer being
passed on to younger generations, unfortunately, much of this architectural tradition
is in danger of disappearing. There is a widespread perception among Zimbabwean
people of thinking that modern materials are substantially better than vernacular
ones. Traditional materials and techniques are thought to be temporary, "sub-
standard," or "second class," while modern materials are seen as civilized or a
symbol of affluence. Paul Oliver in (Built to meet needs) points out that “vernacular
architecture suffers from the indifference and ignorance of its historic or social value,
and from being assigned to low status housing”, hence some indigenous people
have seen them as low status houses.

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The research it shows that people will build what they believe in, turning their backs
on vernacular, looking at modern architecture as more superior. A change in
perception has the potential to revive interest in the vernacular architecture. This
perception probably prevails because missionaries and colonists built in a style that
reflected wealth and power. The local people became convinced that having
expensive imported materials was a symbol of affluence and that vernacular styles
using native materials were substandard. And yet vernacular materials are durable if
applied properly. A proper thatch job can last up to 25 years, and walls constructed
of burnt brick can last up to 70 or more years.

An African style should focus on vernacular materials, with modern materials used
as reinforcement when needed for larger structures or greater stability. Research is
needed to understand different soil conditions and to come up with load calculations
for pole and mud-brick structures. As many African countries struggle to solve
housing problems, vernacular architecture may be one answer since building
materials are proving to be expensive.

African architecture is continuing to evolve. Just as early migrating tribes and later
missionaries brought their own influences, modern construction materials and
techniques have undoubtedly affected traditions. But if people can be reassured
about the beauty and quality of their vernacular styles, positive shift back toward
tradition could be archived.

The unique qualities of African architecture can be reproduced in new structures

when the local people are persuaded that their architecture can be equally good.
People will build what they believe in, until they are convinced that their vernacular
structures are as structurally sound and beautiful as the more expensive modern
applications. A lot can be learnt from this architecture as B. A. Kazimee states that
“vernacular architecture represents more than a nostalgic longing for things and
ways that have essentially become obsolete, but rather a learning method by which
new global challenges can be addressed, which are global warming, housing crises,
and economic equality.”

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Chapter 3

Sustainable design in Africa

3.1 Definition of sustainable design

Sustainable design seeks to reduce negative impacts on the environment, and the
health and comfort of building occupants, by improving building performance. The
basic objectives of sustainability are to reduce consumption of non-renewable
resources, minimize waste, and create healthy, productive environments.

Sustainable design also called environmental design and it is the philosophy of

designing physical objects, the built environment and services to comply with the
principles of economic social, and ecological sustainability. The intention of
sustainable design is to "eliminate negative environmental impact completely through
skilful, sensitive design" Manifestations of sustainable designs require no non-
renewable resources, impact on the environment minimally, and relate people with
the natural environment (

Sustainable architecture is the design of sustainable buildings. Sustainable

architecture attempts to reduce the collective environmental impacts during the
production of building components, during the construction process, as well as
during the lifecycle of the building taking into account ,heating, electricity use, carpet
cleaning etc.

3.3 Eco-buildings
There are two groups of architects designing ecological buildings, the first group
employs more the advanced technological achievements, and the second group
employs the basic solutions depending on the knowledge and inherited experience .
Architects like Hassan Fathy, Rasem Badran, and Raj Rewal are belonging to that
second group of architects. These architects get their inspiration from vernacular
architecture. They are well connected to the local building traditions and reject the
architecture, which is not familiar to the built environment. Fathy has aimed to create

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affordable and liveable spaces suitable to the surrounding environment, thus
improving the economy and the standard of living in rural areas. His buildings were
surprisingly inexpensive.

Nowadays the emphasis is on sustainability, in designing, the architects have to try

and design buildings that are sustainable .We have seen an era when the world was
taken by the storm of non-sustainable building after the transformation from old
vernacular style architecture to modern steel, concrete and glass construction.

There has now been the emergence of eco-buildings or sustainable buildings. We

are seeing a lot of vernacular concepts being implemented in sustainable designs
this does not mean that every concept of vernacular architecture should
implemented. In Africa we are seeing more and more developmental vernacular
architecture being used in new buildings. Some of these developments are motels
,hotels and to apart from houses, using materials like thatch, stone and timber .
They are sustainable with a touch of modern materials being used.

Fig.13 Victoria Falls safari lodge

Ironically, many of the beautiful new vernacular structures being constructed are
going up in game parks, as lodges for tourists such as the one above fig13. It seems
ironic that the only new structures built in the vernacular styles were not being so
much appreciated by the natives, instead by visitors This new vernacular
architecture is called developmental vernacular architecture, it refers to the

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indigenous architecture that has been modified and advanced to increase standards
of living while retaining a sense of place.

Sustainability requires a shift towards a new environmental paradigm (Milbrath),

a new way of thinking. Much of contemporary architecture and building practices
today, is often the result of high cost buildings as a result of the materials used.
Alternative ideas and methods exist to design and build effective, artistic, low cost
and low or zero energy use houses.

3.4 Construction Materials

Construction materials should be selected to increase the energy efficiency of the
building, to minimise damage to the environment, to contribute to healthy indoor
environments as well as to have low life cycle impacts due to production and
maintenance. Commercial considerations, greater efficiency and environmental
sustainability can be achieved by careful choice of building materials.

Africa has harnessed a lot what can mother nature has to offer in terms of natural
building materials and methods .natural building materials are materials which
require no or small amounts of processing, and are environmentally friendly. The
common natural building materials are earth, straw, wood, stone, lime . These are
the methods that have been tried and tested and seem to work effectively, and they

i) Adobe is one of the oldest building materials and it is basically just earth that
has been moistened with water, it is sometimes chopped straw or other
fibres are added for strength, and then allowed to dry in the desired shape.

ii) Cob is a very old method it uses moistened earth, straw and other fibres, it is
quite similar to adobe, but it a has higher percentage of long straw fibres
mixed in.

iii) Ramming earth is at least as old as the Great Wall of China. It is similar to
adobe and cob techniques, in that the earth used is mostly clay and sand
no straw or fibres added, material is compressed or tamped into place,
usually with moulds or forms that create very flat vertical surfaces.

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iv) Earth bag or sandbags is just bags filled with earth or sand. Sandbags
have long been used, especially by the military for creating strong,
protective barriers, or for flood control.

v) Poured earth is similar to ordinary concrete, in that it is mixed and forms like
concrete and uses Portland cement as a binder. The main difference is
that instead of the sand/gravel used as an aggregate in concrete, poured
earth uses ordinary soil. Little to no maintenance is required of poured
earth walls, since they have a high resistance to the deteriorating effects of
rain and sun.

vi) Rock dates back to the beginning of human history. It should not be
surprising that such an abundant, indigenous, long-lasting and useful
material can be utilized

3.5 Vernacular Architecture Inspiring the Present Day

Designs in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa
One of the first stabilised earth projects in Zimbabwe was the British government,
Overseas Development Administration (ODA) funded fig 14. This project was mainly
constructed to demonstrate that rammed earth could successfully support a roof
span of 8m and the use of sustainable materials (Zami & Lee 2008 p50).

Fig. 14 Bonda Classroom. Fig.15 Chimanda House under


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This was to also to try and change the negative perception of vernacular architecture
and its materials. The Chitungwiza house is one of the few known and meaningful
developments using this form of building in Zimbabwe. The wall of this house is built
of compressed earth blocks and roofed with micro-cement tiles (Zami & Lee 2008

This was a deviation from the normal burn clay bricks or cement bricks/ blocks which
are usually used with an asbestos roof for most of the low income housing projects in
Zimbabwe. This pilot project by the Intermediate Technology Group was
implemented with the participation of the Chitungwiza municipality in 1993 as a low
income housing . The aim of this project was to evaluate the response of the people
towards earth structure and the performance of low tech and sustainable materials
used in the construction of low cost housing ( Zami & Lee 2008 p50). The use of
local labour and the absence of imported materials sent a message to the local
communities. The message that was sent was that, the solution of affordable
sustainable and low cost housing is possible. Up to now this structures stand as a
success to all players working in the housing industry in Zimbabwe. It is sad that
Zimbabwe fell back is the development if vernacular architecture to help the locals.
This was due to the political situation which led to some funders of some projects
withdrawing their funding.

Fig. 16 adobe house 16b interior of adobe house

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Fig. 17 Sand bag house Fig. 18 Sand bag house

South Africa which is a neighbour to Zimbabwe has come further in using vernacular
architecture as a model for sustainable design by supporting the construction of
sustainable houses. The houses have been constructed using vernacular materials
such as adobe fig 16 and 16b, clay bricks ,wood, grass for thatching ,and some
houses were constructed using sand bags as fig 17 and 18 show.

Another neighbouring country to Zimbabwe, Namibia in the town of Otjiwarongo

has gone a step further in using the vernacular architecture to building houses for the
people and other community buildings. The Otjiwarongo town was chosen because
of the quality of the clay and because of the support of its Municipality. Their
objective was to build affordable house for the community from clay which is
available for free and to promote environmentally and socially sound and sustainable
development. The first houses were building in 1996 from clay and the proved to a
success. The production of other eco-materials like micro concrete roofing and lime
tiles were started with the help of different experts from other countries. The
development of such tiles was due to that, it was the best material they could use, as
materials like grass are less available and less durable than the micro concrete
roofing tiles. These tiles corrosion resistant fire resistant, hail resistant, water proof,
and function as sound and thermal insulators.

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Fig.19 Micro concrete roofing tiles

Fig.20 making clay bricks Fig. 21 House construction

The use of this building material has continuously grown as the locals are happy to
own the clay built houses. The locals are involved in the construction by making clay
bricks and in the actual construction of the houses, thereby lowering the cost of
building these houses. Making use of modern construction technologies, houses are
to be long-lasting and affordable.

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Fig. 22 Completed house Fig.23 House and outside toilet

The peoples’ perception has changed as the realize that building with clay does not
only offer a cost-effective alternative but also leads to a more pleasant climate like
the concrete built houses, demand has become so overwhelming. The Clay House
project is now helping different communities, and teaching them on clay technology,
making strong bricks and how to build clay houses that will last longer. The standard
of these houses is of good quality such that the electricity can be installed in them.
The Namibia people have had their perception of vernacular materials reversed, they
are blending the vernacular materials and the modern materials such as Micro
Concrete Roof tiles (MCR) which are made from cement, sand and water. These are
ultra thin tiles but strong and durable.

Chapter 4

Principles of sustainable design

Vernacular architecture tends to respond to climatic conditions using passive, low-
energy strategies to provide for human comfort, and strategies that are integral to the
form, orientation and materiality of the buildings. This architecture also demonstrates
an economical use of local building resources and is, therefore an ideal resource for
sustainable design ideas. Vernacular architecture does not rely on high-tech, energy-
consuming systems for heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting, but on the
immediate natural systems in the local environment.

The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 23

Vernacular architecture looks at a site in terms of resources and opportunities like
the town of Otjiwarongo in Namibia , which looked at what clay can do for the local
population. Factors like local breezes, number of sunny days in the year, annual
rainfall and average temperature can all be understood in terms of resources. These
resources can enable sustainable features such as full natural ventilation, mix-mode
ventilation, single loaded-exterior corridors, cross ventilation, and storm water
collection, just to name a few.

Vernacular architecture can be integrated into modern sustainable designs or

modern sustainable designs can incorporate vernacular trends in their designs,
this is to say, both vernacular architecture and sustainable architecture can both be
used to build effective low cost houses and cities.

The integration can be seen in the light of six historical principles (vernacular trends)
to improve the energy efficiency and thereby effectiveness and useability of

They are:

1) citing and vernacular design

2) shade
3) ventilation
4) earth shelter/ materials
5) thermal inertia
6) air lock entrances

To this list can be added six new techniques of environmental design (technologies,
methods of effectiveness, and design synthesis):

7) scale (footprint, cost), insulation, design of future alternatives

8) on site water collection and waste disposal
9) solar water heating panels
10) photovoltaic and wind electricity generation

The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 24

11) recycling and use of local and durable materials
12) on site growth of food, fuel and building materials.

These twelve principles can be combined, as suitable, into synthesized solutions for
various locations, users and climates that meet cultural needs with available
materials under local conditions, effective and self-sufficient buildings. The objective
of design principles is to reduce negative impacts on the health of occupants and the
environments. To make vernacular more sustainable , it can be integrated with
modern technologies listed above ,e.g. photovoltaic, solar panels

Fig 24a Solar panels Fig 24b photovoltaic roof

Fig.24 Diagram of sustainable design techniques

The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 25

Fig .24 shows different schemes that can be integrated in buildings to make them
more sustainable. The major problem with these sustainable schemes is that they
can prove to be too expensive for the majority of people.

Chapter 5


Vernacular architecture has been there for centuries and it has developed over the
years through trial and error. This type of knowledge has been passed on from
generation to generation and is has been tried and tested over the years. Some of
these vernacular structures have survived all sorts of harsh weather conditions. The
normal built vernacular house using clay, can have a life span of over 70 years. Now,
with the use of present knowledge of clay or earth as a building material, the lifespan
of buildings is far much more than 70 years. Vernacular architecture was once pride
and heritage to the different tribes and cultures in Africa , but as a result of
imperialism it became perceived as low status housing by those who could afford
modern building materials. This paper has shown how far Africa has come in its
architecture and where it is going.

The emerging challenges on sustainability demand a substantial revolution of

building design philosophies, strategies, technologies, and construction methods,
hence the look back at vernacular architecture, to see how we can build sustainable
buildings. A lot has been learnt in Africa about vernacular architecture, and the
perceptions of the locals are changing with help of organisations such as Overseas
Development Administration (ODA), which fund and training the locals on how to
build modern buildings using vernacular materials.

In some countries in Africa, this modern vernacular architecture has found its right
place, by helping those who could not ever afford owning a house in the townships.
The case in point can be drawn in Namibia and South Africa, where the councils
have worked with the locals to build clay houses. There are a lot of examples across
Africa of this modern vernacular architecture, but for the purpose of this study,

The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 26

southern Africa had to be looked at. Zimbabwe was one of the promising countries in
vernacular architecture ,but due to the political instability it has not developed much.
The majority of Zimbabwean in the rural areas do not have decent houses and the
country has a very big housing shortage like many countries. The use of vernacular
architecture can help the poor people in the societies who cannot afford the modern
materials. The building schemes in other neighbouring countries have proved to be a

The town of Otjiwarongo in Namibia is one good example of how vernacular

architecture can be a model of sustainable designs in Africa. Their objective was to
build affordable house for the community from clay which is available for free and to
promote environmentally and socially sound and sustainable development. This was
greatly achieved because the houses are both sustainable and affordable by the
ordinary people. This can now be seen as lifeline for those who could not afford
houses in towns. Such building schemes are now seen across Africa like in
neighbouring South Africa, where more and more sustainable buildings are being
built using vernacular materials. This will one day alleviate the housing crisis in Africa
at the same time, having buildings “living in harmony” with their surroundings. To
increase efficiency, vernacular architecture can be integrated with sustainable
designs to create more effective and self-sufficient buildings.


Fig. 1 Syder, P. (Photographer) Traditional mud brick walled architecture.

Available at:

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Fig. 2 Huts in Zimbabwe Useem, A. (Photographer)

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The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 27
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Fig. 3 Granary in Libya

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Fig. 4 Granary in Zimbabwe

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Fig.4.1 Map of Africa

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Fig. 5 Thatched huts

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Fig. 6 Round thatched with small windows

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Fig. 7 Decorated buildings

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The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 28

Fig. 8 Cone shaped huts
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Fig. 9 Thatch/timber huts

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Fig. 10 Clay, timber, thatch

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Fig. 11 Zambian women beautify and strengthen their homes with plaster. Photo :
Jon Sojkowski.

Fig. 12 African Painted Houses: Basotho Dwellings of Southern Africa

Gary N. Van Wyk

Fig.13 Victoria Falls lodge

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Fig.14 Bonda classroom The Built & Human Environment Review, Volume 1,
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The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 29

Fig. 15 Chimanda house under construction
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Fig.16b Interior of adobe house

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Fig.17 Sand bag house

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Fig.18 Sand bag house

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Fig.19 Micro concrete roofing tiles.

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The Vernacular architecture as a model for Sustainable design in Africa Page 30

Fig.20 Making clay bricks
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Fig.21 House construction

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Fig.22 Completed clay house

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Fig.23 Completed house and outside toilet

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Fig 24 Sustainability
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Fig.25 Sustainable design

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Fig 26a Solar panel

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Fig 26b Photovoltaic panels

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