The Built Environment Share Thoughts On Developing Africa’s Sustainable Architecture

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“African architectural designs should be seen as a natural response or reaction to our environment and emotions,” says Architect, Kayode Babalola.

Babalola couldn’t be more right. Western architecture works for westerners because it absorbs their climate, culture, inherent designs and icons. For African architecture to develop a personality, it must accommodate and respond to the climate, culture and aesthetics of the people.

So, agreed stakeholders in the built environment gathered at the think-tank workshop led by Community Planning Design, Initiative (CPDI) Africa, founder and urban planner, Nmadili Okwumabua.

The gathering of architects, artists, interior designers, and environmental sustainability enthusiasts recognized that to achieve a truly modernized African architectural society, technological, research, institutional and academic intervention must interlock to design buildings that cater to the level and needs of the greater classes of African society.

At present, the popular and often impractical western architecture and designs are maintained by Africans to affect (oftentimes misconstrued for being) a ‘civilized and western’ lifestyle. Yet, African designs could have served these emotions better.

Interior Designer, Zainab Binta, illustrates scenarios where western designs are culturally impracticable for everyday activities, such as bathing and cooking, and where they impede rather than add to some religious practices. “Bath-tubs and tiles, are impractical because they are slippery, easily dirtied and requires scrubbing at all times, considering our drier climate. Used in public spaces such as mosques for ablutions which requires hands and feet washing before prayers, it is not functional. Popular modern kitchen designs in stainless steel and granite, are breakable, leading to leaks. Despite the harsh weather, Africans heedlessly maintain heavy draperies, rather than single draperies made of tie-dye Kente to air out the living space. It is up to our architects to persuade clients on the right building and design materials to adopt.”

Yet, how can African architects persuade clients to adopt archaic building materials and designs, that fail to metamorphose with current trends?

Architect Edward Ngoka of Mod Arch Design Associates, paints a pessimistic view of local building materials such as adobe (moulded as blocks and sun-dried for 7 days) and the Nigerian clay, which he noted lacked hydrophone inherent in the South African clay, thus can only be used for compression (clay rammed to make blocks) but not for tension (applied to hold up pillars).

However, technology and alternative sustainable practices have shown otherwise. Ngoka admits there are ways to get around clay’s vulnerability, by incorporating hydrophone properties found in the south African clay to other weaker clay forms. Secondly, builders should avoid applying clay in tension areas in a house. “Clay cannot interlock with aluminum or iron, because once it dries, it cracks. Clay only interlocks with wood. When building, do not interject clay where walls meet. Substitute clay for wooden panels. You can also use wooden panels for window frames, then use aluminum frames within the wooden panels.”

In fact, Ngoka is adamant that builders needn’t use clay at all, rather build with extended polystyrene. “Polystyrene, (the whitish Styrofoam used in packing electronics in cartons) are cheaper. We can fortify polystyrene using or cement to plaster the edges, to produce a Tirolean-like effect.”

How effective is Tirolean in the face of weather events like rain, or storms?

“We will build with Tirolean, polystyrene and steel. Building will become faster and cheaper, once cement, which requires 21 days to set, is out of the picture. We can use wood with steps to construct decks and then buffer with Tirolean. There are so many options, but they all require extensive research.”

Of a not-so-similar perspective is Rosalyn Agiamoh, who believes builders shouldn’t Africanize the entire structure. She rather advocates, insertion of design elements peculiar to each ethnicity into buildings designs; tidier city planning and economic use of land, to avoid waste of space; building with rocks and cement, and closer attention to house positioning to suit Africa’s variant seasons. “House positioning matter. Do not build in a way that blocks off sunlight in a room.”

Theatre & Entertainment Director, and African architecture enthusiast Chidi Ukwu holds, a more functional perspective. Focused on the value and business possibilities of the phenomenon, he urged that stakeholders embark on extensive research to modernize local building materials. Ukwu makes a good point when he averred that African architects require a change of mindset, different from that of western architectural school of thoughts taught at higher institutions. In addition, he highlighted the importance of investing in African architecture to mass produce local building materials, as well as drive their demand.

Young intellectual, Osi Otsemobor, suggests tackling the challenge through regulatory agencies such as Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), and the academia. “We should learn in schools, what works for us. Through the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC), the academia must be involved to induct, innovate prototypes of fortified local building materials, in engineering departments. SON should join discussions on African architecture to ensure standards are maintained.”

African architecture holds much beauty and practicality and from all indications, is achievable, if stakeholders such as Africa’s richest Man and owner of Dangote Cement invests in local building materials. Imagine, “the abstract structures, rich in motifs, colours and history, that could exist today, had Africa developed without European influence,” urged an impassioned Okwumabua.

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