People remember that their grandmother’s mud house in the village was always the coolest, says architect Nzinga Mboup, co-founder of Worofila, a design firm based in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, which promotes architecture that uses local materials such as raw earth and a reed called typha.
But in the 20th century, people turned to concrete in the cities, thinking it was the modern solution, even though concrete buildings became furnaces in the West African heat and required air conditioning. Mud-brick construction came to be associated with poverty and concrete buildings with modern state-building, says a fascinating article in Atlantic.
It makes the point that at least part of dealing effectively with climate change means changing how we think, which in turn leads us to recapture the wisdom of the past.
Worofila co-founder Nicolas Rondet, who grew up in France, was thinking about how to build ecologically, as people once did. He was looking for a place where these old techniques were still being used, and ended up in Dakar after his wife, also an architect, was offered work on a historical renovation project there.
Worofila says a mud comeback could reduce pollution from cement factories and electricity production while keeping people cool. “Before air conditioning, people paid attention to materials and orientation for the natural regulation of heat,” says Worofila co-founder Nzinga Mboup. “The moment A/C arrived, these considerations went out the window.”
To make modern earth bricks, workers mix soil with smaller amounts of cement and water to create a mixture that they cut into blocks, compress with a hand-operated machine and leave to dry for 21 days. Earth bricks require little energy to produce, unlike concrete.
It took time for this old idea to become popular again, but now there is much demand, says Doudou Deme, who founded Elementerre in 2010 to make earth bricks in Senegal and works with Worofila on projects.
Site for the Goethe Institut Dakar building. Design by Francis Kere.
In 2021, Worofila was longlisted for an Ashden Award, a British prize for climate solutions, and took part in the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London, contributing one of the clay-and-Typha blocks it uses to insulate roofs and showing a modern version of the traditional extended-family compound. Later in the year, Worofila shared photos of its work and research on one of the Royal Academy’s Instagram accounts.
In February this year, Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier learned how to make the bricks when he came to Senegal for an economic summit. He was also attending the ground-breaking for the German-language Goethe cultural institute, whose new building was designed by the award-winning architect Francis Kéré. Nearby trees provide shade, and its thick compressed-earth brick walls keep the interior cool. A layer of perforated walls wrap around the building like a membrane, filtering sunlight and directing airflow.
“I am optimistic that Africa and Europe together can face the great challenges of today,” he said. “I am convinced that we can learn a lot from each other. We need ideas and experiences from our two continents. The new Goethe Institute will be a shining example of exactly that.”
The new Goethe-Institut is “a milestone on this difficult but necessary path to a more sustainable world,” says Carola Lentz. Its Dakar location is one of its main hubs in West Africa and the choice of Kéré Architecture is testament to the institute’s wish to set an example of what cultural exchange looks like in the 21st century, says its website.
“Visitors and employees alike are to be provided with a space that speaks to and is home to the layered and storied cultural tapestry of Senegal’s capital. One that is welcoming and versatile in speaking to the vast and complex history of cultural encounters and asking a diverse community to gather to define an inclusive and sustainable future.”
The Future of Mud. Atlantic, Jul. 5, 2022
Senegal architects ditch concrete for earth in revival of old techniques. Reuters, May 17, 2021
An earthen architecture revival in Senegal. BBC, Nov. 30, 2020.
More pressed-earth construction:
AW2 references Bedouin tents for resort in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla desert. Dezeen, Dec. 10, 2022
The benefits of mud. National Geographic, Jan. 21, 2023
Feature image: Making mudbricks in Niger. diasUndKompott/Wikimedia.