Monday, 9 January 2017

The patterns of life within earth building

Permaculture Discovery Center in Chitedze, Lilongwe


While cycling around and observing, there are many patterns in my Malawi life.
·         The magical people that make this place, make life so easy.
·          The simplicity and balance of work
·         Dependence on people in society : this need for help with power or water is all part of socializing
·         As my job has started taking me up and down the country of Malawi I am linking, meeting and expanding my network.

The direction is often distorted as I meet some great people who have inspired me through my 3 years of being here. I always make time as there is time to pop in and visit them on my travels. 

June Walker is a permaculture, skills sharer and community worker: an inspirational character who has been living and practicing on affordable sustainable living within nutrition and other environmental activities in Malawi. For more than 50 years she has resided on Lake Malawi and shared the information that people used to walk from Cape Maclear side to Monkey Bay.  The Lake is situated on the rift valley, and as the water edge is now creeping back due to the movement of the tectonic plates June has started planting trees.  Her aim is to develop many trees growth by using the retracting water line to plant. June has started building large compost piles on the old water level from last year then planting trees so they grow strong and the roots feed downwards as the water level does the same. People who live and know so much to work with the environment give me further thoughts…

June Walkers Solar dryer

From working for at least 6 months and networking with as many keen passionate environmentalists as possible I can see the future. My research, design ideas and knowledge within waste management has made a big impact in Lilongwe.  We had a very successful introductory talk with many stakeholders and partners keen to work with us in the future. With so many links any project would now be setup with ease, knowing who works in which areas to collaborate to ensure we create a large impact. We have had so many positive people wanting some direction on where and how to manage waste so with our International Conservation and Cleanup Management solutions we have hit the target.  Using crowdfunding to raise money, I have built a recycling point in Mbinzi School in Lilongwe, one which has plenty of waste paper and one which has no resources or books for children. With the waste paper there will be 2 keen Malawian environmentalists who will be teaching people how to make recycled paper and booklets while sharing environmental education. The same will be done with food waste, to make food compost for the struggling school gardens. The rest of the money has been used to officially register our charity so we can apply for some big grants as the need is obvious. Our future plans include sustainable waste management in several villages along the Lakeshore including afforestation, beekeeping and nutrition programs.

Recycling point at Mbinzi School, Lilongwe

I came to Malawi as an architect so including starting the waste innovations charity in which has a large focus on construction I have also specialised on natural materials within our architecture and construction company: Grassroots Eco-Build
Grassroots Eco-Build is a social enterprise company as we are focusing on sharing knowledge with a great team of welders, builders, and school and university students. We look at designing and constructing using the local sustainable materials available using techniques such as rammed earth, adobe blocks, domes, adobe bags and thatch instead of burned brick which is more expensive and inappropriate for the Malawi climate. Design should account for the needs and work with the environment including natural ventilation and light, solar heated water, water collection, harvesting, compost for plant nutrition, and other daily activities. Our aim is to use earth construction as a contemporary method so people can see the potential and future encouraging projects and development.

Having realised people want burned brick it was then focusing on the education and environment sector to talk to people about the durability and opportunities of developments using earth building. We have talked at Pitch Night in Lilongwe and have networked with many who are keen to build our prototype earth building house after seeing the Sams Village, Landirani work from my past years.

With a focus on environmental education we were very lucky to be requested to work with the famil Nordin’s at NeverEndingFood, Chitedze.  They have been inspirational within the permaculture sector: giving low cost, locally available nutrition options for growing all types of plants. Not just Nsima (which does not have a high nutritional value and is inappropriate as people can only grow it to harvest once a year.)
Our conversations have reflected a similarity within the building sector where so many other natural available building materials to use but people just choose the burned brick technology with iron rooves which is too hot for the climate and causes a huge environmental impact.
The inquisitive people have breached out and looked to understand and develop in a way that is efficient and we want to find and train as many of those people as possible. Luckily in the construction sector we have proven natural building is 10% cheaper than the conventional way of building which is a big advantage.

Our project at NeverEndingFood is to build the Permaculture Discovery Center. This is a great opportunity for us as our clients are extremely happy for us to experiment with some more local natural waterproof plastering options. These will be analysed to bulk our research. The build uses 2 types of earth technology: rammed earth and adobe bag to give different options for the surrounding community. The 9m x 11m build includes a storage room, classroom space and raised seating for the amphi-theatre like space. At the back of the seating the north light will shimmer through the glass bottle walls while the westerly winds cool the central space for natural ventilation. The classroom walls have full height regular openings and are angled to see the outside while sitting inside. The roof overhang prevents heat and direct light from coming into the space. For the roof structure we will use gumpoles and weaved bamboo and earth plastering with natural waterproofing. We would also like to try weaving sansevieria trifascia plant for the ceiling.

The classroom has a central light well above as we need appropriate costs we have decided to use plastic bottle tiles fixed to our gumpole existing roof structure. There will be an opening below the lightwell so all exhausted air leaves the building.
·         Local plants and materials grown and used from site:
·         Bamboo
·         Sansevieria trifascia plant, also known as English woman’s tongue
·         Recycled glass and plastic bottles
·         Earth
Thatch is a common well used material but it is only found on the lakeshore which is 1 hour from our site in Chitedze, Lilongwe. For us, it was important to find local available materials (so changing the design to weaved bamboo and earth so people can copy the design themselves and give good alternative solutions to the hot corrugated iron. Having researched many materials we are also excited to be testing different waterproofing plasters.
·         Cactus liquid and lime
·         Cassava flour and sand
·         Termite clay and sand
I will have to give analysis results in the next blog.

Each build is training local people, giving skills and environmental education. The reason to why, is just as important as what and how so people understand fully and can talk to other people about the subject as a whole.
As things have picked up and the projects for this year 2017 are increasing and our company work will be accelerating: giving many jobs and training many people in Malawi. As Sams Village, Landirani Trust (my old construction team) is finishing the project, the 50 trained earth builders from North West Lilongwe will be available for work which is brilliant timing! I have been very satisfied at the continual work progress and completion after leaving Landirani Trust.

As many earth building teams combine around Malawi we hope to create more impact and national recognition this year with an increase in acknowledgment of existing durable natural resources available. Check out the Earth Building Malawi Facebook Group for more information.
Grassroots Eco-Build are also designing to completely change the education system in Malawi looking at the holistic approach of sustainable schools and how the food gardens and environmental science can become part of the teaching in physical class activities. This is at concept proposal stage, but again very exciting.


Grassroots Eco-Build are also discussing contracting and building a very large EcoLodgy Center in Blantyre which will keep us extremely busy. The site brings inspirations: my designs keep me planning with nature, observing the existing systems that work together and developing them to compliment and improve one another.  I find the geometric patterns of nature fascinating. Fibonacci uses an algebra equation for numerical perfection and the replications produce incredible structures in nature like bee hives. The Bucky ball uses perfect geometry for good strength; this is like many designs in nature.  I now have the chance to design a village looking at environmental science and how our buildings can reflect the works of nature.
And the patterns of life keep moving, and the correct people keep linking so the projects will keep proceeding…

Architecture inspired by nature

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Permaculture Discovery Centre – at NeverEndingFood, Lilongwe

Grassroots Eco-Build is our up and coming environmental construction firm in Lilongwe, Malawi. We have several building projects that are all designed very efficiently with the use of local materials. At present all of our builds use earth as the main construction material. Each project trains people so the knowledge is passed on and spread around Malawi. There are many different technologies and ways to use earth depending of the criteria of design.

I have been blessed to have met this family in the first few months of my stay in Malawi. I heard of Stacia and Kristof Nordin through word of mouth to start and immediately knew I had to go and visit them. People explained they were running NeverEndingFood, a permaculture center that uses community participation in everything to share and spread the knowledge to benefit as many people as possible.

Their home is a sustainable gem in the middle of the struggling rural communities. The only difference between their home and any other rural home is design. They have used their compound brick wall for several structures inside to maximize efficiency. There is a water system of ponds that feed a huge variety of plants. The human manure from the compost toilet is used as fertilizer for the plants.  The problem of people being hungry in Malawi is crazy with so many natural elements here. It is all education, people need to learn and see the goodness of soils when managed well: good practice water management will give a variety of nutrition for the whole family.

water system

compost system

The Permaculture Discovery Center will be a place where groups come and learn about permaculture and the ways to improve their local methodologies and therefore increase their nutrition levels. 

Our design brief from the Nordin’s is designing and constructing efficiently using alternative natural building technologies compared to the popular burned brick. This building method and Malawi’s growing population has severe effects of deforestation which needs to be solved through education. Our company design is looking at ways to have more local materials and therefore appropriate costs to inspire people in the surrounding villages to uptake this methodology. As one of the main permaculture training homes in Lilongwe specifically working with communities we were excited to take up the project.

Before any design work we gathered information on site and found all the natural materials available.
Local plants and materials grown and used in construction from the site:
  • Giant bamboo
  • Sansevieria trifascia plant: also known as English woman’s tongue
  • Recycled glass and plastic bottles
  • All earth dug from site  
Sansevieria trifascia plant
Grassroots Eco-Build will be using 3 different technologies to build the Permaculture Discovery Center: abobe bags, rammed earth and compressed adobe blocks. With a variation of ways to build people can have several options to decide which method is most preferred so they can imitate the methodology to then build other structures in the surrounding villages.

Permaculture Discovery Center Plan
The 9m x 11m build includes a storage room, classroom space and raised seating for the amphi-theatre space. On the back wall the north light will shimmer through the glass bottle walls while the westerly winds cools and blows through the central space for natural ventilation. The classroom walls have full height regular openings and are angled to see the outside while sitting inside. The roof overhang prevents heat and direct light from coming into the space. For the roof structure for some will use the sansevieria trifascia plant to weave a ceiling, below bamboo rafters and roofing, with a cement plaster for waterproofing.

Permaculture Discovery Center Section A
Permaculture Discovery Center Section B

The classroom has an earth dome ceiling with a central light-well above. The steel structure uses plastic bottle tiles as an alternative, cost efficient and waste reduced option for the light-well. There will be an opening below the light-well so all exhausted air leaves the building.

The Grassroots Eco-Build construction team will be training 2 NeverEndingFood interns who can spread the technology across the villages. The Permaculture Discovery Center should be a great example and an icon throughout the villages in Chitedze, Lilongwe. The build will be a stylish earth building which will show the incredible variation of earth technology. The local material available and the benefits of this material work hand in hand for more information please read:

Welcome to the future of earth construction for Malawi.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Environmental architecture, designing with a conscious


Here in Lilongwe, Malawi we design and build using natural technologies to open up ideas and inspire people how best to use the natural materials: earth, bamboo, thatch, grasses and reed.  Designing and building can change the mindset and lives of people. I know and can guarantee the thermal properties of earth, as an efficient locally available construction material they build cool spaces. Research shows kaolinitic clay has the least solar absorption as well as the least thermal conductivity giving the highest thermal resistivity. Journal of Environmental Sciences Vol.15. No. 1 pp 65 – 68, 2003.
Kaolinitic clay is formed from the earth laterite which is found in the soils in Malawi. Introduction to Environmental Geotechnology, Table 9.2. 

Earth construction is very suited to hot countries, the buildings breathe. It can be extremely hot outside while there is a temperature of thermal comfort within the building.

Building with earth is a simple technology and as a material, it is well known within the rural villages of Malawi. People built their houses using rammed earth, it is a traditional construction method. As people understand the material, it is easy to highlight that clay makes cracks as it dries so it is important to mix clay with sand, silt and gravel particles to make it stronger and evenly fill the cracks when mixed well.

From my observations I can see there are 3 types of people here in Malawi:
  • ·         People that are passionate, inquisitive and want to learn.  Who accept the situation for what it is and go into a job with question, initiative and intelligence
  • ·         People that need to see what they are doing to then be less skeptical and understand they are keen to participate once they have more knowledge as to why
  • ·         People who are just keen to find things to do in exchange for some money

It is great when you find passionate inquisitive people. From the culture of people being told what to do I can understand and agree that most people need to see things to observe whether they then want to be a part of the project. There are so many projects that do not work in Malawi because of how people are brought in to be involved. Understanding the team of people, the community you will work with is the key. Then you can see the commitment of certain people, and give the responsibility and trust they deserve to run the project. The people that just want money can be led by these people as that is their natural instinct.

Working with the Landirani Trust

In the Landirani Trust we have worked with the communities and shared knowledge and skills. Mtesa school (a typical rural government run school) has 1000 students and 7 teachers. There are constant difficulties with hearing and concentration in class. Kids thrive for learning and education and having built a rammed earth library in Sam's Village (North West, Lilongwe) they are now coming in and using the space as their own. 

After the library, came 4 more rammed earth builds. As I arrived I was a volunteer keen to learn about how Malawian’s build using rammed earth. I learnt and studied the local knowledge and climate factors that were different from where I trained in the UK.

Volunteer Housing - 2013

In Sam’s village we are lucky to find a selection of all kinds of earth that promote each other when mixed and used as a construction material.
After this learning curve, living in the rural setting, I was promoted to the Project Architect of The Landirani Trust, designing and building for Sam’s Environmental Training Village and all other eco-builds within The Landirani Trust. I have designed and built the workshop, training accommodation, reception and restaurant. All builds were designed to be increasingly complex; as the technologies were implemented people could see the capabilities of rammed earth and other materials. Everyone learnt at a good pace, we built every dry season.

Workshop - 2014 

At this moment in time I was keen to draw step by step diagrams that could explain how the build was constructed in a simple understandable format. Communication is very important.

A wall leading into the carpentry space was not a simple straight wall to show people earth can be malleable and change into any shapes you want just by altering the formwork.

 Training accommodation- 2014- 2015


The morning and evening light was used to stream through the build for the visitors to enjoy the spaces. The extension will use a glass wall (built with recycled glass bottles) for shimmering light.

Reception - 2015

The reception was built by welding 3 iron barrels together that is now our natural light and ventilation (shaft chimney) for the office spaces on the first floor. 

Restaurant 2015 -2016


Having built 10 earth builds in Sam's Village the community now can see the potential of rammed earth. Culturally earth is seen as a backward construction material but Landirani have persevered and shown people that it can be used to build large strong climate responsive durable buildings.
Now the village is almost built there is a model for sustainable development which could be replicated by others around Malawi. The rural people in the surrounding villages who were trained to construct these buildings are now skilled in earth construction. They look forward to building their own homes using these technologies. People have asked for prototype affordable designs. So I continue…

My future projects with Grassroots Eco- Build are an Arts Centre for Dzaleka Refugee Camp and Neverending Food Learning hub. These look further into using just the materials available from the surrounding areas. My next blog will describe these. 

Everything we do focusses on training people and educating people why the environment is so important. These skills will slowly improve people’s lives. 

Landirani Trust New Office in Njewa, Lilongwe centre - 2015 - 2016


Friday, 4 March 2016

The start of something...

Building earth foundations at Njewa

I live in a country where people make more money buying and selling money on the streets then working a full day in construction as a skilled builder! Where G4S security sell cheap (black-market) petrol to tuck tucks down the non-tarmac slip off road around the back of my house. There are so many alternative ways to make money for clever people with initiative (looking at the needs) that their main job is often a better life because of their many other money sources around it. Anyone coming to Malawi must remind themselves about human rights in their home countries and ensure people they will get paid over the minimum wage as the minimum wage does not even cover costs. People are often seen as lazy in their main jobs as people don’t understand the amount of other tasks being done to satisfy their daily wage.

I’m in a country where whats app takes 45 minutes to download after 15 times of failure. Western ideas and technology is not always an appropriate solution.

I live in a place where termites live in more developed better homes (climate responsive) than people as people believe their status is much higher if they have iron sheets or burned bricks for builds. From living here for 2 and a half years I know money and efficient architectural design definitely does not go hand in hand.

A hot house
It is so important to understand the environment, to understand the people and activities. What people are paid gives people the urge to be self-sufficient…85% of Malawi's population live in the rural areas (, UNDP Malawi statistics) and manage agriculture practice to obtain subsitence food all year round. The culture of the main crop maize is present everywhere, so it is important to research to find knowledge of best crop practice and best co existing plants to improve the dietary requirements within the maize crop.  

Co habitation
Some people believe money is everything: the people that have the money! The people that look up to the people with money humiliate themselves but these are the people that know how to live with the land. These people are efficient in their movements and understand the importance for things to move in a circle. I promote a life with money as an object and always explain if you have a good head then you can design a life with beautiful local technologies and materials. These are sometimes cheaper options although things have surprised me living here. The more research and knowledge about the materials and methods of builds, the better I can design appropriate durable housing solutions.

Weaved palm leaves roofing
In the UK a main topic at master’s level was studying about water collection, storage, filtration and usage but the reality in Malawi is large water storage holders are expensive to build and cannot provide a family with the amount of water they need for the 9 months of hot dry climate. 

Water borehole
The inexpensive solution would be for the land to be designed and managed in a way that it can naturally collect water and channel the water back into the ground within that location only so the water table for that location can rise and provide life to the land. This is not well known within the rural areas.
The focus on water reuse is something people know about especially in the rural areas. Water filtration is more culturally sensitive as the lack of education brings people into disbelief.

Women at work
What is the reason for the huge divide from rural to urban? What is the reason for the low confidence and initiative in the rural regions that accumulates poverty: Education.
Once a teacher has graduated they often don’t want to live in rural school with no electricity or facilities for the students. I know of schools with 1000 students to 7 teachers it’s no wonder people drop out then thrive for learning and education in the real world. 82% of people are pining to learn skills and need them. 
The natural building sector is the target that can be intertwined with confidence and education. For this an education center is vital in which an environmental café will be the hub. This is in my future 10 year plan in Malawi.

Add caption

The Landirani Trust are my passion and community approach of whom I work for as the architect of a best practice eco training village designing and constructing rammed earth and adobe builds. 

Landirani team building Sam's Village: environmental eco village
As for now, I have partnered with a construction firm and have a branch for eco design called Grassroots eco-build. 

Grassroots is a word meaning popular, looking at the masses of people and how they have developed using local materials and found solutions to shelter from the local climate. The test of time of natural building still remains after billions of years QUOTE.  Grassroots can also mean from the bottom explaining how people with specific knowledge of the environment (in which they have learned to live resourcefully) are the people in the rural regions. These can provide the foundations to then improve buildings and systems from our knowledge and education to create better lives.  

Ecology is a word translated as environmental science. It is the understanding of how the climate and holistic natural system works and any factors within this system. Only with this information can people begin to obtain critical thinking and results for efficient design and build projects.

Zomba plateau
Build I am here after studying architecture up to a master’s degree in the UK and having researched about social architecture and natural building I moved to Malawi. This country needs energy and strength for people to be proud of their rural expertise and create knowledge and best practice for people to improve their design and built environment using natural materials. Everyone needs good quality builds shelter and knowledge.

Rammed earth corner

The Malawi team work efficiently. There is no reason why natural building methods and training communities about low tech solutions cannot be a systematic building process well known and used throughout all of Malawi. 
How many of the millenium development goals can natural building help to achieve directly or indirectly:

  • promote gender equality and empower women
  • reduce child mortality 
  • combat malaria disease
  • ensure environmental sustainability
  • global partnership for development

Designing and building is for everyone, let's do it...

Grassroots Eco-build with Neverending food

Community rammed earth build