Wednesday, 30 August 2017

When nature meets the mind in Malawi

Neverending Food Permaculture Discovery Centre
It is currently the middle of construction season. I am now diving face first into community builds focusing on developing the rural regions in Malawi. Development is very contradictory but I know and truly believe durable strong low technology earth buildings will create breathable stunning affordable homes. With this passion I am slowly sharing the knowledge, while designing and site managing with my team at Grassroots Eco-Build.  Using earth in construction is still very sensitive. I say this because it is the material used in villages where it gives a status of being economically deprived. Not only this, but there are other factors, like the cost, time, labour and quality of construction. The preparation time for fired bricks and rammed earth are very similar but fired bricks are faster and easier to build. Using earth also destroys the top layer of soil and effects the environment in a different way so this needs to be accounted for and designed into the space accordingly.

Rammed earth corner section

As we develop, the more builds we construct and therefore the more proof we have to show success. The more reports of cost, time, labour and quality of construction will bring detail to get more attention to this traditional technology that has been abandoned due to the culture of what development is. 

Glass bottle window at Neverending Food PDC
Neverending Food PDC interior
Persevering, I have now been connected to groups desperate to find alternative building solutions due to the lack of trees and natural resources left in extremely rural villages. In the last year Grassroots Eco-Build has trained 10 people from Chitedze village while constructing the Permaculture Discovery Centre at Neverending Food.

We have also been very fortunate to have partnered with World of Difference, a superb team from America who are supporting our environmental education program at Kapudzama Government School. Grassroots Eco-Build are constructing a girls hostel using natural materials and local skills while teaching many of the community about this appropriate technology. As we use earth for this community construction we have also designed and started the permaculture gardens to create efficiency in design and promote a sustainable livelihood. As the community have been fully involved in helping the volunteer group in so many activities including construction, painting existing school classrooms, renovating desks and just being such great light to the community I know they will be missed. Anything can be done with such positive energy and we are truly blessed to be a part of such a huge influence within the Kapudzama community. What a great introduction to such an incredible project.

Environmental education week; introducing all levels of the community to the project
Eston Mgala teaching the ingredients to make a good compost pile

Mapping exercise at Kapudzama giving students knowledge and ownership in design

Digging foundations; the start of  Kapudzama girls hostel
A fantastic leadership team missing our Billy Milimbo!
My 4 years in Malawi have boosted ideas and needs and truly shown me what a rich country Malawi could be with its natural resources and constant energy from the sun. I hope and pray to empower more so they can live smart lives knowing and understanding the riches around.


Flood response affordable home using tithonia; termite resistant indigenous plant

Last month was also very exciting, I have had 2 volunteers from Italy who have had an interesting time taking part and learning different skills in each building project being constructed at present. These include;
·         Glass bottle cutting with natural locally available materials to build the windows of the                        Permaculture Discovery Centre, Chitedze
·         Profiling the foundations of guest house at Ecoline Farm, 6 miles
·         Ramming earth walls, building a house at Landirani Office, Njewa
·         Designing and constructing the beginning of a flood reponse/ affordable home at Dali Pottery, 6          miles

Cutting glass bottles at Neverending food Permaculture Discovery Centre

While defining different techniques of natural construction I have also developed the importance of using waste as a resource.  Waste is mismanaged throughout Malawi and therefore also a natural resource. As more cost efficient design logistics were being planned I realized collections of recyclable waste would be very beneficial to our projects. With no system of waste management, myself and a team of Malawi volunteers started working together to research and understand the future needs for Lilongwe.

1 year on and I have a passionate team of Malawians taking the responsibility to conduct recycling collections, education programs and environmental talks. We have been working hand in hand with the City Council to encourage and build capacity in waste innovations. This has given further inspiration to target and train some skilled people from the community to design and construct appropriate waste innovations.We share and spread our technical knowledge to existing waste management groups.


Our projects now include events, to raise money for the formation, design & construction of new recycling hubs for ease of recyclable collections throughout Lilongwe Town. Many companies that benefit from our service reusing the paper and plastics provide resources and support for us to grow in which we are truly grateful. 

ICCM promoting our recycling initiatives at the Farmers Market, Lilongwe

 Our sustainable holistic approach using recycling collections to support our education workshops will expand and attract more activities that will be focused in rural communities looking at many other ways to manage waste to benefit the people, including bio-gas. The hands on approach and community participation using all interested key people already in existing structures will give a positive response. The ICCM team is very dedicated and our ethos promotes hard work to ensure we obtain money through recycling collection and the selling of items made out of waste to move forward rather than depending on funding which proves unsuccessful for many projects in Malawi due to the ignorance of continual support.

ICCM recently constructed our first recycling waste sorting structure at the Wildlife Centre in Lilongwe. This is designed and built with local materials and waste; bamboos grow throughout the grounds that are very sustainable and recyclables create suitable walling for the bins.


Completion of our first ICCM waste sorting structure; Lilongwe

My time in Malawi turned 4 years this month of August and has provided me with enough experience to understand the culture to bring about small amounts social of change. I am committed to promoting all types of design including natural construction and waste innovations. I have been privileged to meet such incredible people to create that international network while also giving me more inspiration to continue my path. There are always projects to be completed and people to support so please, if you can support a great cause...

African Vision Malawi; Private House constructed by trained earth builders from my past projects at Sams Village

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