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