Traditional African roof-construction technique wins international award

Workers in Burkina Faso construct a home using sun-dried mud bricks, based on an ancient Egyptian construction technique. (A Roof, a Skill, a Market)

Two projects to make housing in cities and elsewhere more affordable and inclusive received international recognition this week.

The projects, from West Africa and Switzerland, won the latest edition of the World Habitat Awards, announced Wednesday. The annual competition spotlights local ideas that address global housing challenges and value shelter as a human right. It is sponsored by the U. K.-based Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) with support from UN-Habitat.

This year’s winners are the A Roof, a Skill, a Market initiative in several countries of West Africa and the More than Housing project in Zurich, Switzerland. They each will receive GBP 10,000 (about USD 12,200) in May at a gathering of the UN-Habitat Governing Council in Nairobi.  

The West Africa project began in Burkina Faso but has since expanded to Mali, Senegal, Benin and Ghana. In those five nations across the Sahel, hundreds of locals are being trained by the Nubian Vault Association to build vaulted roofs using mud bricks dried by the sun, according to an announcement Wednesday.

The technique is based on an ancient Egyptian form of construction.

The Sahel, a median zone that extends from Senegal to the Sahara, is a region under stress from climate change, conflict and poverty, said BSHF Director David Ireland. Vaulted roofs have two advantages, he noted: minimal cost and little to no environmental degradation.

The dried mud bricks replace timber, which is in short supply amid stressed forests. The bricks also eliminate the use of metal and concrete, which offer poor insulation and are expensive to import, BSHF said.

[See: Is building with bamboo the housing solution for tropical cities?]

The mud bricks have another advantage, too: They do not require wood beams for support.

This simple technique can enable poor communities to live with dignity in the Sahel’s fragile environment, Ireland said.

Nubian Vault aims to provide much more than rudimentary shelter. A key goal involves generating economic opportunities by equipping locals with new skills as masons and entrepreneurs to serve the burgeoning housing market.

Zurich co-op

More than Housing is described by the World Habitat Awards organizers as “one of the largest and most ambitious cooperative housing programmes in Europe”.

Under the Swiss initiative, more than 50 housing cooperatives joined forces to create 13 residential buildings with a total of nearly 400 units.

Zurich’s More than Housing project has been called “one of the largest and most ambitious cooperative housing programmes in Europe”. (More than Housing)

The diverse community is distinctive in several ways, BSHF said. The buildings are designed to be energy efficient and minimize automobile use. Residents have a voice on how funds are spent and on decisions about future development.

[See: In this Amsterdam housing project, Dutch youth and refugees live together — and run the place]

To encourage interaction, there are meeting rooms and large areas where people can gather. Kindergartens and day-care centers serve the needs of families.

Residents also can take advantage of 35 retail storefronts for employment opportunities close to home, with the community deciding which businesses should receive leases.    

Ireland said that this housing experiment succeeds because it promotes a cohesive community — and is not just an assemblage of random apartments. Even the stairwells foster human interaction due to a wider-than-usual design.

In recognizing the Zurich project, Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat and a World Habitat Awards judge, emphasized that affordable housing is not a problem solely for the Global South.

The World Habitat Awards whittled down this year’s field to a dozen finalists. Read about all of them here.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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