VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE: Advocating Volcanic Stone Construction as a Viable Alternative to Fired Brick in Mountainous Areas of Southwestern Uganda.

Keywords: Vernacular, Stone Construction, Sustainable development

The following discussion presents volcanic stone as a viable walling material in areas where it is abundant.  Kisoro, Fort Portal and Bushenyi located in Southwestern Uganda are areas endowed with abundant volcanic stone.  However, area residents still opt for brick walling despite the poor soils in those areas.  The poor soils produce lower quality bricks compared to the fired clay brick from other areas especially around the Victoria basin.  Natural stone possesses physical properties suited for structural walling yet in Uganda it is habitually specified for its aesthetic finish (floor surfacing and wall cladding).  In comparison to Compressed Earth Block (CEB) and Compressed Soil Blocks (CSB), stone has not been explored enough as a potential front-runner among sustainable walling alternatives.  Further, little is being done to empower local communities to meet their own aspirations as industry, economics and urban development conspire to interrupt the transition to sustainable development particularly with regards to how environmentally unfriendly materials like fired brick are propagated.

The use of stone in construction is not completely alien to our context.  According to Nnamdi (1997), stone construction in Africa dates back to over 10,000 years ago.  In fact, Shadmon (1996) writes that Stone was used for construction way before man ever started using metallic tools.  Stone construction in Africa was popular in hilly parts of Africa creating what was known as the “hill style”, Nnamdi (1997).  More recently, residents in the hilly areas of Bunyaruguru and Kasese have constructed and actually live in stone buildings as shown in Figure 1.  In parts of Kabale stone construction is evident in their stone garden perimeter walls, and stone cooking fireplaces.

Figure 1: Stone Cottage in Fort Portal and abundant stone in Southwestern Uganda

Fired brick is not indigenous to Uganda’s material palette, in fact it was never used, at least not until a century ago, when the biggest Cathedrals were constructed at Namirembe and Rubaga (Moon, 1994) under stellar supervision even during material production.  Today, the local brick industry is highly unstandardized and because of this there is an inconsistent quality of bricks most of which are irregular.  Further, some bricks are made from poor quality soils (locally know as kifufu) and are significantly weaker than the paying public expects.  Irregularities in brick configuration have led to the wasteful use of mortar as the masons attempt to deliver straighter walls. Additionally, weaker bricks contribute to heaps of debris noticed on numerous construction sites – a topic deliberated upon previously on this blog (see Building and Materials:  waste less, gain more, check the ecological footprint, October, 2015).

Indeed, potentially viable materials and construction techniques in rural societies are not being explored for their economic and environmental merit.  Unfortunately, architects in practice are not helping the situation.  Most architects in the country persistently avoid rural commissions because few, if any, people there can afford their professional fees.  As a consequence, the low-skill level fundis and draftspersons that take on these rural projects generally work with a standard brick palette as taught in technical schools.

The cost of brick construction is even higher in the mountainous areas of Southwestern Uganda, even worse, where good clay soils hardly exist.  As a result, bricks are transported large distances to service these areas further increasing the economic and environmental cost of construction.  Brick transportation in the popular small to medium gasoline trucks over rough roads could consume as much as 5MJ/tonne for every kilometre (Fraser et al, 1995).  At this rate, each truck on a regular 100km trip uses the same fuel equivalent to burning 100kg of charcoal.  Transportation delivers an avoidable carbon load of up to 0.0741 KgCO2 per kilometre (Quashning, 2016).

Reducing the cost of construction is crucial for the success of vital infrastructure such as access to housing. “The cost of an average home mortgage in Uganda is about $30,000” Muhumuza (2016).  However, according to the World Bank development indicators (2016), Uganda’s Gross National Income is $670.  On a monthly basis, that is an average of $56.  This means that on average a Ugandan committing upwards of 30% of their annual income to service a mortgage, would require 144 years for one to pay off the loan.  These sums are inflated when interest is compounded.  This indicates that even a middle-class Ugandan would need to spend well over 50% of their income to afford decent housing.  Yet still, low cost housing in Uganda is considered by Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban development, to be that which doesn’t exceed more than 30% of the homeowner’s income (Muhumuza, 2016).

There are three dormant volcanoes in Southwestern Uganda and according to Shadmon (1996), in the eruption of a volcano, as hot lava reaches the earth’s surface, it quickly cools down, forming crystals of igneous volcanic rock.  Some of these rocks include andsite, basalts, purnice, and rthyolite.  It is important to note that any one of these stones have a higher compressive strength than the popular fired brick.  Take for example basaltic rock that is most abundant in these areas, has an uniaxial compressive strength ranging between 12-63Mpa, (Schultz, 2012) – which is higher compared to the average compressive strength of fired brick that ranges between 5-10Mpa.

Interviews revealed a general perception among residents that stone construction is expensive.  Stone is even referred to as the rich man’s material. Residents report that, stone construction requires a lot more sand and cement mortar than fired brick.  Also, due to low popularity of the material, skilled masons in the area are rare and expensive. Interviews further revealed that the construction process takes a long time owing to a longer duration required to dry the huge chunks of mortar.  The delicate process of laying the uneven stone to form regular walls, also contributes to a prolonged construction process.

The residents say that before the popularity of brick in the area, vernacular architecture was constructed using mud and wattle like in other indigenous communities of Uganda. However, unlike in other areas, people in Kisoro added small volcanic stones to the mud to create firmer walls.  The walls were then finished with chalkstone dissolved in water to create a smooth surface.  Today, there are few stone buildings in the area mostly owned by the rich.  The difference being that the wealthy use sand and cement, yet the rest use mud mortar.  However, the result is not sturdy and for this reason, some residents in search for better quality buildings opt for fired brick rather then use stone with mud mortar.

One good practice example in a similar context is Butaro hospital by MASS design group architects located in Butaro, Rwanda just a few kilometers from Kisoro with similar climate, terrain and abundance in volcanic rock.  This project made use of the local volcanic rock, but also is sensitising society through the quality of the physical structure, that there is potential in this long-ignored material.  As a result, a new industry of stone dressing, marketing and construction has been able to kick off in Butaro, creating jobs that otherwise didn’t exist as Benimana (2016) explains.  Similarly, the artisans who hand-crush stones for aggregates in Southwestern Uganda can be further commissioned to shape volcanic stone to more regular blocks that can be assembled with less mortar. Further, in this same context, there is an existing trade of hand-crushed stones for construction aggregates. Stone crushers stand a chance to make additional income from stone dressing like their counter parts in neighbouring Kenya.

Progress in material production comes down to equipping communities with the necessary knowledge and skilling.  Architecture Schools need to educate built environment professionals to be more open-minded and take pride in the heritage of this country, and the readily available materials or opportunities that our context has to offer.  This can be achieved by questioning how we build and who builds if we are to transform rural communities all over the world.


Ahimbisibwe, A., Ndibwami, A., & Niwamara, T. (2015). Rural (Low Income): Inspiring Communities to shape to shape their future. PLEA 2015 Architecture in R(evolution) 31st International PLEA Conference. Bologna 9th – 11th September. Ass. Building Green Futures. Bologna, pp. 62.

Ahimbisibwe, A. & Ndibwami, A. (2016). Demystifying Fired Clay Brick: Comparative analysis of different materials for walls, with fired clay brick. 36th International Conference on Passive and Low Energy Architecture (PLEA). Cities, Buildings, People: Towards Regenerative Environments. Los Angeles.

Benimana, C. (2016). Architecture That Serves The Community. Design Indaba, view on 30th October 2016. Available at: https://www.// [Assessed 17 March 2016]

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Muhumuza, M. (2016). The low-cost housing myth in Uganda, Daily Monitor, viewed on 26th October 2016. Available at:”688616-3370372-b5x62qz/index.html> [Assessed 10 February 2017]

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Odongo, J. & Lea, J. (1977). Home Ownership and Rural-Urban Links in Uganda. The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Mar., 1977), pp. 59-73, Cambridge University Press.

Olweny, M. (2006). Technology and Architecture Education in Uganda, The Architecture Science Association

Olweny, M. (2007). Politics, Religion, and Architecture in Uganda, in Loo, s. and Bartsch, K. (eds) Panorama to Paradise, Proceedings of the XXIVth International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia ‘and New Zealand, Adelaide, Austria 21-2a September.

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Shadmon, A. (1996). Stone: An Introduction. London. Intermediate Technology Publication Ltd.

Schultz, R. (2012). “Brittle strength of basaltic rock masses with applications to Venus.”, 21 September, 2012, Journal of Geological Research.

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DOWN TO EARTH EDUCATION: Incorporating Earth Construction in East African curricula.

Keywords: Earth construction, University curriculum, Changing attitudes

Earth has been an indigenous material widely used for construction in traditional societies; this rich heritage is still visible in Morocco, Egypt as well as in West and Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the use of earth is regaining prominence in West Africa due to deliberate efforts like the Nka foundation (Earth Architecture, 2014). Proponents of earthen architecture in Uganda like Eng. Dr. Mose Kiiza Musaazi have demonstrated that it is simple, cheap; community centred and does not require sophisticated machinery. Further, it can prevent pollution, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity thereby presenting an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional materials. Earthen Buildings are characterized by low energy costs from cradle to grave and though they are labour-intensive, are suitable for third world economies where labour is cheap.

Such technologies are critical in developing countries like Uganda where socioeconomic growth can be enhanced by the integration of sustainable design practices, green buildings, waste and biomass valorisation and energy saving technologies; all key components of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, earthen technologies are not formally taught in Architecture schools or technical institutions around East Africa, and subsequently have not gained traction in the local construction industry. Furthermore, low literacy levels in the region leave the bulk of this awareness and its associated convictions with an informed few who seem to be confined to their institutions of higher learning.

Since in Uganda the urban formal sector supports 
a small affluent elite but the majority of the people exist in conditions of abject poverty in rural areas and in the urban informal sector, this discussion espouses the feasibility of the optimistic view that if economic production is modelled on the sustainable development approach, it is possible to eliminate poverty and improve social conditions while avoiding environmental problems (Sanya, 2007).  Therefore, suggesting social change that can stimulate economic growth, could gain more acceptance in the immediate and eventually in the long run.

It should be noted that earthen construction is becoming commonplace around the globe. Studies indicate that almost 30% of the world’s rural population even in the developed world, predominantly resides in Earth buildings (Pacheco-Torgal et al, 2012). Consequently, recently constructed earthen buildings can be found in Austria, Germany, France and most of central Europe (BASEhabitat, 2016). In addition, around 15% of the population in France resides in earth-walled houses while a significant proportion of houses in Australia’s Margaret River province are housed by unfired earth walls (Hall et al, 2004). In United States and Brazil earth construction has increased substantially over the years, largely due to the sustainable construction programmes. In Uganda, this revival has not taken hold; therefore, shanty wattle and daub structures in deplorable state are noticeable in many small towns and rural communities. Here we are not suggesting replacing the current construction efforts with earthen construction, but merely proposing earthen construction to augment access to quality architecture to promote well being on a larger scale.

Despite the global momentum in earth construction, adoption in Uganda is significantly low and according to researchers, this can be attributed to lack of awareness, training and education, principally on issues of architectural design, sustainable practices and utilisation of environmentally friendly building materials. According to Ali et al., (2010) the lack of a sustainable architectural curriculum for higher educational institutions may be responsible for inadequate integration of Earth Construction Techniques. Detached from the ferment of epochal change, the groves of academe are failing to engage with current critical realities (Buchanan, 2012).

This section of the Blog is informed by data collected for chapter 6. Influencing Architecture Education of a PhD thesis Investigating the Process of socialisation in Architecture Education Through Experience in East Africa. (Olweny, 2017).  The thesis provides much-needed context on education and Curriculum in the region.

Observations of 3rd, 4th and 5th year level form universities in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, despite living in poor low-tech context, do not depict the reality of their socio-economic or even technological context; students’ material proposals did not seem to consider existing evidence of the negative impacts associated with material production like deforestation, excessive soil extraction, energy intensive production, and high construction waste. Further, students did not portray any sensitivity to the doubled charcoal prices in the last five years, thinner and sparser woodlands along major highways or even to rising costs of electricity. Student design proposals generally recommended exposed glazed facades on concrete or steel structures with fired clay brick or concrete block walling. These proposals lend limited credence to any adoption or integration of sustainable practices or suggestion of practical technologies to foster more efficient use of energy and locally available resources. This negligent attitude does not engender conscious interrogation of all the available options, or even re-visiting the merits of any indigenous earthen strategies.

Further, Olweny (2006) asserts that most architecture schools in Uganda are making no efforts to involve technology as an important aspect of architecture design. This has resulted into minimal efforts by architects in practice to research or creatively adopt new ways to improve design or to interrogate vernacular materials. In addition, even the schools that incorporate technology in the student’s design process, have their efforts let down when graduates go into the field and become negatively influenced by architects with contrary education, field or construction experience. The result of this is architecture that is not primarily informed by its context. Ironically in Uganda and even more in the region, foreign architects are undertaking most contextually responsive commissions.

Rigid reference to concrete, steel, cement and fired brick disregards the responsibility of universities to train/skill innovative minds to devise contextually relevant solutions. It should be noted that competent educators in this area are hard to come by, and those who are, perhaps are either too busy in practice or would not settle for the terms on offer. It is also unfortunate to note that during mandatory field experience (Industrial placement) engagements on construction sites, students are exposed to bad construction practices. This exposure creates a negligent and haphazard attitude or approach towards the construction process.

On the whole, architecture education in Uganda does not prepare professionals to support or confidently survive within their context. Students become proficient primarily at interventions that are convenient for a minority of the developers, yet constrictive to the larger population that is struggling against poverty. Architects trained to serve a privileged few, miss the opportunity to drive a transformative engine towards more sustainable cities and communities.

The Faculty of the Built Environment at Uganda Martyrs University despite all the above challenges always attempts to improvise. One recent effort was an elective that explored the dynamics of construction and its links to the iterative process that is design and the quality assurance/control processes in testing and guaranteeing building materials. See Figure 1 below.  The focus was key walling and roofing options that fulfill specific embodied energy and functional requirements while revealing an aesthetic often lost either due to poor building technique or utter negligence that leads to material wastage. A central consideration was the ability and interest in working as part of a team in an effort to collectively hone key skills. Ultimately the goal was to interrogate the question: Can stepping out of the studio to engage construction in real life improve students’ perception, grow their aspirations and nurture key values?

Figure 1. Peer learning and collaboration during the construction of the Earth Kiosk and Pizza Oven

Brim’s (1996) classical definition of socialisation as “the process by which persons acquire the knowledge, skills and dispositions that make them more or less effective member of society”. Architecture schools should endeavour to deliver a critical blend of tacit alongside explicit knowledge. This blend engenders attitudes of responsibility for self-development, critical thinking, and professionalism. These attitudes contribute to much-needed values of self-expression, confidence as well as critical self-appraisal that make a competent Environment design professional.

This study suggests that deliberate approaches, even at a small scale, to incorporate earthen construction into university architecture curricula can increase awareness and application of locally available materials in construction. Such projects could stimulate inter-university or inter-disciplinary collaborative efforts between universities and attract funding for future research projects. Further, the study identified challenges that might help inform coordination and planning of such projects.


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Diffusion of appropriate building technology in housing in Uganda

The housing construction industry in Uganda employs a limited number of materials for walling; more so, the low income bracket which constitutes up to 78% of the population. The common materials are wattle and daub used by 39% of the population while over half of the households – 55% in Uganda live in dwellings that have brick walls (UBOS, 2014).

The choice of walling materials as indicated have a number of challenges which include permanence, longevity, cost of repair and maintenance, cost of transportation, quality control, high embodied energy and contribution to green house gas emissions, contribution to deforestation, health hazards in manufacture, and wetland destruction.

The propagation and uptake of technologies that have the ability to improve construction and housing standards by resident populations is often as important as the technology itself. Using the diffusion theory as a basis, this brief captures the factors that influence the adoption of innovative technologies and examines the processes that have been involved in the propagation of Compressed Earth Block (CEB) technology in Uganda. We note that CEB is a more viable alternative than for example the popular fired (clay) brick for both environmental and economic reasons yet CEB is not necessarily the more socially acceptable.

With this background, the Energy in Low Income Tropical Housing (ELITH) project in its endeavour to study how alternative walling materials, and in this case CEB have been adopted by various communities visited a number of sites where the material has been used. The field studies involved querying community opinion leaders about their take on the material. This was done in collaboration with the Haileybury Youth Trust (HYT), a non-profit organisation engaged in the training of unemployed youth in the production and use of CEB in the Kamuli area. HYT is predominantly involved in the construction of school infrastructure that includes classrooms and staff housing.

The study visited four sites and held interviews with community leaders that included Local Council members, PTA association leaders and staff at the schools on: the communication channels for spreading CEB; the social system (context); the duration of exposure to CEB technology and their perception of the characteristics of the material.

Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that in the area of operation of HYT, the respondents show a preference for CEB because it is thought of as a modern material representing modernity and affluence. This notion has been reinforced by the fact that other than the NGO, which is presumed to be well funded, there are no other entities encouraging the use of alternative construction materials, as burnt earth brick is the material of choice. Furthermore, while respondents acknowledge that CEB walls utilise less cement (a significant reduction in cost) than conventional wall construction – conventional being the low quality fired (clay) brick that require large/wasteful mortar joints (30 – 60mm) and 30mm plaster on both sides of a wall to achieve a desired finish, the respondents were also quick to point out that the initial cost of CEB in equipment and skilled labour hire posed a major hurdle.

According to the survey, the largest obstacle to the adoption of engineered building materials such as CEB, in infrastructure construction remains access to information, equipment and finance.  And the questions that now arise, given one of the objectives of the ELITH project is reduction of embodied energy and costs, include:

  1. Which organisations are better placed to promote more environmentally friendly and evidently potentially less costly alternative materials?
  2. What kind of information do these organisations require to establish buy in?
  3. Who is a champion in different contexts and how can we make the most of them?

Is Fired Clay Brick All We Know?

In this post we carry on the discussion about environmental impacts and wastage associated with the fired clay brick. Owing to the general consensus that it is apparently the cheapest option, the fired clay brick has not left much room for consideration or evaluation of possible alternatives. We acknowledge people’s taste and preference of the fired clay brick; however, suggest that this walling material has become a victim of its own success. Therefore, alternative walling options that challenge this position would have a significant impact on construction practices in general.

Preliminary field evidence shows that contractors, even on large scale projects, generally opt for local artisan made fired clay bricks instead of the more sustainable factory-manufactured options in a bid to save money.  The danger associated with this decision is two fold: on one hand, the inefficient production process continues to strain local wood fuel sources, which contributes to deforestation and air pollution as discussed in the previous post. According to (NEMA 2002: 122), Uganda is experiencing rapid deforestation as to 3% of forest cover is lost per year due to unsustainable harvesting. Worse still, excessive quantities of mortar are used during construction due to rapid construction timelines, inconsistent brick sizes, negligence, and low mason skill levels (Figure 1).  As a result, vast quantities of plaster are required to deliver a smooth finish to these uneven walls. In some situations half-bricks or alucobond are used as cladding perhaps to hide the imperfections, evidence that concern over the cost of the brick was never a well thought through challenge.  Cement wastage in mortar and plaster cannot be ignored since cement production causes pollution and accumulation of waste. Further, according to UNEP (1999), manufacture of cement is the second biggest anthropogenic contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It is one thing when fired bricks are used on small projects, however the impact is more significant when a noticeable lack of concern is prevalent on larger projects.

Figure 1: Inconsistent brick sizes, unorthodox bonding technique and wasteful application of mortar.

Today’s discussion does not claim to provide a comprehensive solution on material selection since as Sanya (2007) attests, the global discussion embodies the difficult to reconcile aims of safeguarding human wellbeing (including alleviation of poverty) and preservation of the environment. Our discussion here merely sounds out that there are actual viable alternatives to the brick wall. Often times, the argument against alternative construction methods has limited information on cost and performance as compared to conventional methods. However, with more practitioners getting involved in this endeavour toward better buildings, irrefutable evidence of overall gains associated with alternative construction is emerging.

Indeed, production of building materials is an important economic activity. Raw material sourcing, production/manufacture, distribution, marketing and assembly during building construction are all sources of employment. Satisfying the economic need of the local artisans who are currently involved in fired clay brick production is a worthy consideration. As Sanya (2007) puts it, by relating the Ugandan poverty situation to deficiencies in the country’s architecture, the feasibility of the optimistic view that, if economic production is modeled on the sustainable development approach, it is possible to eliminate poverty and improve social conditions while avoiding environmental problems. Much like the fired clay brick makeshift kilns which are some times dedicated to specific projects, these blocks can be commissioned on project-by-project bases and even produced on the construction site on a need basis to minimize wastage. These blocks have low environmental load resulting from use of locally available earth that is not highly refined and use of local resources resulting in affordability and support to the local economy. Also they are adequate for the service life of most buildings. The concept of service life is useful in understanding durability. Service life is the actual period of time during which a building or any of its components performs without unforeseen costs or disruption for maintenance or repair.

Say, we compare fired clay brick with two unfired wall alternatives.  The alternatives include the Compressed Earth Block (CEB) and Compressed Soil Block (CSB). According to Perez (2009), compressing a humid mixture of soil and a stabilising agent in a manual or mechanical press makes the CEB. Note that variations (often in nomenclature) of the CEB include the Compressed Stabilised Earth Block (CSEB) and Stabilised Earth Block (SEB) while those of the CSB includes the Stabilised Soil Block (SSB). In an effort to increase structural stability of the wall as well as reduce bonding mortar, interlocking tongue and groove configurations are being adopted for these unfired earth/soil block options. The Interlocking Compressed Earth Block (ICEB) (Figure 2) and Interlocking Stabilised Soil Block (ISSB) are variations in this regard.

Figure 2: Setup of Interlocking Compressed Earth Block

The CSB is favoured for this discussion because no cement is required during its production.  The CSB indeed is slowly gaining acceptance in everyday construction. CSBs are sturdy and are now being produced in different sizes and configurations to suit the design need. Further still, when an interlocking configuration in ICSB is adopted, no cement is required in the production or construction of the walling as opposed to conventional mortar bonded walls. Also, different soil types may be used together to obtain good CSBs, meaning less demand on clay; this is fortunate because according to (SSA: UHSNET, 2015), good quality clay products are gradually becoming scarce in Uganda. This is due to the limited availability of appropriate clay in the country whose demand has increased dramatically due to high demand associated with an enhanced construction sector. Further, on site production of CSBs means that they are virtually accessible anywhere and mechanically produced blocks can even be delivered with a guaranteed compressive strength and with lower CO2 emission during production. Owing to the high thermal mass of the block, there is an added advantage of cooler interior spaces, which is ideal for tropical climates where cooling governs the energy requirements. CSBs are known to be susceptible to weather damage; however, a resin membrane can be applied onto the walls to improve resistance to moisture.

The second option, the CEB has been used with a significant degree of success in upgrading informal settlements in Uganda (Sanya, 2001). It is highlighted in this post because it represents a modern approach to building with earth in Uganda. While (in a related study at the Uganda Martyrs University) the CSB recorded a higher compressive strength than the CEB, Sanya (2007) also found the CEB more expensive than the fired clay brick wall, however, 30% of this calculated cost was dedicated to cement in the CEB mix. As such, without cement cost for the CSB, the wall type should cost considerably less than the fired clay brick wall.

We conclude that much as cost (and convenience) is what drives most people’s decisions, it is wise while considering the options available for wall construction, to consider a wider selection of factors that indeed will contribute to the combined social, economic and environmental benefits. The focus of our next post therefore will capture specifically how the CEB and CSB in their numerous variations perform alongside other walling options with regard to: Cost, Durability, Aesthetics, Embodied Energy, Site Specific Strategies, Self Build Strategies, Implications for Labour, Technology among other criteria.


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Building and Materials: waste less, gain more, check the ecological footprint

In this blog post we interrogate some of the pitfalls of the construction status quo in Uganda.  We focus on small scale construction in urbanising communities as we discuss how to deliver construction that in its approach: does not waste materials, sets out to earn a saving and uses materials that have a bearable to zero ecological footprint.

Occasionally, the architect/developer/contractor may seek out alternatives to reduce the final building cost along with some innovative building solutions.  Similarly, in spite of their inclination to the status quo in traditional construction methods, local artisans and self-build homeowners in Uganda would also quickly adopt to a cost saving strategy; however, in either case an additional case needs to be made so that they begin to deal with wastage and ecological footprints.  It is imperative that all players especially our local artisans and self-build homeowners are integrated in the discussion about our collective responsibility to the environment such that they too can appreciate why we need to avoid wastage, deal with cost and the ecological footprint of our buildings.

Urbanising communities are consistently left out of the loop when it comes to discussions and decisions related to infrastructure (housing in this case).  In fact, these same communities are a vital piece of the puzzle toward good design and construction practice since over 60% of the population in the global south currently reside in these areas (The World Bank, 2015).  Currently, incremental self-build is increasingly becoming impossible for urbanising Africans, primarily due to a lack of land or its high cost (UN HABITAT, 2012); yet, self-build is a feasible model/approach to delivering shelter especially since the practice abounds in rural areas, peri-urban areas as well as in many informal settlements in urban centres.  This practice requires new champions to ensure its social and economic viability and, environmental responsibility since this mode of housing in the global south exists outside of planning authorities and the formal construction sector (Tiwari, 2007).  We know that rapid population growth in the urbanising areas has greatly outpaced the ability for government to provide adequate housing among other infrastructure, as such, the burden of construction related concerns in this context is left in the hands of landowners and their local artisans.  These proponents of construction are for the most part an inexperienced labour force with even less engineering or design competences.

Say, we take the example of burnt clay brick that is generally favoured for wall construction.  From observation of construction activities, it is particularly unfortunate that in addition to heaps of left over brick on construction sites, several abandoned weather damaged makeshift kilns are visible at the peripheries of many rural and urbanising centres.


In addition, the lack of homogeneity in the artisan-produced bricks causes additional wastage when only good quality bricks are selected and the rest abandoned at the kiln.  Could this all be because burnt clay brick is produced locally and is available at comparatively lower rates; therefore little effort is put on prior planning for required quantities, handling/transportation or appropriate storage during construction?  In Uganda, the practice of salvaging sturdy pieces of materials from construction dumpsites could make a notable difference in many small to medium scale construction projects.  Anecdotal evidence though, seems to suggest that artisans and builders make more (or some) money from selling rubble, which is odd but could be true – an area to be investigated further.  We note that production of burnt clay brick comes at a considerable (environment) cost, therefore, relegating such a high-embodied energy material, as a substitute for construction rubble is escalating the problem.

Indeed, burnt clay brick is produced with high impact on its immediate surroundings compared to mechanised and semi-mechanised producers who use more sustainable fuel sources like coffee husks and saw dust to fire their kilns.  However, in addition to being available at lower rates, bricks produced at makeshift kilns by local artisans take a larger share of the market compared to small and medium scale manufactured bricks. (Hashemi & Cruickshank, 2015).

Local artisans might not realise that materials made from clay are gradually becoming scarce in Uganda due to the limited availability of appropriate clay in the country coupled with high demand associated with an ever growing construction sector (SSA: UHSNET, 2015).  In addition, these bricks are produced at kilns that rely on a massive fire fuelled by locally acquired firewood.


This should raise concern because the same firewood (charcoal) is the primary fuel source for cooking nationwide.  Increased use of energy intensive materials such as concrete and burned bricks has raised concerns over the long-term environmental impacts of such trends in East Africa.  The forestry cover in Uganda, for example, has reduced by 25% from 45% coverage in 1990 to around 20% in 2005. This means an annual deforestation rate of 1.7% which is increasing year by year. Considering the current situation, Uganda’s forests could be vanished during the next few decades (ILO, 2010).

The general recklessness in handling fired-clay-brick in Uganda needs to be controlled and the most viable solution is to find a more substantial use for these neglected bricks in small construction projects as we transition to better technologies and less impactful material choices.  There are a number of opportunities to examine here some of which veer into social, ethical and economic territory.  Could fired clay brick salvaged from various abandoned heaps/sites still be suitable for wall construction?  Could that salvaged brick be employed in a none-structural part of a building?  With the dwindling clay deposits nationwide, is it now time to introduce our artisans to walling units where clay is a small part of a composite material that incorporates earth and sand?  Can the artisans, currently expert at brick making, be educated to consider production of the various compressed and stabilised earth block/brick-walling alternatives so as to ensure continuous revenue streams after abandoning burnt clay brick production?  What business case can we advance that avoids wastage and deals with ecological footprints?

Some organisations in Uganda we have engaged that are grappling with similar issues include Makiga Appropriate Technologies, Technology for Tomorrow, ACTogether and the Department of Human Settlements (Ministry of Lands Housing and Urban Development).  The Energy and Low Income Tropical Housing project continues to probe these alternatives as well as to engage a dialogue and feedback loop at different levels.  It is envisaged that this investigation will yield effective techniques of sharing the environmental concern, changing ethical positions and delivering more sustainable building practices.


EC (2014). ENVIRONMENT.  Waste; Construction and Demolition Waste (CDW). European Communion. Viewed on 07.10.2015 Available at:

ILO, (2010). Skills for green jobs in Uganda: unedited background country study, International Labour Office, Skills and Employability Department, Geneva.

Perez, A., (2009). Interlocking Stabilised Soil Blocks, Appropriate earth technologies in Uganda; HS/1184/09E, United Nations Human Settlements Programme: Nairobi, Kenya.

Styles, L. (2015) Uganda Waste Management and Disposal Providers. Viewed on 07.10.2015.  Available at: +and+Disposal+Providers;jsessionid=29BF2A517A09968DC94629F7249502AC

SSA: UHSNET, (2015). Challenges of Low Income Earners in accessing building materials.  Shelter and Settlement Alternatives: Uganda Human Settlement Network.  Viewed on 07.10.2015.  Available at: 116:building-materials-uganda&catid=83&Itemid=296

Tiwari, P. (2007) Rural InfrastructureIn: India Infrastructure Report. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp.247.

UN HABITAT, (2012). Affordable land and housing in Africa. Viewed on 13.10.2015.  Available at:

UNEP, (2001) Energy and Cities: Sustainable Building and Construction.  Summary of Main Issues IETC Side Event at UNEP Governing Council 6 February, 2001 – Nairobi, Kenya.  Viewed on 07.10.2015.  Available at:

World Bank, (1989). Uganda – Energy efficiency improvement in the brick and tile industry. Activity completion report; no. ESM 97 89. Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme. Washington, DC: World Bank.

World Bank. (2015). Percentage of Population in Rural areas (in % of Total Population) Viewed on 07.05.2015.  Available at:

A tripartite approach to dealing with embodied energy in housing

For any worthwhile discussion, explication of any phrases that might otherwise cause undesirable hesitation is key. We begin therefore by shedding light on embodied energy. This is defined as the energy consumed by all the processes associated with the production of an object. In the context of building construction, processes included within embodied energy analysis (EEA) include the mining and processing of the natural resources used to manufacture, the manufacture, transport, delivery and installation of a product. Embodied energy is an emerging key consideration in housing today primarily because of the impacts (perceived and real) that energy production has on the environment.

Today, housing is a complex issue; and how intriguing it is that it extends beyond the physical dwelling and encapsulates psychological notions, i.e. human ideals, needs, wants, aspirations, and economic ability. As such, in its pursuit of making a contribution towards reducing the embodied energy of housing, the ELITH project proposes a multi-pronged approach – aligned with the complexity of the housing as it is understood or misunderstood and later shaped. This approach includes:

  • Fronting the value in contextual material selection and application
  • Promoting the ability of community partnerships to propagate knowledge, expertise and appropriate technologies
  • Skilling a formally educated sustainability professional to impact on a largely informal sector

Appropriate material selection and use is the primary focus for reducing the embodied energy involved in construction. This is because the decision to use a specific material impacts on extraction, manufacture, transportation, and waste generation from construction. In Uganda and the world as a whole, changing living patterns and trends are leading to the replacement of vernacular architecture, which emphasises the use of local building materials and low-energy use with more modern building interventions (Alyami et al., 2013). These methods, while providing undeniable benefits such as durability to construction, it is hypothesised, may not be the most suitable for all applications. While the importance of reducing the embodied energy in housing is appreciated from mostly a scientific point of view, the same cannot be said from a layman’s perspective. As such the ELITH project explores a grassroots and participatory process through a material selection tool that supplements existing determinants for material selection such as initial (purchase) cost, availability and ease of use – determined to be common objective drivers for material selection with additional parameters that wholly encompass sustainability criteria – social, economic and environmental impacts such as: environmental impacts of extraction and manufacture, thermal and acoustic properties, toxicity and cost of maintenance, above all, paying keen attention to the sum of these criteria and how a material/process/technology still scores against embodied energy.

The project extends its knowledge and capacity function beyond the trained built environment professional in order to grow a society grounded in the process of material selection and later construction that is well informed about and understands embodied energy in the construction of housing.

Through its interaction with promoters of various innovations within the construction industry, the ELITH project has determined that a key stumbling block for the uptake of new ideas – such as the materials selection tool proposed prior, et al. is the propagation of knowledge that challenges rooted conceptions. To this end, the study queries how community partnerships can be emulated as both a development and problem-solving model.

Embodied energy and saving on energy use are a quantifiable variable that could be shared with the masses. When people know how much they stand to gain and subsequently experience the cost savings as a result of sustainable practices, the project objectives will be taken on as community initiatives with a ripple effect that can also serve to embellish the findings and quantitative reports of the study.

The crux of the matter is the conversation on embodied energy and the possible benefits of this consideration to an individual or his/her community.

During their community development project Alwan and Jones (2014) results indicated that while operational energy was more significant over the long term, the embodied energy of key materials could not be ignored, and that it was likely to be a bigger proportion of the total carbon in a low carbon building. The components with high-embodied energy were also identified. Their design team responded to this by altering the design to significantly reduce the embodied energy within these key components – and thus made the building far more sustainable in this regard.

A contextual equivalent wound be to analyse walling elements, considering they cover the most significant surface area of most buildings, then call attention to the amounts of fuel required to prepare the units that build these elements. Firewood is a quantifiable resource particularly in local communities where it serves as the primary fuel for food preparation.

The current study is also cognisant of the fact that knowledge ought to be nurtured and promoted, as such, built environment professional at the forefront of the evolution of technologies, form an important link between the community and innovations within the industry. A key concern though is how well educated and aware the built environment professional is, and how the system within which they exist encourages this, or an improvement in the state of affairs.

The issues to consider also spell out a possible approach in themselves; and may include:

  1. The prevailing ethical dilemma and whether professionals understand their liability.
  2. The concern about cost like it was just a numbers game, without stopping to consider the future value of buildings.
  3. If built environment professionals stop to consider issues of social equity or are they indeed too elitist to deal with health, safety and wellbeing leaving it for the social scientist?
  4. Overall the ethos of managing and promoting an attitude that thinks about how to avoid/manage/mitigate risk in view of the fact that someone has to take ownership of it all.

These four points give a good indication of where to place emphasis in order to promote sustainability in a largely informal sector. There is a deliberate attempt to encapsulate all the tenets of sustainability in the discourse that is social, economic and environmental aspects, giving them all equal importance. While this may create a larger and more enigmatic concept it is worth noting that: in developing countries, the average standard of living is much lower than in developed nations and in many instances, the challenge is to meet basic human needs. The emphasis here should therefore be on development (and assessment tools) that aim to address these basic needs while avoiding negative environmental impacts (Gibberd, 2002). The ELITH project therefore envisions itself as a prelude in the development typology suggested by Gibberd’s narrative. Efforts in reducing embodied energy in construction have widespread implications; infrastructure (including housing) development is prerequisite for development – has to happen in a sustainable manner.


ALWAN, Z., JONES, P. 2014. The importance of embodied energy in carbon footprint assessment. Structural Survey, Vol. 32 (1), 49 – 60

ALYAMI, S. H., REZGUI, Y. & KWAN, A. 2013. Developing sustainable building assessment scheme for Saudi Arabia: Delphi consultation approach. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 27, 43-54.

GIBBERD, J. 2002. The sustainable building assessment tool: assessing how buildings can support sustainability in developing countries. Built Environment Professions Convention. Johannesburg, South Africa: Document Transformation Technologies.

Affordable Housing in Africa’s Growing Cities


By Ariel Gandolfo

On May 29, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation’s subsidiary CITIC Construction launched CITICC (Africa) Holding Limited, a $300 million investment platform to develop 30,000 African homes over the next five years. Projects would begin in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Kenya and expand throughout the continent.

The deal addresses a crucial regional gap in housing finance. Kenya is short 2 million housing units, Nigeria a whopping 17 million units, and these numbers are set to grow. According to the World Bank Group, three billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, will need new homes in the next 15 years, most of them in Africa. The United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN Habitat) states that the African continent is experiencing the highest rate of urbanization in the world, with approximately 40,000 people migrating to cities every day.

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Embodied energy and embodied carbon – the tip of the iceberg

The ELITH project stepped away from the desk and ventured into the “real” world – as many research projects do, to gather data on housing types, popular building materials, and construction techniques.

As part of a pilot study; analysis of a 50sq.m four roomed house – determined as the predominant housing typology in the peri-urban and rural setting of Nkozi Sub County, Mpigi District – revealed walling, floor finishes and roofing as major energy consumers. Walling (burnt clay brick with cement sand mortar joints and in some cases plaster as render) had 45,569 MJ; floor finishes (ceramic tiles on cement screed) had 13,843 MJ and roofing (Steel sheet on timber supports) had 10,685 MJ. Walling emerges as an outstanding energy hot spot due to its extensive area and is therefore the most logical area to begin our investigations geared towards reducing the embodied energy of low-income housing.

It was determined that burnt clay brick is a common building material that is considered readily available, durable and relatively cheap. A review of the brick production process reveals that the traditional method for burning bricks in Uganda consists of stacking a large amount of dried bricks (up to 20,000) into a large pile with a tunnel opening at the bottom into which large quantities of firewood are introduced and burnt over a period of 24-hours. The pile is plastered with mud in order to reduce heat leakage. The described process results in unevenly baked bricks and 20% waste as the bricks closest to the heat source are over burned while those farther away are under-fired (Perez-pena, 2009.) Further more, locally produced burnt clay brick is often uneven, leading to thick mortar joints during construction and often, plastering of walls to achieve a finished look. These defects lead to an increased amount of cement use in mortar and plaster that contributes to increased embodied energy of walling, recall 45,569 MJ.

However, what is 45,569 MJ as identified for walling in real or relative terms?  How is this energy obtained, what are the impacts? Burning wood fuels brick production in Uganda, immediately raising concerns on the amount of carbon dioxide produced – this is the gas often cited in global warming and sustainability literature.  However, it must be noted that wood fuel is considered carbon neutral due to the carbon sequestered during tree growth. There are other impacts: deforestation and associated out-turns – to produce the 45,569 MJ, it is estimated that the equivalent of 4 fully grown mango trees were cut down; burning wood produces many gases that include nitrogen monoxide – although in small amounts, the gas is 300 times more potent as a green house gas than carbon dioxide, methane – 21 times more potent, and carbon monoxide; and, the respiratory health impacts levied on society due to smoke production.

In sight of these challenges, we question now, do we have a better alternative, how can we improve existing technologies, and what is the rate of uptake of new technology?  Well, there is a lot that could be fronted as possible alternatives, for now a list would include: improving aspects of traditional brick, and brick making technology to produce a higher quality brick with lower embodied energy; research on alternative masonry construction techniques that include: rammed earth, stabilised soil block technology; additives for improved longevity of wattle and daub; and the most suitable way of propagating these technologies.


PEREZ-PENA, A. 2009. Interlocking Stabilised Soil Blocks; Appropriate earth Technologies in Uganda, UN-HABITAT.

So, we set forth again to find out more; join us as we develop a guide on weighted alternatives that will protect our environment, earn you a saving and improve health and well-being in our built environments