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.
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