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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