Lowly earth now deemed perfect building material

The Al Muhdhar Mosque in Yemen. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Buildings made of mud are coming up around the world, and interest in contemporary earthen architecture is on the rise. 
  • While most people might associate mud houses with Third World countries, it is used across the globe.

  • Renewed interest in building using mud has led to launch of the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture for projects completed after the year 2000.

It would seem that soil, the oldest construction material known to man, is back in fashion. 

Buildings made of mud are coming up around the world, and interest in contemporary earthen architecture is on the rise. 

Interest in finding sustainable building materials and natural building methods is also rising.

While most people might associate mud houses with Third World countries, it is used across the globe.

In fact, in Australia, there are communities that live in mud houses and have been pushing for the amendment of laws so that the building code can include earthen houses. 

In New Mexico, US, building with mud is still commonplace. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the fastest-growing high-tech centres in the US, rich Americans have built adobe houses with all sorts of luxurious amenities. These adobe houses are now a defining feature of the city.

Some countries, including China, Peru and Turkey, as well as some American states, even have earth building standards.

In Africa, the existing earth building codes focus mainly on bricks. In Kenya, the use of earth as a building material is still largely restricted to the rural areas and urban slums.

The renewed interest in building using mud has triggered the launch of the first international prize for contemporary earthen architecture for projects completed after the year 2000.

The awards will be given at the Terra World Conference 2016. Terra 2016, to be held in Lyon, France, is the twelfth congress in a series of international events organised since 1972, bringing together academics, professionals and experts, and a broad audience gathering around earthen architecture.

It is hoped that the interest generated and submissions made will help to create the world’s first database for earthen architecture.

In a world where talks on sustainable development, climate change and environmental conservation continue to trend globally, this is certainly a welcome move as it is unfortunate that the provision of housing, a basic human need, continues to be one of the most destructive industries in the world.

While sustainable architecture and green architecture sound pretty modern and innovative  terms, it has been practised by our ancestors since time immemorial. 

Houses were built of locally available materials using cheap, communal labour and expertise. The houses were durable and were known to last for centuries with little maintenance. They had few environmental footprints, given that even when abandoned or destroyed, they were biodegradable.

However, over the last century, especially after European colonisation, new ways of building were introduced, and the traditional ways were dropped along the way. 

Mud was abandoned for timber, mined stones and burnt bricks while corrugated iron sheets replaced plant thatching.

The mud houses that Africans were used to began to be associated with poverty and low status while the iron-roofed, timber, stone and brick houses were associated with status and wealth.

It was thought that these modern structures were more durable and gradually, traditional architecture lost favour. 

In its place came the highly mechanised modern structures we now live in. The environmentally sound and surprisingly durable houses that Africans were used to disappeared and are now a postcard novelty.  One has to travel to remote villages or tourist resorts to find any.

Invariably, when the educated, employed urban Africans think of upgrading their rural home,  what comes to mind is a stone house with a corrugated iron roof.  

In an era in which environmental concerns are high and housing needs are more pressing, it would be worthwhile to re-examine the ways of our ancestors and discover what we have abandoned in the rush for modernisation.

We might discover that their basic approaches were actually more efficient and sustainable than the buildings we now live in.


 If we were to rediscover the green advantages and potential of the mud houses, we would cut down on fuel consumption and pollution substantially.

The number of trees we cut down for construction would be reduced. Energy consumption for heating and cooling buildings would also come down, as would the use of non-biodegradable items.

In order for us to tap into these advantages, we would need to combat the poverty stigma associated with mud houses.

In many people’s minds, a mud house is a primitive, temporary structure constructed by the poor. One might ask, is it a problem with the mud or with the modern mind? 

For a change in perception to take place, there needs to be an increase in studies regarding African vernacular architecture, which was predominantly mud.

Success stories of the mud houses are all over Africa — in Mali, Bukina Faso, Egypt, and elsewhere.

However, this subject that has been ignored for a long time and as a result, information is scanty. 

This lack of data and information is perhaps what leads to the negative perceptions regarding mud houses.

Similarly, the study of success stories of contemporary mud architecture around the world would be useful.

Though it is a fact that only a small number of Africans will ever be able to afford conventional housing, formal schools of architecture have not shown any serious interest in mud technology.

It is unfortunate that African professionals, including scholars, architects, government officials and estate developers are still stuck in the trend of trying to ape the West.

This distracts them from exploiting and researching further into their heritage, resources and advantages that are right within their reach.

The words of Hassan Al Fathy, the Middle Eastern father of green architecture, are reflective of this worrisome trend.

He wrote: “For centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building material, while we, with our modern, school-learnt ideas, never dreamt of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for so serious a creation as a house.”

Africa’s population continues to grow and  its housing needs increase by the day. People need housing, but current building practices are prohibitive.

As it is, most African cities are now struggling with housing. They cannot easily afford to put up and maintain the modern structures required to house their populations. 

The specialised labour and machinery required to build them are expensive, and the fees for architects, masons and engineers are beyond their reach. 

Building now requires millions of shillings to put up, yet “millions” and “sustainable” are strange bedfellows in the African context where the majority are poor. 

What is required is a sensible move towards sustainability, affordability and environmentally friendly practices to address the present challenges.

A look at some of the earth buildings that have survived for years and some contemporary ones reveal that earth is an authentic material.


This mosque, a designated Unesco World Heritage Site, is considered by many architects to be one of the greatest achievements of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, an architectural style characterised by rounded, soft forms with wooden “sticks” protruding from the walls. The mosque is said to be the largest mud structure in the world.

The current structure, which dates back to 1907, is said to be the third reconstruction. The oldest mosque is said to have been built in the 13th century and the second one in the 17th century .

The walls of the Great Mosque are made of sun-baked earth bricks (called ferey), sand, and earth-based mortar, and are coated with a plaster that gives the building its smooth, sculpted look.  The central tower is around 16 metres tall.

The mosque requires annual maintenance by replastering, and this is done in a grand festival called Crepissage de la Grand Mosquée (Plastering of the Great Mosque). It is a  festivals that the whole community, men women and children take part in.

Unfortunately, the mosque is open only to believers.


The houses built by the Hakka of China are called tolou houses because they are made of mud. The tolou houses are large buildings  for clansmen to live compactly. Apart from providing a living space, they were walled to keep off intruders.

They were self-contained, complete with food storage, space for livestock, living quarters, temples, armouries and other facilities.

There are thousands of tolou houses in southern China, some with more than three layers.

They are said to have been built between the 12th and 20th centuries. Only 46 of the many houses are designated Unesco World Heritage Sites and they are officially called Fujian tolou.


The oval chapel is built of rammed earth flanked by a translucent façade of wooden louvres.

This compelling example of contemporary earthen architecture was designed by architects Peter Sassenroth and Rudolf Reitermann and  built by Austrian mud-brick building expert Martin Rauch.

It was built over the foundation of the reconciliation church that was blown up on the orders of East Germany as it stood on no man’s land between East and West Germany.

The remains of the old church are incorporated in the new church and can be seen at the altar and on the walls.  It  was dedicated in 2000.

The chapel is open to visitors and is both a place of worship for the Protestant Reconciliation Parish and a part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, where the victims of the Berlin Wall are commemorated regularly.


The multi-storied buildings are made entirely of adobe — earth mixed with water and straw, then either poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks.

They are said to have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years.

The walls, which are several feet thick, are continuously maintained by re-plastering with layers of mud. The Interior walls are coated with whitewash to keep them clean and bright.

Modern-day Pueblo homes, referred to as pueblo revival, imitate these ancient buildings and   are often made using concrete blocks or other materials covered with adobe, stucco, plaster, or mortar.