In 2017, the then still students of architecture Irene Librando and Nadia Peruggi, were leaving for the first time to Africa, full of expectations but not yet able to imagine what would have happened to them in the next two years.
After a 3-week stay in the northern region of Ghana, a long research activity began concerning the earth building methods and vernacular architecture in Ghana, in order to participate in the construction of the dormitory for the arts and crafts school of the village Sang, organized by the architect Blanca Fernández with the Nka foundation.
Their return to Italy coincided with the last international architectural competition organized by the Nka: “Reinventing the African Mud House, design-build challenge in rural Ghana”, which was the theme of the graduation thesis “Kali: project of a modular unit in raw dirt and wood for a school in Ghana”.
The project was a winner and the entire 2018 was then dedicated to organizing an international workshop on raw earth architecture which ended with the construction of a classroom for Okorase’s village junior high school.
Now, together with three other architect colleagues who participated in the Kali workshop, arch.AROUND was founded. The goal is to keep on helping rural communities in development by providing them with spaces (schools, hospitals, recreational buildings etc). but above all, letting them to re-evaluate vernacular building systems by applying them in the construction of contemporary buildings.
Building in Ghana: traditional and contemporary
Traditional architecture in sub-Saharan Africa has always been based on local materials such as dirt, wood and straw. It is a symbol of sustainability and tradition, but it is slowing disappearing as seen, even by local populations, as poor and obsolete. In this, Ghana is no exception: while the main cities like Accra, the capital, Kumasi, Sekondi-Takoradi, Cape Coast and Tema are experiencing a constant transformation, the rural areas continue to have a social and urban configuration that respects the ancient customs. However, the attitude to abandon the traditional techniques is spreading always more, leaving ample space for building speculation and construction methods that are not suitable for the economy, the environment and the climate of this country.
Some NGOs, such as NKA Foundation first and RADeF (Rural African Development Foundation) today, are trying to intervene to change this approach, combining the need of populations in these areas to build school complexes with the revaluation of vernacular architecture and the use of natural materials.
This is why over the last few years international competitions have been proposed with the aim of drafting a school building project, reinterpreting clay buildings in an innovative way and demonstrating that traditional techniques are still the most economical and sustainable.
The best way to do this is to collaborate with local communities, thus combining the expertise of local workers with the different techniques of using raw earth as a building material and the ideas of young designers. The result will be a powerful and durable building.
This aspiration has been achieved through the organization of international workshops, where the winning designers are also called to manage the construction site while the NGO RADeF is in charge of local coordination. In addition, there is a group of international volunteers and local workers who work together to complete the construction over a 3-4 month period.
The economic and social context
Ghana is a multicultural nation, where different ethnic groups coexist peacefully and where there is a wide linguistic and religious variety. It is the second nation in the world for cocoa production and agriculture is one of the main working activities along with art and craftsmanship.
In fact, one of the most important forms of art is the realization of Kente: a hand-woven cotton fabric. It is representative of the Akan population, an ethnic group in the south of the country, and is used on formal occasions, such as weddings, and was traditionally worn by the Asante king.
Tourism is contributing to economic growth, with a focus on sustainability policies. In the last ten years Ghana has been a pioneer of eco-tourism, through relationships and collaboration between international volunteers and local communities.
The education sector is still developing and there is a big difference between rural and urban areas and between the north and south of the country. In the Northern Region, Upper East Region and Upper West Region, which are areas mostly rural, there is a high percentage of children and young people who do not receive any kind of school education. In regions with urban agglomerations, such as the Greater Accra Region and the Central Region, this percentage is lowered. As for the language, most teenagers in the south of the country study both English and dialects (which change from region to region), while in the north English is less widespread.
Characteristics of rural houses in Ghana
In the northern regions the climate is hot and dry, with rainfall between March and September, and this does not favor agriculture and the vegetation is typical of the tropical savannah.
Here the dirt dwelling is composed of a certain number of small circular and rectangular huts arranged around one or more courts. The daily activities take place mainly outside. The walls are made with the technique of the Mason, using a mix of red soil, water and sometimes even straw, and almost always do not have a foundation but rest directly on the ground. The circular type huts are covered with a conical straw roof, while the rectangular ones have a flat roof made of a woven wood structure and a very thin layer of clay at the end.
Tropical rain forest
The climate is hot and humid with an annual rainy season, in fact, there are different types of vegetation: the trees vary from palm to cocoa to other tropical fruits.
The type of traditional Ashanti dwelling is a building, usually built around a courtyard. The construction technique used is that of a “wattle-and-daub”: after having assembled a structure in wood or bamboo, one passes to fill the empty parts of the walls with a mixture of earth. Unlike the northern region, here the walls rest on a 60-centimeter basement, a crucial feature in a geographical area where rain can cause damage due to rising damp. The pitched roof has a wooden structure and is covered with straw or bamboo mats. Recently, this type of house is built with concrete blocks and corrugated sheet, while not changing the layout of the plant.
In the south the climate is hot and humid, the rainy seasons are two: the shortest between July and August and the other between December and February.
The main feature of coastal dwellings is that they were designed to be disassembled and re-assembled in different places during the year. In fact, although this custom is less and less practiced, most of the people living in the coastal savannah were traditionally fishermen and moved along the coast depending on the fishing season.
They are usually built using grass, palm leaves, bamboo and straw, which are abundant materials in this area. The main difference with the other types of houses is that, even if there is an outdoor space adjacent to the house, most of the daily activities take place inside the huts, where people seek protection from the sun. There is no foundation, only a 10-15 centimeter thick clay floor is preferred, while the roof is generally covered with straw.
The experience of the Okorase village in 2018
The project for the Okorase village school complex was born in December 2017 and saw the conclusion of the activities of the Nka Foundation with the last competition: “Reinventing the African Mud House, Design-Build challenge in rural Ghana”.
After that, the winning designers of the competition started to collaborate with a Ghanaian NGO, which continues the work of Nka: RADeF foundation.
The village has a population of an average age of 25, but being a small community, most people have not received an education other than primary education. In fact, the main economic activity is the production and export of cocoa beans and other agricultural products.
Thus until summer 2018, the village had only one primary school to accommodate about 400 children. For those of them who wanted to continue their studies, it was necessary to walk an unpaved 9 km road every day to reach Kwaso, the neighboring village.
That’s why RADeF chose Okorase as the location of the workshops. From June to December 2018, with the help of the community and the head of the dwarf village Adu Boahene, two classrooms were built (to be used for the 1st and 2nd year of middle school) by a Spanish-German team with the project “Aulaterra”, led by Spanish architects Diego Peña Jurado and Paco Rodriguez Zafra, and by an international one with the “Kalì” project, led by Italian architects Irene Librando and Nadia Peruggi.
Taking into account the knowledge on the typological configuration and the daily habits of the typical Ghanaian family of the Ashanti region, the masterplan designed by the two teams for the Okorase school area reinterprets the concept of the court as a community space, placing 4 classrooms to get to the center a space for students. The building entrances are arranged laterally to create direct paths between the buildings.
The masterplan also includes other buildings with different functions such as new toilets, a room for teachers and a library, which will be shared by elementary and middle schools.
The “Kalì” project was announced in March 2018 and implemented between September 1st and December 1st 2018, after a crowdfunding campaign and with the help of 18 international volunteers from Italy, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Austria, France and the Netherlands. Within 3 months, with a budget of € 9,000, the group joined the local labor force to build a sustainable land and wood unit.
The project was conceived following all the studies carried out on the typical houses in the different climatic regions and the information on the current literacy level of the country.
The classroom has an area of 66 m2, was built using 133 m3 of red dirt beaten manually and 3 km of wooden posts, planed without using electricity, which was not available. Three quarters of the length of the class are defined by two beaten earth walls, 3 meters high and 8.5 meters long, between which the benches are positioned. The front is completely made of wood, to obtain a brighter space for the blackboard, the light can be modulated by a series of curtains made with traditional “wax” fabrics.
In fact, traditional fabrics have been one of the inspiring themes of the project: one of the most important art forms in Ghana is the production of colored waxed fabrics. The design is based on the typical woven pattern of the fabric, thinking of a space that is modular and can provide a graduated shade of light.
The climatic performance of the building is another fundamental themes: whether we are in the rainy season or the dry season, the temperatures in the Ashanti region range from 20 to 40 degrees Celsius.
With the use of dirt walls and with the arrangement of the open wall on the south elevation, children can study in a space that is always cool during the hottest hours of the day; a condition that is extremely important for their learning and to keep their concentration active.
This is how the dirt walls absorb sunlight, preventing the interior space from becoming too hot, and the wooden screens, together with the raised roof, allow natural ventilation to take its course, with the fresh air entering the part low of the building and the hot one comes out upwards. Under the corrugated sheet roof, handmade straw mats have been added, which help to isolate the space from the heat.
Finally, another of the goals was to aim to find innovative ways to use waste that cannot be recycled in the village. This important part of the project was mainly occupied by volunteers, who collected more than 3000 plastic bags, used in Ghana for purified water that can be drunk and which often end up being burned. The plastic was carefully washed and used to make screens for the building where the roof reaches a greater height and also a volleyball net for the elementary school.
What does the future hold?
The case of Okorase is an example of how the collaboration between international designers and local labor can lead to a new architectural result, which is sustainable and functional, because it uses native materials and techniques and is therefore suitable for the environment and climatic conditions. Furthermore, the local community has the capacity to maintain these facilities independently with the cheapest local materials.
The natives learn how to improve vernacular construction systems, with easy expedients like the construction of a foundation and a base to avoid rising damp, or to make the roof wider to protect the walls from rain. On the other hand, international designers have the opportunity to relate to materials and techniques that have been set aside even in countries where they have traditionally been used in the past (such as the raw earth techniques that were widespread in some European areas and that are gradually being rediscovered).
The goal is then to continue the experience starting from Okorase, and then in other areas of Ghana, expanding more and more in order to provide the necessary resources to the communities to learn how to manage their resources and also work independently to build their infrastructures, to become architects of their own development.
For more info: www.archaround.com