Traditional building practices offer sustainable solutions as African cities grow

A secondary facade made of local eucalyptus wood surrounds the classrooms like a transparent fabric and creates different shaded spaces to protect students from the sweltering daytime temperatures.

The building, designed by Berlin-based Burkinabe architecture firm Kéré Architecture, is an example of how countries on the continent are using traditional construction techniques to reduce the carbon footprint of their buildings.

Research shows that these techniques can help avoid the need for air conditioning, the long-distance transportation of building materials and the production of concrete, all of which contribute to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions causing the crisis climatic.

Naaba Belem Goumma High School under construction
The Naaba Belem Goumma High School under construction. Photo: Kéré Architecture |

With 70% of the African housing stock that will exist in 2040 still to be built, experts say these energy saving techniques are crucial.

“Traditional sustainable building and construction practices are the cornerstone of African cultural heritage,” says Jonathan Duwyn of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). “Locally adapted sustainable design, construction, practices and materials, combined with renewable energy and innovation, represent a tremendous asset. an opportunity for both mitigation and resilience in Africa’s rapidly growing housing stock. »

UNEP played a role in the Burkina Faso project, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Project Services and UN-Habitat.

Africa accounts for about 6 percent of global energy demand, more than half of which comes from its buildings. With Africa’s population expected to reach 2.4 billion by 2050, with 80 percent of that growth occurring in cities, sustainability must be a fundamental principle of all future buildings, experts say.

These solutions are highlighted in the UNEP 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, launched at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) in Egypt. The report focused on how Africa can manage this urban growth and increase the resilience of its building stock while avoiding an increase in GHG emissions.

Inspiration for climate resilient buildings can be found throughout African history. Travel across Africa today and traces of its past can be found everywhere, from the beehive huts of Eswatini to the cliff villages of Drogon in Mali to the mud-brick mosques of Africa from West.

“Africa is rich in renewable energy sources, solar and wind, with almost half of the planet’s total renewable energy potential,” explains Duwyn.

This is especially important given the expected demand for air conditioning units as more people gain access to electricity and temperatures rise. “We expect cooling to be a major challenge for residential energy demand in Africa in the future,” says Duwyn. “This is why it is so important to ensure that new buildings use natural cooling systems wherever possible. »

Schorge High School
Schorge High School in Burkina Faso. Photo: Kéré Architecture/Iwan Baan

Gando Primary School is another Kéré Architecture project using sustainable design and construction practices. It is constructed of hybrid clay/cement bricks for a dry stacked brick ceiling – instead of the more common corrugated iron roof – allowing maximum natural ventilation.

“These projects show that sustainable construction practices are possible when innovative techniques are used,” says Duwyn. “And as Africa’s climate warms even further, it is essential that we adopt sustainable building designs that do not require costly and damaging cooling systems.”

As the Building Global Status Report highlights, Africa is rich in natural and sustainable materials such as adobe, laterite, termite mounds, wood, stone, bamboo, sand and dry vegetation. Traditional building techniques include rammed earth, sun-dried bricks, compressed earth blocks, wattle and daub, daub, timber-framed construction, sandbag construction and thatched roofs.

Ensuring the use of sustainable materials is particularly important given that, according to UNHabitat, more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lives in crowded informal settlements, which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“Sustainable, quality housing is an important way to ensure that vulnerable populations are more resilient to the effects of the climate crisis,” says Duwyn.

This article was originally published on November 22, 2022 and has been updated.