Ancient Green Building Technique Taking Hold in West Africa

Masons are trained in the Nubian Vault technique (Nubian Vault Association)

Burkina Faso - In semi-arid regions of West Africa, circumstance has created a housing crisis, and for many rural families, money is in short supply. The Nubian Vault Association is now helping people to build homes using an ancient green technique that uses mud bricks.

La Voute Nubienne, a non-governmental organization in West Africa, is bringing back an ancient architectural technique that is both inexpensive and eco-friendly, using an ages-old sustainable building material: mud bricks. The Nubian vault style of architecture was revived by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy after re-discovering the technique in the Nubian village of Abu al-Riche. Fathy had for years grappled with housing the poor. His solution involved building low-cost housing using the Earth to make building blocks, reported Digital Journal in 2015.

Called the Nubian Vault technique, it was resurrected in 2000 when Burkina Faso farmer Seri Youlou and Frenchman Thomas Granier started the association, La Voute Nubienne (AVN), simplifying the technique.

Since its inception in 2000, AVN has already had an impact on people's lives, teaching the technique and seeing hundreds of vaulted homes sprout up in a number of countries, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana, where at least 20,000 people are currently living in ancient Nubian houses, according to Face2Face Africa.

Nick Nuttall, the spokesperson for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said, “Nubian Vault buildings provide excellent thermal insulation, making the buildings cool during the day and warm during the night." This was one of the best features of this style of building thousands of years ago and it is proving its worth in today's warming climate.

Building a Nubian Vault house is easy. Environmentalists love this technique because the only material used is the Earth. No sheet metal or cutting down trees is employed - just good old mud. Mud bricks are laid leaning at a sloping angle against the gable walls in a length-wise vault. The arch can be open and wide depending on how big or small the owner wants the house to be.

Bricks are put in place using mortar in circular or curved patterns, with each row laying on the previous row focusing on stability. Doing so transfers thrust to the walls. The pointed arched vaults employ a corbelled coursing of the bricks, alleviating the use of scaffolding. The AVN is also making an impact on local economies in West Africa, valued at $22 million. They have already trained 380 masons, with hundreds more in apprenticeships programs. They have helped homeowners to build over 1,800 homes in the region. The homes cost around $1,000, but the price is much lower if families make their own bricks.