Architecture is a part of countries culture as much as art, language, music and other components. In many countries, vernacular architecture is disappearing. Eventhough this is true in developed countries, such as the UK, it is especially evident in developing nations, including countries in Africa. Vernacular architecture utilizes materials that are found locally and uses construction techniques that have passed from generation to generation. Changes in techniques have evolved over time but materials stay constant. The main materials used in Malawi vernacular architecture is mud and thatch. Walls are constructed with mud in one form or another. Examples of just mud, clumped on top of each other was documented. More common was mud applied to a frame, either made of reeds, bamboo or wood. The most common method was using mud to create bricks, the bricks either being sun dried or burnt in kilns. The last method of constructing walls is rammed earth, which does not use any wood for the construction, and is the most sustainable. People believe that because thatch has to be replaced, it is temporary. Much of this depends on the thickness of the thatch roof. A proper thatched roof can last up to 70 years, with the ridge being replaced every 20 years. Safari lodges are constructed in this fashion. The average person cannot build a roof to this standard, so a roof is thatched based on what can be afforded.
In Malawi, thatch is both difficult and expensive to obtain. Because of this, not only are thatched roofs thin, but a layer of plastic is placed below the thatch to prevent leaking. Mud and thatch are both viable and sustainable materials. The issue is that people build what they can afford and in many cases it is the bare minimum. Many people have the perception that vernacular architecture is sub standard, temporary, for the poor. If constructed properly this is not the case. Take a look at safari lodges which are built with vernacular materials. In fact these structures are built for tourists, who want to experience the “real Africa”. The problem is that the perception of a mud hut is the one of the dilapidated structure and not of the possibility of what these vernacular materials are capable of. This perception continues because there is very little information on line for people to actually view. African vernacular architecture needs to be documented, not only because it is vanishing, but more importantly to educate about it’s beauty and it’s place as a real and sustainable building technique.
By: Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski