How to Re-Invent the African Mud Hut

It’s not often that a project requires you to bulk up on your haggling skills.

Then again, it’s not often that a project requires you to re-invent the African Mud Hut either. But that was exactly the task presented to Karolina and Wayne Switzer, participants of the Nka Foundation’s “10x10 Shelter Challenge” to design and build a 10 by 10 feet shelter deep in the heart of Ghana.

The pair, who just completed their project this month, were dependent upon the local community to make the shelter a reality, and had to learn early on how to communicate with the locals - not just to negotiate prices for materials and labor, but to overcome the local stigma associated with mud architecture (usually only used by the very poor). 

The result was a contemporary, durable shelter built with a construction method inspired by local tradition: the pounding of the fufu root, a diet staple for the community, which uncannily paralleled the pounding of fresh soil into the forms. Hence the local’s name for the structure: “Obruni fufu” (white man’s fufu). 

If you’re interested in getting involved in the 10x10 Challenge (open to students and graduates of design, architecture, art, or engineering, until October 2013), check out the Nka Foundation’s website,, or email at

Full description of the project, after the break....

Courtesy of Nka Foundation

10X10 SHELTER CHALLENGE: How to Re-Invent the Vernacular African Mud Hut

By Barthosa Nkurumeh PhD

The design-build team of Karolina and Wayne Switzer has completed a 10x10 Shelter Challenge at Abetenim ArtsVillage in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The 10x10 Shelter Challenge is a hands-on, site-based design experience focused on learning-by-doing in African architecture that is run by Nka Foundation till October 2013. The challenge is to design and build a learning shelter that measures 10 feet by 10 feet in a location outside of the Western culture, most precisely deep in the village in Ghana, where the convenience of development has not reached. The shelter is to suggest a relationship between art and architecture by maximum use of local materials.

Karolina and Wayne Switzer are both architects with about 8 years of experience in Austria and the United States.  The team had 6 weeks to conduct the site analysis, design and construct their proposal by use of corrugated zinc roofing over rammed earth wall.  The construction itself took 5 weeks to accomplish (September 7 to October 17, 2012).  The size of the built structure is 8x12 feet, with a pavilion measuring 16x31 feet.  Project was completed at the cost of 6,500 cedi, which is an equivalent of 3,500 USD.  

The rural design-build challenge proffers a change in the way the young creative practitioners think about their work in our interconnected world.  As the participant, your ability to generate a locally responsive design is only one aspect of the site-based design challenge.  Unless your team is many in number, you must find a way to engage the community throughout the construction process.  If not, you are in for the most horrendous part of the challenge, the fiscal factor.  If you are one or two in the team, without direct community engagement, your role would be more of self-builder and one exposed to project management, especial at the fiscal and the interpersonal level.  The rural folks are more interested in being paid.  Unless you speak the local language, you must rely on the organizer’s local Community Coordinator to help you negotiate and pay for any construction materials and local labor.  In this culture all prices are mostly negotiable.  You must learn to haggle for prices and services to get the conventional rate.

Courtesy of Nka Foundation

You must also be prepared to design-build to over the local stigma associated with mud architecture. It is regarded as architecture for the very poor.  The recurrent problem with local buildings made of earth is sustainability. Mud houses in the area are poorly constructed.  Wall cracks and water damage are commonplace. We reason that a design-build intervention, such as this, can help generate alternatives by cross fertilization of knowledge and skills. The design-build process therefore starts with site analysis that entails gathering of physical data on the local building arts, analysis, and synthesis to generate an informed design response. The participant is expected to keep a process journal involving field-notes, sketches, photographs, or video to generate a DVD about the camp, or other creative works to disseminate the expe­rience.  

Keep in mind that the rural builder does not read architectural drawings.  As an academy trained designer, you must therefore be thoroughly innovative and “design like you give a damn” and propose a way to involve the community in the construction process to help the rural populace over their erroneous conception of building with earth.  Simply stated, learning to deal well with the cultural and linguistic differences will turn what seems a horrendous task into a most rewarding experience for everyone.  

Thus, at the beginning the design team of Karolina and Wayne Switzer had numerous questions and social concerns: We are interested in vernacular African architecture, but do not have much experience with the way it is constructed.  Will there be an opportunity to learn the various techniques?  In what way do we integrate with the African community?  Will there be someone to oversee our work?  Will there be someone helping us to construct it?  How long would you recommend for meaningful stay and in order to successfully accomplish a project?  Could you send us some examples of the accomplished project?  Through e-mail, telephone conversations and skype, the Nka Project administrators attempted to provide answers to all the questions.  But experience is the best teacher; deeper answers to the questions come only through immersion in the hands-on design challenge.

Courtesy of Nka Foundation

Here is a part of their progress report from the site: "We are happy to report that construction is underway on the workshop and that the team here is working well together to make this project a collaborative one. There have been some challenging days for sure, but overall the situation is positive and we are aiming to complete the workshop building by our departure on October 16th, barring any unforeseen obstacles. 

As for the design of the workshop, Karolina and I spent the first few days observing the local earth-building methods and the condition of these structures- including the projects of past Abetenim Arts Village residents. We finally settled on building a rammed earthen building (8’x12’ interior dimensions) which would feature an outdoor area for conducting classes all beneath a large shed roof for shelter. Our site is a clearing adjacent to a sprawling mango tree, and visible from the road leading into the ArtsVillage. 

Several reasons led us to pursue the rammed earth construction method. Practically speaking, the local soil is an ideal mix of sand, clay and gravel, as well as being readily available. The method of formwork and casting the earth is also a skill that is easily learned by almost any builder. We also felt that the proper combination of cement and earth protected from the rain would prove to be very durable and serve as an example for the village that an earthen building can be both contemporary and withstand the natural elements over time. Lastly, we were inspired by the daily sight of residents using a large pole to pound fufu (the cassava diet staple). This pounding is exactly the same method used to ram the fresh soil into the forms… which has led to our project being dubbed “obruni fufu” (white man’s fufu) by the local builders. Attached are progress photos from the past few days of construction. I hope that these help give an idea of the project. We don’t have a final rendering of the design available as our entire design process has been based on our observations here and the materials/ methods available.”

Courtesy of Nka Foundation

The Abetenim project site is a rural flat land. The top soil is red earth mixed with gravel that is right for cob construction or the rammed earth method. The nearby forests provide lumber for house roofing for a population of about 500 peasant farmers, small scale traders and craft persons. The site-based 10x10 Shelter Challenge is open to all students and graduates of design, architecture, art, engineering and school teams interested in rural projects in Africa. For the local community, the realized space, as the design team of Karolina and Wayne Switzer puts it, thus serves as an “example for the village that an earthen building can be both contemporary and withstand the natural elements over time”. For students, the design-build challenge is a unique opportunity to learn hands-on the intricacies of working with vernacular constraints of economy, material and social dimensions in a real-life project aiming to sustain social harmony through art and architecture. In the process, the student will to learn to design what is buildable to make a well rounded graduate. For the professionals, you will find the hands-on design and construction experience a pause from your office work stress to rediscover the rudiments of architecture and nuances that can refresh your practice.

The 10x10 Shelter Challenge will run till October 2013 involving the following sessions: February 10-March 10, 2013; May 1-30, 2013; July 7-August 7, 2013; and October 3-31, 2013. Join us! Show the world how to re-invent the vernacular African mud hut! See press release on the 10x10 Shelter Challenge at and Enquiries /

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "How to Re-Invent the African Mud Hut" 02 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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