Ancient Earth Roofing Technique Provides Sustainable Housing in Sub-Saharan Regions

Nubian Vault construction method.

An ancient construction method is providing affordable and sustainable housing to people in sub-Saharan regions. Its resurgence has the potential to not just help those lacking resources to build themselves a decent and affordable home, but thanks to new skills and training, it's also giving them a path out of poverty.

Author Annalisa Dorigo, 03.29.17

An ancient construction method is providing affordable and sustainable housing to people in sub-Saharan regions. Its resurgence has the potential to not just help those lacking resources to build themselves a decent and affordable home, but thanks to new skills and training, it’s also giving them a path out of poverty.

Deforestation, climate change and population growth have all been placing a strain on increasingly scarce resources, such as timber, which has traditionally been used in housing construction in sub-Saharan Africa. For cash-strapped families in these regions, expensive import timber or sheet metal may be the only option to be able to put a roof over their heads. But it’s one which could perpetuate and worsen the circle of poverty they are already in.

The ‘A Roof, a Skill, a Market‘ Program of The Nubian Vault Association (AVN), relies on local labour, skills and available materials such as earth, water and rocks, to provide an affordable, durable and sustainable solution to the problem. And through its Nubian Vault masonry training program, it also gives local people a path out of poverty.

Much like other initiatives in Colombia, Mexico, or the Philippines, it applies low-cost technology and abundant local resources to provide locally tailored and long-term solutions to housing, environmental and economic issues.

How Do They Do It?

AVN is a social enterprise which for the last ten years has been bringing back a simplified version of the ancient Nubian Vault technique to communities in the sub-Saharan belt. The technique entails a timberless vault construction method which uses only earth bricks and earth mortar. Local soil and water are mixed to make bricks which are then left to dry and compact in the sun. The method is certainly well tried and tested: it was used in upper Egypt well over 3,000 years ago, and boasts some important archaeological finds – still standing today – to its name.

AVN relies on local materials but also labour and skills to build roofs that are not just ecologically sustainable and more durable than their traditional timber and corrugated iron counterparts, but are also better suited to the local environmental settings – and definitely much more aesthetically pleasing.

Indeed Nubian Vault roofs remain cool in hot weather, and retain heat at night when it’s cold; when properly maintained they can last for 50 years or longer, versus an average seven to ten year lifetime of a tin roof counterpart. Importantly, by using locally available resources rather than imported materials, they are also low-cost, and support local economic development.

A key part of the project is the Nubian Vault masonry training offered to local people. Apprentices are mostly subsistence farmers who through the initiative can gain new skills and a new livelihood, to help them and their families out of poverty. Apprentices are selected from and by the local community, in collaboration with experienced masons, ensuring not just local participation but probably also a greater training success rate. A key component of the initiative is also the development of the market for a housing solution such as this, by raising awareness among, and engaging with, local partners and stakeholders.

Some Achievements to Date

As of 2016, AVN had trained some over 300 masons, and helped build some 2000 homes in 830 different locations in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Benin, Ghana, and Mauritania. Some 25,000 people are known to have directly benefitted from the initiative, and when compared to traditional building methods, the program is estimated to have prevented some 65,000 tons of carbon emissions.

A Roof, a Skill, a Market‘ is the winner of the World Habitat Awards 2016.

To learn more, you can head to their website or check out this video about how it all works:

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