In developing countries, aid organisations have a preference for building houses that meet Western standards. This is a mistake, claims doctoral candidate Michiel Smits in his dissertation, because residents struggle to maintain them. However, his call for ‘self-reliant', circular housing faces opposition from local residents, who prefer their houses to be made using bricks and cement. 

Smits has been a regular visitor to Kenya since 2008, where he works on housing, schools and hospitals as a ‘pro-bono architect’. He noticed that the clients, usually aid organisations, tend to carry out projects on a turnkey basis. Upon completion of the project, the users are handed the keys without having to do anything themselves. Just like schools and hospitals, houses are in fact always built with concrete floors and brick walls. “That’s bound to go wrong and it does go wrong”, says Smits. “People in Kenya lack the tools, money and knowledge needed to maintain Western-style housing.” This leaves them dependent on hired-in builders and financial aid from the West. 
Surely, he wondered, there must be a less ‘top-down’ alternative that people can work on themselves? Although local construction methods may not be nearly as advanced, they make use of materials that are available locally in ample supply: tamped clay for the floors, tree trunks for the load-bearing structure and branches with reed as roofing. Would it not be possible to improve existing construction methods by providing some targeted advice?
He decided to test out his theory in Chepchoina, a village nestled on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Western Kenya. Most of the people here lived in mud huts plastered with cow dung. In a survey of 200 households, Smits discovered that families are far from satisfied with their housing. So, what would they prefer? A house with concrete foundations and floor, fired brick walls, a plaster finish and a corrugated iron roof. “It’s become something of a status symbol”, laments Smits. Western universities tend to sing the praises of ‘vernacular architecture’. However, in Kenya, this falls on deaf ears and 100% circular construction means very little to the people there. “People want a modern house, otherwise you are poor.”

Modern traditional

Smits refused to be discouraged by the survey results. Instead, he developed a Rural Housing Support Tool to provide local housing solutions. The tool includes a step-by-step plan to help residents build a ‘modern traditional house’. He is convinced that there are numerous ways of building decent houses using local materials and methods. Tamped earth can make a good floor, providing that it is done correctly. Although he is not really an advocate of adding cement, it can slightly improve the quality. A generous roof overhang can serve as rainfall protection for walls made of clay. 
Smits also set up a project in which he enlisted help from locals to produce interlocking bricks made from a mixture of earth and fibre. This produced sturdy, stackable bricks of a design similar to Lego bricks that can be quickly built into a sturdy wall. It costs one-third of the price of fired bricks and no mortar is required.
To test this out, four families were given the opportunity actually to build a house. They were each allocated an international architect and a Bachelor's student from Avans University of Applied Sciences, where Smits works as a lecturer/researcher. Two homes were completed as a result and two were never finished. It turned out that it was not always easy to impart well-intentioned advice. The residents themselves were in charge and made the final decisions. Despite their team’s recommendations, they often opted for Western-style solutions. “The problem is: if they opt for concrete foundations, that uses up virtually the whole construction budget.” 
Ultimately, this resulted in hybrid housing (traditional/modern), bringing together the preferences of the resident and of the team. In spite of the setbacks in this initial experiment, the Support Tool proved very useful in helping to realise the housing. Encouraging Africans to take a greater interest in ‘self-reliant’ construction methods will obviously take some time. But Smits firmly believes that organisations active in development aid should take the lead in this. “The aid organisations themselves need to set a good example by opting for completely circular, bio-based buildings”, he says. “Otherwise, people living in rural areas will never manage to progress without support from aid organisations.” 

Image: Housing district realised by Michiel Smits on Mt. Elgon, Kenya, which is also the departure point of his problem investigation in the area.

Published: November 2020