West African Architects Are Choosing Mud Bricks Over Architecture

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Robison Wells
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West African builders found promise in an ancient material after decades of neglect. Long gone builders used mud bricks in Burkina Faso and Morocco. Modernization replaced these bricks with concrete. Now, architects seek to return these cities to their roots.

One advertisement outside of Koumi, Burkina Faso, states “Concrete is a Strong Material for Strong Men;” that ethos thrives in recent years as the country gains more wealth. But concrete brings regional problems. Proximity to the equator and the Sahara Desert heats concrete; less so with mud.

A traditionally built clinic in the town of Kaya, designed by architect Clara Sawadogo demonstrates this. A National Geographic reporter read the clinic’s outside wall temperature above 45 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit), whereas the inner wall read less than 30ºC. Vaulted earth ceilings keep the cool air inside. Stone and mud-brick walls insulate against the sun. Builders placed the structure such that the prevailing north winds flow through the clinic. Outside, lush greenery provides shade.

“People tell me: It’s the 21st century; stop using mud,” Sawadogo says, gesturing at her design. “But look at this. What’s not modern about this?”

The Association La Voûte Nubienne, an international NGO, recently contributed 5,000 mud bricks to homes in Boromo, Burkina Faso; builders finished construction of these homes in 2020. Ilboudou Abdallah, a new resident of one of the homes, said, “I can’t tell you what a joy it is being able to spend time inside the house now without suffering.”

But some push back against using the material. Simeon, Toe, says, “There is a real fear; a fear that meets the stereotypes of mud as the poor person’s material and that drives people to concrete.”

Still, one computer scientist who recently moved from a concrete home back into mud said, “We were told mud was bad. We were told we needed to work to escape this. But I would be happy to live in something like this.”

Amid a country driven to modernize construction by moving from mud to concrete, some recognize the unexpected benefits of going back to the old ways.

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