“In adversity, man finds himself’ is one my favourite quotes. No, I don’t like adversity! Indeed I would rather have nothing to do with it, but the quote is quite poignant; in that, it forces and challenges us to look within and rethink our routine ways of finding solutions as we go about our everyday business. In these times of economic crises, we indeed have to rethink our construction methods as well as our mind set. Here are few reasons to make the switch to indigenous earth or mud building materials, popularly called ‘atakpame’.
What is it?
The archaeologist Ann B Stahl captures it succinctly – “Courses are made of carefully mixed and kneaded clay, formed into balls, and added to gradually build up the layer. The course is carefully levelled and left to dry for some time before another course is added. Building the wall gradually in this way ensures the lower courses can bear the weight of the upper courses when they are added. Sometimes the walls were finished with a plaster coating. If not, the courses that form the wall remain visible in the finished dried wall. Atakpame-walled buildings are very durable. If well-roofed and maintained, they can last for many decades. In order to protect earthen walls from erosion by rain, roofs need to be periodically repaired or replaced. Walls and porches may be plastered with a clay solution to create a durable and protective finish. Over time, this plaster finish erodes and must be refreshed or renewed”.
In your layman’s mind, try picturing walls erected by compacting, or pounding earth, or soil on top of each layer, or form work to reach desired height. Construction time for a typical 2-bedroom earth house for instance can take between 3 -4 weeks, and it is also advised that all MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) works are done alongside the construction works.
Efficient cooling system
According Hive Ghana, walls constructed using rammed earth contain less than one twentieth of the embodied energy of traditional brick and mortar walls. Rammed earth walls have a high thermal mass absorbing heat energy through the day and releasing it into the building as temperatures fall at night. Experiments have shown that rammed earth walls can actually reduce daytime temperatures by 4 or 5 degrees.
If you have stepped into any earth building in the middle of the day with the sun at its peak, you will realise to your surprise, sometimes, that it’s actually cooler inside even without air conditioning or fans. Using earth does impact your energy or utility bills, reducing them significantly. In these times, it is thus a no-brainer to build ‘earth-ically’.
The first benefit that will excite most people is earth’s low cost of construction. Affordability, especially in these times of high inflation and high cost of imported materials, in sourcing earth, which is readily available locally can potentially cut down costs on average by 30 percenet to as much as on 50 percent. To provide practical insight, about 20 bags of earth can be used instead of 50 bags of cement in constructing a typical 3-bedroom unit. To translate that into cedis, a regular 2-bedroom house, for instance, could potentially cost between GH¢100,000 – GH¢150,000 depending on size, fixtures and fittings used.
The biggest concerns for most people regarding earth as building material is the uncertainty surrounding its structural integrity and durability when compared to cement which looks more robust. Evidence, however, suggests that the concern is really unwarranted, with several examples littered around the world that testify to earth’s durability as a building material.
These buildings have been known to last for more than a century, even more than 1,000 years. From the Great Wall of China to centuries old high-rise buildings in Yemen; and even back in our own villages, our elderly statesmen can testify to several stories of structures that have stood the test of time and are a great store of memories.
The benefits are as clear as day, and it is time we started looking within and local to source our building materials. It starts, however, with a mindset change from seeing earth houses differently from those in the villages to ones that can be spruced with interesting coatings and fittings as in the image in this article while still enjoying the enormous benefits they offer. Anybody coming off cement down to earth?
The writer is the Executive Director of Yecham Property Consult & Founder of Ghana Green Building Summit.
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