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Is a Green Indigenous Architecture Attainable?

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

Contemporary African Architecture Photo credit: 1ncognito___

One of the striking cultural elements of many a society is their building architecture; a personality carved deliberately with indigenous material, colour, motifs and other symbolic accents.

Until the influence of western design, indigenous design leveraged the immediate natural environment to provide quality indoor air, cooling and other functional spaces. In our quest for healthier and functional spaces, we re-opened this much needed conversation on indigenous architecture at the 3rd Ghana Green Building Summit. We will today share highlights from the panel discussion that explored the topic- Is a Green Indigenous Architecture Attainable? The panel was made up of the following: Ben Adarkwa, RIBA - Architect and Partner, Benson Architects; Hector Nanka Bruce - Principal of NankaBRUCE Inc.; Kuukuwa Manful - Architecture Researcher and Co-founder, Sociarchi and moderated by William Evans Halm –Architect, CEO, Spektra Global

What is Indigenous Architecture?

According to Hector Nanka Bruce, the construction, design and use of specific building materials that are common or local to a particular area or region is what constitutes Indigenous Architecture.

A Historical Perspective

Kuukuwa Manful provided a historical account of how green indigenous architecture had always been present in our society but faded over time due to a number of factors. She mentioned colonialism as one of the factors, whereby the British colonialists ensured that building permits for buildings made out of earth, thatch and timber were rejected by the Accra Town Council as far back as 1894 and were rather told to replace earth with concrete or metal. Changes in social tastes, trends as well as capitalists mode of consumption all contributed to indigenous architecture fading over the years.

A 21st Century Model

Hector Nanka Bruce used his house that he is currently building with 80% local materials to illustrate his point that one can still, in these modern times, consume and build green with local materials. According to him, he is currently using concrete for the columns and beams, stone for exterior walls, clay bricks for the interior, raffia palm sticks for decorative materials including balustrades and Braapa (woven bamboo material originally used for drying cocoa beans) for his ceiling.

Concerns about Durability and Material Integrity

Concerns were expressed about the durability and general material integrity of recommended local materials like stone, compressed or rammed earth, laterite, burnt clay blocks, wood and thatch to last a building’s life cycle or withstand fire and other forms of pressure. For instance, Ben reminded all that hydrafoam which is a block made out of laterite is hydroscopic, meaning it absorbs a lot of moisture from the air, which eventually weakens it and loses its integrity. Kuukuwa, in response, mentioned that there exists additives, which can be applied to counter the hydroscopic elements.

Hector also intimated that retardants can be sprayed on wood to prevent fire and for roofs made out of thatch, area or siting for building should be studied carefully to ensure it isn’t fire prone as thatch is susceptible to catching fire easily. He further stated that, it is poignant to note that no matter what kind of material used, the key to long term sustenance and durability is maintenance.

For compressed earth in particular, Kuukuwa allayed fears concerning its load bearing properties and provided examples to buttress her point. She indicated that as far back between the 16th-17th century, earth was used for high rise buildings in Kumasi, Ghana, where the British discovered to their amazement, the existence of upstairs toilets, when even the whole of UK, at the time, had only 2 upstairs toilets. She also mentioned that earth is still used in high rise buildings, in Yemen for instance, where there are eight (8) storey high buildings, even as of today.


A critical note was made that beyond the physical structure being green, consideration should also be given to the construction process itself, which can also influence the project being green or otherwise. For instance, if you transported laterite material a long distance off the construction site, that transportation would have contributed to carbon emissions which also make the environment worse off and thus cancels out any sustainable material usage. The net off effect is negative and you may be better off using sandcrete if that is the material that is local and immediately available.

Recommendations to Make Indigenous Architecture Attractive

-Increased promotion and funding for Research and Development projects

-Ensure high profiled national and iconic projects adopt indigenous architecture

-In marketing, go beyond word of mouth to showing clear tangible benefits and cost savings

-Need to go beyond communicating financial or economic sustainability to communicate lifecycle sustainability which ensures long term benefits, borne out of low maintenance costs, far outweighing the initial startup costs.

-Incorporate indigenous architecture into school curricular of local architectural institutions as against the heavy laden euro-centric curricular.

-Move from ‘the helicopter approach’ of planting wholesale, euro-centric concepts unto the local environment without regard for our unique climatic conditions. Architects to be more nuanced in the application of ideas and concepts by adapting it to suit our climate.

Presented by Ben Adarkwa, RIBA - Architect and Partner, Benson Architects, Hector Nanka Bruce -Principal of NankaBRUCE Inc., Kuukuwa Manful - Architecture Researcher and Co-founder, Sociarchi and moderated by William Evans Halm –Architect, CEO, Spektra Global at the 3rd Ghana Green Building Summit 2020

The writer is the Executive Director of Yecham Property Consult

& Founder of Ghana Green Building Summit.


Linkedin: Cyril Nii Ayitey Tetteh


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