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The Name of Sustainable Architecture’s Favorite New Material is M-U-D

by Mark Hay

February 17, 2015
The Great Mud Mosque of Djenné. Photo by Ruud Zwart via Wikimedia commons

A new-yet-old building material is revolutionizing construction and energy consumption in Mali. Promising to drive down base costs, improve insulation, and keep out heat, this green innovation is great news for one of the world’s poorest and most beleaguered nations, especially since wood, a major component in most hoses and source of fuel, has been scarce there for well over a decade. The name of this miracle building block is mud. That’s not an acronym or anything. Mali and many other neighboring nations have recently discovered how to solve a slew of development problems using plain old, dirt-and-water mud.

Mud has a long history as a building material all over the world, but Mali is particularly famous for its pre-modern soaked earthen constructions. For at least a thousand years, the peoples in what is now Mali constructed homes and monumental mosques of sunbaked mud bricks. The mud was interspersed with palm branches to reduce cracking from humidity and pressure changes and to provide scaffolding for builders to climb, in order to regularly reapply a mud plaster finish. To this day, the nation’s most famous landmark is the Grand Mosque of Djenné, a UNESCO World Heritage site originally built in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1907. Surrounded by preserved mud-brick houses, some of which were built in the 19th century (showing the longevity of Mali’s mud architectural tradition), these structures are still a source of employment for local mud masons and a center for local celebration, commemorating their annual re-plastering.

Yet these buildings are fairly unique. Somehow, over the last century mud-based houses fell out of favor with the rise of seemingly more modern and durable homes built of wood walls and corrugated iron roofs. As with many trends, though, this architectural fashion didn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. Each home consumed four to five of the nation’s dwindling trees and the heat-and-cold-sucking properties of a metal covering wound up literally driving heating costs through the roof, increasing the risk of respiratory illness from warming fires and baking residents on sweltering summer days.

Houses in Djenne, from a 1906 postcard by Edmond Fortier

Meanwhile, as Malian laborers hacked away at their forests and sweated or froze in their homes, an Egyptian architect named Hassan Fathy (sometimes known as the father of sustainable architecture in the Middle East and North Africa) was studying the building techniques used in old Nubian (southern Egyptian and northern Sudanese) mud-brick homes. Fathy realized that these vaulted structures, held up and together with no support save the careful stacking of all-mud bricks, were not just cheap and easy, but environmentally sound and shockingly durable.

Sparing trees and insulating against heat and cold, Fathy believed these houses could cut down on fuel consumption and pollution substantially. Plus, whereas a tin roof survived for 10 years at best, a decent mud home could last for at least 50 years—many mud-brick buildings have survived centuries with little to no maintenance. Beyond the original construction, mud buildings could create additional jobs, as they would need skilled touch-ups periodically and when abandoned or torn down, the structures would also be biodegradable.

“For centuries, the peasant had been wisely and quietly exploiting the obvious building material,” Fathy has said of his revelation, “while we, with our modern, school-learned ideas, never dreamed of using such a ludicrous substance as mud for so serious a creation as a house.”

Fathy is not the first man to discover the green potential of mud. Countries like Australia have long hosted “muddy” communities who build their homes of mud-brick, extolling the material’s virtues and pushing for changes to building codes that would make it easier for everyone to make similar homes. And mud-based bricks like adobe never went out of style in places like New Mexico.

Building a mud brick wall. Photo by Paul Downton via http://www.yourhome.gov.au/

But these examples are often the work idiosyncratic individuals or small communities. Fathy’s work, on the other hand, helped to inspire the formation of an organization called Association la Voûte Nubienne. The outfit is operated by European and African architects and is solely devoted to spreading the gospel of Nubian arched mud-brick homes to poor communities that use impractical “modern” home templates, like Mali’s wood-an-tin monstrosities. Since 2000, the ALVN has tweaked and codified the designs Fathy promoted to build more than 900 structures, ranging from homes to religious centers to schools and libraries. They have also trained more than 300 local mud masons to continue this important work, spreading the tradition at the grassroots level in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. The group’s efforts have earned them local praise and UN endorsement for their promotion of a viable carbon-cutting technology. 

The ALVN and their mud-brick homes are among those rare solutions to major societal problems that stand out for their elegant simplicity, rather than their imaginative innovation. This new life for mud architecture is proof that sometimes it’s worth reexamining what we’ve abandoned in the rush towards a hyper-modern future, and how at times, the basic approaches of our ancestors were actually more efficient than the flash prestige that has become the norm. But more important than any of these philosophical points, the ALVN is actually making existence easier for some of the world’s most disadvantaged peoples, not through aid that will someday dry up, but by rewriting a physical, practical reality of local life and society on the ground.

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The Name of Sustainable Architecture’s Favorite New Material is M-U-D