written by:
February 26, 2009
Originally published in Prefab Now

Resembling in form and function ancestors such as Jean Prouvé’s prefab Tropical House, Architect Fred Friedmeyer’s prefab structures harmonize, as much as possible, with Ethiopia’s challenging natural environment.

Steel trusses form the sloped roof while four separate modules create bedrooms and office space for nurses, teachers, and agriculturalists.
1 / 4
One of Fred Friedmeyer’s modular dwellings takes shape in the Ethiopian hills.
2 / 4
The pieces to Friedmeyer’s houses are welded in city factories and then trucked to their resting spots, where they are bolted together in a matter of weeks.
3 / 4
Friedmeyer stands in front of a recently completed unit.
4 / 4
friedmeyer fred prefab house construction
Steel trusses form the sloped roof while four separate modules create bedrooms and office space for nurses, teachers, and agriculturalists.

Despite the popular notion of Ethiopia as a barren desert wasteland, the eastern African country also contains rugged inland mountains that make transportation of building materials extremely difficult, thus complicating humanitarian aid work in one of the poorest places on earth. Since 1999, Fred Friedmeyer III has been working on solutions to both of these issues, building prefabricated structures of his own design to house nurses, teachers, and agriculturalists living among the Gumuz, one of Ethiopia’s approximately 80 rural tribes and ethnic groups.

The San Diego–born, Cal Poly–trained architect and former construction contractor oversees his family’s 8,000-acre buffalo ranch in Alberta, Canada, for half of each year and spends the other half in Ethiopia, where he has built five of his modular dwellings to date. Each unit is composed of four units around a central open room, all enclosed by a large overhanging roof, with standard four-by-eight dimensions practically eliminating the need to cut the plywood panels used for sheathing and partitions. Materials are indigenous or easily sourced in Ethiopia, including louvered windows and the steel tubing used to create customized roof trusses. All welding is done in the city and then the parts are trucked out and bolted together on site. Since the hunter-gatherer Gumuz live in traditional thatch-roofed tukulas, Friedmeyer’s houses are also designed so they can easily be moved if their Western occupants relocate—in fact, the whole structure can be picked up and shifted. Alternately, the trusses can be jacked up and the bedroom/office modules removed such that the interiors can be converted to churches or serve the community in other capacities.

After transporting materials into the bush on the interdenominational Society for International Missions’ five-ton flatbed truck and trailer, a crew of four can have the structures, including plumbing and electrical, completed in three weeks at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000. Although this is about half the cost and a third the time necessary to build one of the area’s more common masonry structures, Friedmeyer is constantly refining his designs and streamlining the construction, hoping to increase productivity beyond his current pace of erecting one unit during each of his annual Ethiopian stays.

Resembling in form and function ancestors such as Jean Prouvé’s prefab Tropical House, Friedmeyer’s simple designs harmonize, as much as possible, with Ethiopia’s challenging natural environment. Solar panels and tubing harness the plentiful sunlight’s energy for radios, computers, and hot water while large roofs catch mountain breezes and heat chimneys dissipate interior warmth; when it’s 120 degrees in the African sun, the passively cooled houses are still comfortable. Despite their simplistic beauty, Friedmeyer’s designs are really manifestations of the functional, egalitarian tenets of modernism.

“The practical side, the cost, durability, speed, and adaptability are what I concentrate on,” notes the modest but gregarious designer when asked what inspires his designs. In a country with an average annual per-capita income of $110 and a legacy of warfare, drought, famine, and political instability, Friedmeyer views his work as facilitating basic but vitally important necessities to an all-but-ignored indigenous population. “Fifty percent of Gumuz children survive to be two years old,” he explains, a note of urgency piercing his otherwise placid demeanor. “They don’t even give a child a name until it can walk and talk. In that situation, helping them to have a steady diet, medical care, and some education is about the most important thing you can do.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Concrete floor, white walls, Bend sectional sofa, Metropolitan chair by B&B Italia, and Arper pouf in living room of Rhode Island family vacation home by Bernheimer Architecture.
Create comfortable areas to lounge, sit, eat, and entertain with these designs.
February 12, 2016
São Paulo apartment dining room with local wood floors and HAY chairs
From concrete to wood, these South American homes enjoy nature inside and out.
February 12, 2016
Custom cabinetry and trim in Chicago apartment renovation.
The Second City is second to none when it comes to inventive modern architecture, from Louis Sullivan to the present day.
February 12, 2016
Kitchen of 1956 midcentury modern Palm Springs home.
Celebrate Palm Springs Modernism Week, which runs from February 11–21, with a look at some of our favorite modern desert oases.
February 12, 2016
Gustav bicycle by Coh&Co
Designmuseum Danmark unveils a permanent collection highlighting new developments in Danish design.
February 12, 2016
A Seattle studio's courtyard
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 12, 2016
Chalet in the French alps
An innovative glass addition adds contrast to a timber mountain lodge in France.
February 11, 2016
Aumas' assorted collectables.
Bright colors and vintage furniture are abound in these French homes.
February 11, 2016
Kogan designed a number of the built-in furnishings, including the headboard and cupboard in the master bedroom.The cupboard is deliberately reminiscent of a mid-century stereo speaker. The vintage lounge chairs are by Percival Lafer.
Need to relax? Make your bedroom an oasis from the rest of the house.
February 11, 2016
Modern Florida seaside home with corian island, dornbracht faucet, cees braakman combex chairs and marble knoll table in the kitchen
Read more about Knoll's impressive career here, but in the meantime, explore just a few of her works in these contemporary homes.
February 11, 2016
Modern small box home in Mexico
Letting the warm climate indoors is a common thread through these diverse dwellings.
February 11, 2016
Modern white cabinets under the stairs with skylight above
What could be better than a modest-sized house in a quaintly historic city?
February 11, 2016
dining room lighting
These renovations connect rustic, classic, and modern design in Italy.
February 10, 2016
12362509 211441865858796 1743381178 n1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 10, 2016
modern outdoor garden room plastic polycarbonate
From colorful living rooms to a backyard retreat, Belgian designers reimagine vernacular forms and materials for the modern world.
February 10, 2016
Tel Aviv kitchen with custom dining table and Smeg fridge
Would you go for an out-of-the-box palette for your major appliances? See how these kitchens tackle the trend.
February 10, 2016
Exhibition view, of Klaus Wittkugel works at P! gallery, New York
On view through February 21 at New York's P! gallery, a new show explores the politics of Cold War-era graphic design with a presentation of works by Klaus Wittkugel—East Germany's most prolific graphic designer. Curator Prem Krishnamurthy walks us through the highlights.
February 10, 2016
Reclaimed cedar and gray-stucco home outside San Francisco.
The new kid on the block in a predominantly Eichler neighborhood, this Menlo Park home breaks the mold and divides into three pavilions connected by breezeways.
February 10, 2016
A third floor addition and whole-house renovation modernized a funky cottage on an unusual, triple-wide lot in San Francisco.
From modern interiors hidden within historic structures to unabashedly modern dwellings, these seven renovations take totally different approaches to San Francisco's historic building stock.
February 10, 2016
Delphi sofa from Erik Jørgensen and gyrofocus fireplace in living room of Villa Le Trident in the French Riviera, renovated by 4a Architekten.
The Aegean's all-white architecture famously helped inspire Le Corbusier; these five dwellings continue in that proud modern tradition (though not all are as minimalist).
February 10, 2016
San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016