An Earth-Friendly African Retreat That's Actually Made From Earth

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
From clay bricks to the naturally filtered pool, the Khamsa House in Senegal is literally green from the ground up.

Located near the Petite Côte (Small Coast) of Senegal an hour-and-a-half south of Dakar, the Khamsa house, doesn't just blend in with the environment. In many ways, the earthen retreat is the environment, formed from concrete-reinforced bricks made from the soil on which the home was built. The machine that formed the clay bricks even utilized earth dug out to make the curving basement, building walls for the roughly 3,800-square-feet home out of the readily available raw material. Atelier Koe built Khamsa, Arabic for the number five, with a series of oval symbols meant to symbolize warding off the evil eye and keeping the peace. But according to architect Richard Rowland, it's also a sidelong glance directed at traditonal building practices. "The history of this type of building technique is 5,000 years old," he says. "Concrete construction is very new. Built with lime and earth, this building will breathe, with the walls acting as regulators, cooling and absorbing humidity. It can absolutely integrate with American living standards." Rowland gave us an overview of the self-sustaining, off-the-grid home, speaking to the numerous ways it can serve as a model, as opposed to just a building on the fringe.

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The Khamsa home in Senegal, built with earth bricks and energy independent due to solar panels and a wind turbine, was actually 15 percent cheaper to build than a traditional home. The walls, which are thicker than those used in standard concrete construction, help moderate the interior temperature in a region where the climate swings from dry to humid throughout the year, absorbing humidity and cooling the home during warm weather while moderating temperature and improving indoor air quality.

 

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The massive pool incorporates a natural filtration system, eschewing chlorine and chemicals by treating the water in a smaller pond lined with plants. To further reinforce that you don't need to make any sacrifices to live a more green lifestyle, the home also boasts a jacuzzi with pumps powered by the rooftop solar panels.

 

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Wrapped in large glass-and-steel walls, the home met the needs of the 70-year-old owner, who wanted an open space for socializing and a view of the water. Opaque glass provides privacy while offering a view of the private oasis.

 

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The curved symbol built into the wall, the eye in the hand, is recognized as a sign of protection, and reappears throughout the design and construction process.

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While a vast majority of builders in the area utilize more traditional, modern building techniques, Rowland sees the throwback style used to build Khamsa as something that should be emulated. "With this type of construction, you can typically use the soil on the construction site to build," he says. "We're trying to maintain this close circle of availability, durable and sustainable design that runs throughout the life of a building."

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Inside the home, lime plaster walls create a cool, calming effect while breathing in the same manner as the earthen bricks, helping to regulate the interior climate. The 16-inch high dropped ceilings also contribute to more consistent airflow.

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The custom casework for the kitchen was built by local artisians. The room exemplifies the fluid interior-to-exterior transitions that are a hallmark of Rowland's design.

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The subterranean space below the house is not only a spacious, curved basement, but served as raw material for much of the home construction. When mixed with eight percent concrete, the reddish soil becomes the base element for brick walls.

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Rowland and his team were given extraordinary freedom to design the home, as long as it provided a natural oasis and social gathering place for the owner. "Create a tiny jewel for me," were his instruction to the architecture firm.

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An outlier in terms of home construction and design, Khamsa was Atelier Koe's attempt to create a model of ecological living.

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