Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana

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A design contest wants Ghanaians to envision modern homes hewn from the material beneath their feet.

It's a problem of expectations; when concrete and steel symbolize modernity, how does a humble mud home become architecture that's desirable? The NKA Foundation conceived of a mud home design competition earlier this year to update the aesthetics and appreciation of earthen homes in the Ashanti region of Ghana. It's an important issue since new concrete construction, which relies on imported resources, often strains the budgets of middle-class families and results in dwellings unfit for the tropical environment. The call for single family and semi-urban home designs utilizing mud construction resulted in dozens of concepts from practictioners around the globe (the winning design will be built on site next summer). Dwell spoke with the top three teams to learn about their processes and how getting their hands in the dirt made them think differently about architecture.

First Place: Sankofa House by M.A.M.O.T.H.

“There is no need to do a revolution in terms of sustainability, you need an evolution,” says Dorian Vauzelle, part of the four-person French team that won the design competition with the Sankofa House concept. “You need to go step-by-step, take elements from this vernacular architecture, simple and practical, think about the climate issues, and [think] in a contemporary way.”  The team’s concept was informed by local design history. They adapted a traditional pitched-roof layout, which helps with heavy rains as well as air circulation. A double-skin roof and straw insulation were adapted from other European designs, while the external stripes of colors come from different types of clay. “All the answers are already there,” says Vazuelle of the challenge of designing in a new environment. “You just have to look behind to go further, like the traditional Sankofa symbol says.” Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

First Place: Sankofa House by M.A.M.O.T.H.

“There is no need to do a revolution in terms of sustainability, you need an evolution,” says Dorian Vauzelle, part of the four-person French team that won the design competition with the Sankofa House concept. “You need to go step-by-step, take elements from this vernacular architecture, simple and practical, think about the climate issues, and [think] in a contemporary way.” The team’s concept was informed by local design history. They adapted a traditional pitched-roof layout, which helps with heavy rains as well as air circulation. A double-skin roof and straw insulation were adapted from other European designs, while the external stripes of colors come from different types of clay. “All the answers are already there,” says Vazuelle of the challenge of designing in a new environment. “You just have to look behind to go further, like the traditional Sankofa symbol says.”

Sankofa House by M.A.M.O.T.H.

Vauzelle and his teammates wanted to use local, traditional materials in contemporary ways that could easily be adapted, allowing for personalization, like the courtyard above. Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

Sankofa House by M.A.M.O.T.H.

Vauzelle and his teammates wanted to use local, traditional materials in contemporary ways that could easily be adapted, allowing for personalization, like the courtyard above.

Second Place: Eban Aya by Atelier Koe

“Earth construction is thousands of years old. Concrete has a much shorter story.” Based 15 miles south of Dakar in Senegal, French-born architect Richard Rowland had already been experimenting with earthen construction, even fashioning three-story buildings, before hearing about the NKA Foundation contest.  

His proposed structure mixes mud with bamboo, in order to achieve sustainability and affordability. In Africa, he says, you often see people buy a plot of land, and then slowly buy material and build up their home over a few year period. With a bamboo-based structure, future homeowners can literally grow walls on their land. The lightweight material provides shade, circulation, and shelter from heavy rains, and the ability to grow your own building material has income-producing and community-building applications. Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

Second Place: Eban Aya by Atelier Koe

“Earth construction is thousands of years old. Concrete has a much shorter story.” Based 15 miles south of Dakar in Senegal, French-born architect Richard Rowland had already been experimenting with earthen construction, even fashioning three-story buildings, before hearing about the NKA Foundation contest.

His proposed structure mixes mud with bamboo, in order to achieve sustainability and affordability. In Africa, he says, you often see people buy a plot of land, and then slowly buy material and build up their home over a few year period. With a bamboo-based structure, future homeowners can literally grow walls on their land. The lightweight material provides shade, circulation, and shelter from heavy rains, and the ability to grow your own building material has income-producing and community-building applications.

Eban Aya by Atelier Koe

Rowland also wanted to provide housing that breaks the stigma of mud construction.  “It had to be contemporary, but not modern or out there,” he says. “The most important part of this concept was to come up with a shell of cleans lines that could accommodate any type of lifestyle. Even though we’re based in Africa, it would be pretentious to think we could know what kind of lifestyle you would have in Ghana. I want a concept with as much freedom as possible.” Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

Eban Aya by Atelier Koe

Rowland also wanted to provide housing that breaks the stigma of mud construction. “It had to be contemporary, but not modern or out there,” he says. “The most important part of this concept was to come up with a shell of cleans lines that could accommodate any type of lifestyle. Even though we’re based in Africa, it would be pretentious to think we could know what kind of lifestyle you would have in Ghana. I want a concept with as much freedom as possible.”

Third Place: Ejisu Earth House by Jason Orbe-Smith

“I wanted to use references without mimicking history,” says Los Angeles architect Jason Orbe-Smith, whose Ejisu Earth House plays with traditional shapes and symbols. The exterior, a concept modeled after historical examples of rammed-earth buildings, includes traditional symbols of the Ashanti people which have been patterned and pixelated. “I was excited by researching African architecture,” he says. “I wanted to make the lushness of the tropics part of my design.” Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

Third Place: Ejisu Earth House by Jason Orbe-Smith

“I wanted to use references without mimicking history,” says Los Angeles architect Jason Orbe-Smith, whose Ejisu Earth House plays with traditional shapes and symbols. The exterior, a concept modeled after historical examples of rammed-earth buildings, includes traditional symbols of the Ashanti people which have been patterned and pixelated. “I was excited by researching African architecture,” he says. “I wanted to make the lushness of the tropics part of my design.”

Ejisu Earth House by Jason Orbe-Smith

Orbe-Smith divided the exterior of the home, meant to be painted with “liquid-like mud,” into separate volumes situated around an open courtyard to help air circulation. He didn’t include a large overhang, since other indigenous homes he’d seen wihout one had held up for years. “There’s a whole world of portable, nomadic, and mud structures,” he says. “There is a lot of built work from the past that can influence today’s design.” Photo  of Modern Mud Homes: A New Take on Building in Ghana modern homeView Photos

Ejisu Earth House by Jason Orbe-Smith

Orbe-Smith divided the exterior of the home, meant to be painted with “liquid-like mud,” into separate volumes situated around an open courtyard to help air circulation. He didn’t include a large overhang, since other indigenous homes he’d seen wihout one had held up for years. “There’s a whole world of portable, nomadic, and mud structures,” he says. “There is a lot of built work from the past that can influence today’s design.”