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Vernacular Architecture: The Indigenous Materials and Construction Techniques of Ghana

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Zaina Lodge; via Africa Vernacular Architecture

Materials

Bamboo

Testament to its siting in West Africa’s forest belt, fast-growing and renewable bamboo is widely grown and available in Ghana, supporting 25 identified species including native and introduced kinds. Bambusa multiplex holds court as the true indigenous variety. The clumping (sympodial) type proves useful for agricultural and environmental purposes, while the running or open (monopodial) type is handy for construction purposes. Environmentally, bamboo assists with such issues as soil stabilization, coastal edge maintenance and microclimatic conditions, while for construction, bamboo aids in scaffolding, furniture, laminated boards and floor-and-roof paneling.

Laterite

Present in hot and wet tropical conditions, laterite is a reddish-brown surface formation derived from weathered rock containing rich iron and aluminum deposits. In its weathered form, laterite has a clay-like consistency granting it greater water-holding capacity than sandy soils and thus making it valuable for flooring and blockwork (wall units). When compacted, laterite serves as flooring systems for vernacular homes, bases for roadways and fill for foundations and embankments. When moistened, builders can mold laterite into dense bricks that require little mortar, cured according to strength needs, and because of its thermal nature, it can act as building coolants

In envisioning architecture, materiality and form-making is never far behind. Situated in specific cultural settings, factors ranging from soil profiles to topographic conditions bear direct influences on the architectural language of a people. Referred to as indigenous or vernacular architecture, these are architectural typologies constructed in direct response to readily available material resources and sheltering needs of local people.

For Ghana, a country in West Africa, this is no different. With a climate that ranges from tropical savanna to tropical rain forest, the materials and construction techniques utilized in its indigenous architecture must navigate a curious mix of dryness, heat, humidity and heavy rainfall. Read on to find more about these material and form-making strategies and consider the parallels with other tropical architectural conditions found elsewhere:




Zaina Lodge and Larabanga Mosque; via African Vernacular Architecture and Wikimedia










Timber










A prized international export product and domestic resource, timber offers the Ghanaian architectural industry, vernacular and hybridized, a myriad of benefits. Timber use in Ghana often manifests in the form of sawn wood, veneer sheets, particle boards and plywood for both domestic use and export. Within Ghana’s indigenous architecture, timber acts as structural frames or walls (2 to 6 inches in diameter) or as suspended horizontal floors in lagoon-based settlements for food and tools storage.










Stone










Stone’s primary use in Ghana’s indigenous architecture is as a critical component in foundation prepping. To alleviate the need for foundations, builders typically select sites of firm ground, which will serve as substructures and ground floors for homes. Where firm ground is lacking, builders excavate the earth until hitting firmer ground and carve out holes that will act as footings for vertical wooden posts. From there, masons will add to each individual footing, small pieces of stone held together with lime mortar.










Construction Techniques


Mongori Dwellings; via the Cultural Encyclopaedia

Rammed Earth or Atakpamé Walls

This walling technique is credited to itinerant builders of the Ewe ethnic group present in Ghana, Togo and Benin and often deployed in Ghana’s northern zones where wood supply is minimal. Walls typically have a thickness of 300 millimeters (11 inches) with footings averaging 45 centimeters (18 inches) and heights of 2.5 meters (8 feet). Builders set out by delineating desired wall forms (rectangular or circular) with pegs and string and then digging a pit nearby to prepare the laterite needed for construction.

Through kneading with water, builders mold 200-millimeter- (8-inch-) diameter laterite balls, creating five layers of up to 600 millimeters (24 inches) in height each and covered with palm leaves. Each individual layer is leveled and allowed to dry before adding another; openings for windows and doors are also noted using pieces of fan palm as lintels. After the last laterite course, builders make holes at 600-millimeter intervals at the top using posts of Parkia biglobosa as structural supports for the roofs. For flat roofs, builders use mud, but for pitched roofs use grass and palm fronds constructed by tying smaller pieces of stick and bamboo to main timber rafters with raffia or twine.

Wattle and Daub construction; via Wikimedia

Wattle and Daub

This construction technique is predominant in the rainforest zones with slight variations to account for shifts in humidity, rainfall and termite presence. Builders begin by marking out the desired building form with pegs and strings on the compacted laterite surface before creating circular dugouts (footings) at regular intervals along the form.

Builders then insert wooden posts into individual footings, adding stones rammed together to increase stability. Within this framework, builders craft a woven lattice of horizontal and vertical branches or wood posts. From there, builders add a palm thatch roof and finish by molding wet laterite balls and pressing the mix onto the lattice surface at a thickness ranging from 6 to 9 inches.

Timber-framed home; via OMG Digital

Timber-framed construction

Deployed in both coastal and forest belts, this technique follows a similar procedure to wattle and daub. The vertical wooden posts here tend to have larger bases and have forked ends at its top; narrower beams are then placed on the ends and fastened with raffia or bark twine.

In between this framework, builders then construct a grid of bamboo members in anticipation of an infill wall treatment of mud daubs or palm mats, depending on building location and function. In coastal communities, palm mats are popular, constructed from fronds of coconut branches woven into a herringbone pattern, using twine and the mats' ribbed sections to attach into the framework.

Nzulezo; via Ghana Rising

Pile dwellings

Unique to wetland and swamp communities, the best example of this vernacular architectural style is Nzulezo, a 600-person settlement 224 miles (360 kilometers) west of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Situated on Lake Tandane in Ghana’s western region, builders fully exploit the native raffia palm trees to construct the community’s distinct stilt architecture. Local builders begin by digging into the lakebed according to the dimensions of the homes before inserting thick raffia barks that rise up 5 feet from the water at regular intervals for added foundational strength.

Once the foundation is secure, builders employ a post-and-beam structural logic atop the raffia barks, securing each façade with narrow, sawn raffia posts and twine while making space for windows, door frames and porches. The builders top off the structures with a ventilated double roof that collects and funnels airflow into homes in these humid conditions.

Cover image: Sirigu Huts via the Cultural Encyclopaedia


References:

Bamboo and Rattan Development Programme. “Bamboo Resources.” Accessed March 7, 2017.

Bonsi, Richard. “Adoption of Bamboo in Ghana’s Forest Products Industry: An Investigation of the Principal Exporters and Institutions.” PhD diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2009.

Essienyi, Evans. “Traditional building methods in Southern Ghana.” Affordable Housing Institute Blog (2012). Accessed March 5, 2017.

Faculty of Architecture, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi. “Traditional forms of architecture in Ghana.” International Social Science Journal, published quarterly by UNESCO, Vol. XXX: 3 (1978): 449 – 476.

Ghana Team. “Nzulezo-The Ghanaian Atlantis.” MHIRT (2016).

New World Encyclopedia. “Laterite.” Last modified July 25, 2014. Accessed March 6, 2017.

Quist-Arcton, Ofeibea. “Ghana: Building From the Ground Up - With Local Earth.” AllAfrica.com (2002). Accessed March 6, 2017.

Originally published by Architizer: https://architizer.com/blog/local-materials-and-techniques-in-ghana/