When I was about seven, we moved into a new house in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Like many houses in the area, it came with quarters for a nightwatchman. It had no facilities, and our watchman added a long drop toilet. He dug out the pit, and mixed the mud with cut grass to make bricks for the outhouse that would go on top. I helped to make the bricks, pressing them into a wooden mould and laying them out in the sun to dry. Well, I say I helped. I was probably a total nuisance, but my presence was cheerfully tolerated.
Thinking about it now, this tiny building project was a neat demonstration of sustainable construction. It used local materials sourced on site. There was no machinery, no cement, and no waste. It was a zero carbon build.
Traditional techniques pre-date industrial civilization, and can often be more sustainable. It’s not inevitable – plenty of ancient cultures were unsustainable in their use of land, water and resources. But traditional forms wouldn’t have become traditional if they hadn’t stood the test of time, and they are certainly more likely to be low carbon.
As countries develop, more sustainable ways of doing things are often overturned in the name of progress. Sometimes this represents a genuine step forward, and sometimes it doesn’t. Cities might look down on a well established cycling culture in favour of cars, for example, while traffic choked cities elsewhere are desperately trying to shift things back the other way. Sometimes it’s worth holding onto naturally low carbon ways of doing things, while integrating traditional techniques with the most useful aspects of industrial progress.
Mwito pre-school in Rwanda is a nice example of that. It was built on the site owned by the social enterprise Rwanda Trading Company, and 50% of the building materials came from dismantling and reusing an old coffee-processing plant. All the steel and the windows for the school came from the old plant, the wood for the furniture and tiles for the bathroom. The mud bricks were made locally.
Traditional techniques were used in creating water-retaining earthworks, and an underground dome for storing harvested rainwater. These earthworks also shore up the hillside site with plants, avoiding the need for retaining walls and keeping the carbon footprint down. Because the build used local knowledge, parents from the school and local coffee growers were able to work on the construction, learning new skills and earning some additional income.
The school is off-grid and relies on natural light. Its composting toilets don’t need any water, and use vermiculture to produce fertiliser for the school’s gardens, creating no waste.
The architect, Creative Assemblages in Uganda, have planned and delivered a building that is low carbon in its construction and in its daily use. They used community planning processes and appropriate technology, and it shows how traditional techniques can be used in a modern construction.