8 July 2014

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

To reach the site for the school we travelled north from Gulu to Parabongo and on the way witnessed a massive highway construction project being funded and built by the Chinese.  This new road will connect northern Uganda and the border crossing into South Sudan, bringing with it both opportunities for the farmers to get their produce to new markets and threats that their land will become increasingly desirable to help feed the growing demand from China.

Typical Ugandan school building with
 uninsulated wriggly tin roof
Once in the north of Uganda we visited many schools but they were all built to the same colonial design, resembling pre-war barracks blocks with mud brick or blockwork walls, large, poorly shaded windows and single skin, wriggly tin roofs.  Inside, we witnessed class sizes of up to one hundred and fifty children being squeezed into the hot, humid, airless classrooms which must become totally unbearable when the temperature reaches the maximum 40 degrees centigrade outside.  School design is just one of the many undesirable legacies that the British have left in Uganda; the Pearl of Africa.

Hot, humid, airless interior
with class sizes up
to 150 pupils
What is truly remarkable is the contrast between the colonial “barracks block” school buildings and the beautiful, indigenous homes; composed of clusters of simple, circular huts that appear to grow up out of the landscape; in a similar way to the termite mounds that also share the land.  These homes are made from freely available local materials and use techniques that have been passed down through countless generations.

However, there is far more to the design of these buildings than that!  They are brilliant examples of bio-climatic architectural design, where every element has been carefully refined to create a comfortable, well-tempered environment inside with no energy inputs!  The heavy mud walls stay cool and reduce the internal temperature.  To stop them being heated up by the sun they are shaded by deeply overhanging roofs which also protect the mud walls from the torrential rains that occur twice a year.  They are topped by perfectly formed conical roofs, made from thin, flexible, round wood saplings, lashed together with palm fibre ribbons.

Traditional Ugandan home made of mud walls
with thick, insulating thatched roof with
deep overhanging eaves that shade the wall
The thatch covering this lean and structurally efficient frame, which is light enough to be lifted into place in one piece, forms a deep mat of plant fibres that prevents rain entering the interior.  This deep roof covering contains pockets of air that provide insulation, preventing the heat from the equatorial sun entering the interior; working in combination with the thermally massive walls to maintain a comfortable, well-tempered environment!
Cool dark interior with mud stool and
passive, evaporative water cooler 
Inside these perfectly formed, highly sustainable dwellings the furniture is also made from the earth; with stools, tables, beds and shelving units all exquisitely crafted from mud and adding to the total thermal mass to help regulate interior temperatures.  There is a seamless relationship between the fabric and furnishings that create a simple elegant domestic environment that is firm and full of  delight!

Food processor (right) and stove (left)
 both made from the earth of the site
Even domestic appliances like stoves and grain grinders are made from mud and stone and are seamlessly integrated into the walls and floor so that everything displays its relationship with the earth from which it is made.  These truly beautiful spaces reminded me of the paintings of interiors by Dutch Masters, sharing a warm, earthy darkness; providing a calming and restful counterpoint to the hot, bright, saturated colour outside.

Built-in adobe storage unit
The vision for the school we are going to help the community to build is to work with the farmers to build the school themselves so that the economic opportunities created by the construction process directly benefit the local community.  We want it to be as comfortable, elegant and sustainable as their homes and be able to be built and maintained by them.  We want to help them create a new exemplar for Ugandan school design that other communities will want to replicate.  Ultimately, we want to help them to avoid the mistakes that we have made in the so called developed world and in so doing help us to see how we can develop our own new sustainable architecture by rediscovering the lessons of our bio-climatic, vernacular.

Ultimately, I believe that it is essential that we return to designing buildings which are directly shaped by their climate and made from locally available and plentiful materials if we are to meet our needs in a sustainable manner; weather that is in Uganda or Britain.  To help us to realise this dream please donate to Pop-up Foundation so that we can commence the realisation of the vision!