Senegalese architects are dropping concrete for the earth to revive ancient techniques

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© Reuters. A worker carries a newly manufactured brick in the Elementerre factory in Mbour, Senegal, May 10, 2021. REUTERS / Zohra Bensemra

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By Nellie Peyton and Christophe Van Der Perre

DAKAR (Reuters) – Construction is booming in Dakar, where unfinished apartment blocks tower above most of the streets and their exposed concrete blocks are a dull, uniform gray.

At one point, however, a building stands out – the bricks the workers are laying are made of raw, red earth.

Concrete is cheap and used with devotion in the Senegalese capital, but is ill-suited to the West African heat. On summer days, when temperatures often reach 38 ° C, the buildings become ovens that are only cooled by air conditioning.

The earth naturally regulates heat and moisture, say the founders of Worofila, an architecture firm that specializes in bioclimatic design.

They have been pushing for a comeback of the material since 2016. They say it could reduce pollution from cement factories and power generation – and keep people cool.

“Before air conditioning, people paid attention to materials and guidance for the natural regulation of heat,” said Worofila co-founder Nzinga Mboup, while the workers laid bricks for the upper floors of a family house with a pool.

“The moment the air conditioning came on, these reflections went out of the window.”

Senegal’s traditional homes were made of mud, but that was abandoned. The sidewalks of Dakar today are littered with piles of sand and stones that are mixed with cement to make cheap building blocks.

To make modern earth bricks, workers mix the soil with smaller amounts of cement and water to create a mixture that they cut into blocks, compress with a hand-operated machine, and allow to dry for 21 days.

In contrast to concrete, earth bricks require little energy to be produced. According to the UK think tank Chatham House, cement, the main constituent of concrete, accounts for 8% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Earthwork is a niche. It costs more than concrete and many people are unaware of the option. Worofila has been recognized for an Ashden Award, a UK prize for air conditioning solutions, which he hopes will increase visibility.

“In the beginning we were looking for customers. Today we are not looking for them. We have a great demand,” said Doudou Deme, who founded Elementerre in 2010, which manufactures earth bricks in Senegal.

Elementerre and Worofila have teamed up in private houses, offices and part of a train station, but hardly affected the construction scene in Dakar.

Still, when Mboup explains the concept that resonates, she said. People remember that their grandmother’s mud house in the village was always the coolest.

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