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How an age-old building technique is revolutionizing West African housing

The Nubian Vault project promotes a millennia-old homebuilding concept that’s cutting costs and saving the climate

Nubian Vault Construction technique

Sometimes, it pays to stick with what works. In the case of the Nubian Vault Association (Association la Voûte Nubienne, or AVN), a nonprofit working to make housing more affordable in West African, it means resurrecting a millennia-old building technique that’s not only more affordable and accessible that current processes, but ultimately an economic driver for the entire community.

Founded by farmer Seri Youlou, of Burkina Faso, who helped resurrect and perfect the technique, and Frenchman Thomas Granier, in 2000, the program has helped homeowners in Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, Senegal, and Ghana construct more than 2,000 homes with a classic building technique that, more than high-tech shelters and new housing solutions, seems custom-designed for the arid region. The organization’s A Roof, a Skill, a Market program, which helps promote Nubian vault construction and education across the Sahel region of Africa, just won a World Habitat Award earlier this month, and has made a $2.6 million economic impact in the region.

As the name implies, the Nubian vault is a curving, vaulted roof structure, one that can be built from mud and bricks without the need for any additional supporting structures or material. The name refers to the ancient Kingdom of Nubia, located in the Nile Valley in Egypt and Sudan, a country name-checked in the Bible.

According to retired State Department official James Stewart, who works with the organization, housing is a significant expense in low-income areas of Africa, and this technique, refined through hundreds of years, offers many advantages for today’s builders. Inexpensive and easy to assemble, these mud brick structures excel at cooling and encourage airflow. The end result is something like a climate-appropriate quonset hut.

“People are inadequately housed in the region, and there isn’t always money to solve it among the poorest of the poor,” says Stewart. “This program helps address that need.”

The AVN program puts housing in reach by cutting costs and keeping money within the community. The final cost of a Nubian vault home varies depending on the size of the project, but can be 50-60 percent cheaper than a similar structure made from concrete blocks, and requires less maintenance over time. In addition, the new homes are built from local mud brick, instead of costly concrete or metal, which has to be imported. Homeowners can even make their own bricks to cut costs even further. And by training the local masons who build the homes, AVN is stimulating the local economy and creating new jobs.

The project requires that every job site has an apprentice on site. Masons train other masons, spreading the technique and building a community of more than 635 trained masons.

If that’s not enough, this new wave of buildings also benefits the environment. More sustainable than wood and thatched roofs homes (the construction of which has contributed to deforestation alongside climate change and urbanization), AVN buildings have saved 65,000 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere, according to the organization’s research.