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Competition: 4th Earth Architecture secondary school, Ghana

An international competition for students and recent graduates has been launched for a traditional earth-built secondary school in Abetenim, Ghana (Deadline: 30 April)

Organised by US charity Nka Foundation, the competition seeks ‘sustainable and cost-efficient’ concepts for a range of standalone school structures.

The 4th Earth Architecture Competition – open to students and recent graduates of architecture and design – is part of the foundation’s ongoing Abetenim Arts Village project. Launched in 2009, the social-housing complex provides sustainable accommodation for creative people in the region. 



Abetenim Arts Village

‘Nka Foundation is issuing a challenge to the architecture world to help generate modern mud housing for education to replace the rural mud house type,’ the competition brief states. ‘The basic idea is to generate durable and scalable mud-house types by drawing on the accumulated knowledge about ways of building in a tropical climate.

‘Our aspiration is to help develop a contemporary earth architecture tradition for the region and along the way, create arts villages to promote arts and design education. The long-term goal is to enable the Ghanaian population, and lots of other places, to overcome the stigma that mud architecture is architecture for the very poor.’

The new community secondary school for the Ashanti region settlement will accommodate around 600 pupils aged from 12 to 18 years.

It will include classrooms, administrative classrooms, a library, laboratories, dormitories, a refectory and a playing field.

Participants are therefore invited to draw up standalone prototypes for a classroom, laboratory, offices, dormitory, toilet block, refectory or teacher’s dwelling.

Employing local materials and passive solar design, proposals must harness earth-building techniques – such as ramming and pouring – which can be easily learned by local labourers. Roofs meanwhile may be constructed from corrugated zinc or aluminium sheets.

Submissions will be judged on functionality, aesthetics and technical functionality, with winners receiving either a cash prize or invitation to construct their scheme in Ghana.

A materials budget of $8,000 is available for each structure and the top 20 designs will be constructed in a series of workshops held from February 2017 to July 2019.

Winners of last year’s contest included London Metropolitan University architecture undergraduate Louis Mayes. His $7,194 Handmade House Ghana project (pictured) was constructed with help from Karakusevic Carson Architects, Hopkins Architects and Cottrell & Vermeulen Architects.

The registration deadline is 30 April and entries must be submitted by 31 May.

How to apply

Registration deadline

30 April

Submission deadline

31 May

Contact details

Visit the competition website for more information

Q+A with Louis Mayes, a winner of Earth Architecture Competition 2015

Louis Mayes

Louis Mayes

Louis Mayes, one of several winners of last year’s Earth Architecture Competition

How did your Handmade House Ghana project respond to last year’s brief?
The brief was relatively simple: create a house for a Ghanaian family using earth as the main material. My response was to create a design that used as many different techniques as possible - we knew from the start that the project would be about learning for everyone involved. It took existing techniques, such as the standard earth and bamboo composite wall, and tried to find ways to improve the existing by looking at issues encountered in the village, for example by adding a small amount of sandy earth to reduce cracking.

The house itself drew in influences from Ghanaian cultural traditions, namely the importance of family and being able to receive a guest in comfort. It was also designed to reduce the environmentally extreme climate - pouring rain in one season, baking heat the next - as well as landscaped to reduce the risk of the snakes and scorpions prevalent in the area entering.

Why are earth buildings the best solution for briefs and locations like these?
When you visit Abetenim, one of the first things you see are many earth houses of different ages and various states of decay. Concrete block houses are present, but are generally incomplete due to the cost and availability of materials.

Aside from the higher thermal mass of earth houses and lower environmental impact, there are other reasons why earth is preferable. They can be built from the earth removed when levelling the site, and the knowledge of how to create the most basic ‘type’ is common to all villagers – ingrained through the community spirit used when repairing or building your neighbour’s house.

If needed, the house can be built without cement, dramatically reducing cost (the cost of cement in Ghana increased from 13 Cedi in 2012 to 33 Cedi when I was there last summer). The lack of dependence on electricity also reduces the cost. The constant ‘light-outs’ are the reason for the hike in cement prices.



Handmade House Ghana by Louis Mayes, one of several winners of last year’s Earth Architecture Competition

Which strategies for engaging local people in the construction process worked, and why?
Without the engagement of locals, the project would have been a failure. They are incredibly knowledgeable about the vernacular construction processes, and no process in the house was completed without their input, even if they didn’t know what the particular technique was. Throughout the three months, we had a core team of six workers, as well as three carpenters who helped intermittently. This alone bought their family members to site as they were curious to see what was going on.

When work ended at 2pm every weekday, we had spontaneous consultations from a whole cross-section of the local community keen to have their say on how we could improve the house. Children would come and see what we were doing, and often draw what they wanted in the house (interestingly, normally a typical Neo-Palladian villa). Frequent journeys to the villages were important, and when we were collecting oil barrels for the experimental roof we travelled around in a flatbed truck, which certainly made a lot of people curious about what we were up to.

The most convincing strategy for engagement however was trying out new techniques. For instance, working on the poured earth wall or redundant oil-barrel roof and asking people what they thought about them, which normally met with resistance. However, after tangible samples following earth tests and sitting having a drink under the oil-barrel roof, people became more convinced. By the end, both Edward the carpenter and Opoku the foreman were planning houses using poured earth.



Handmade House Ghana by Louis Mayes, one of several winners of last year’s Earth Architecture Competition



Handmade House Ghana by Louis Mayes, one of several winners of last year’s Earth Architecture Competition

What did you learn, and what sort of architects would benefit from participating in the programme?
The main lesson that I learned was to allow for huge change within a plan when designing without having seen a site in detail. Also, to listen to everyone you are working with and run with as many ideas as possible. That way the project ended up with a lot of different facets that in turn created a new personality for the house. Among the volunteers that helped me build the house were architects, architecture students, economists and carpenters – the more varied the team, the better.

For me as an architecture student, I really valued the chance to actually build a design at 1:1 so early in my education. I feel that British schools of architecture are gravely missing out on this element of education, since before the build I was removed from actual process of construction. This is a dream project for an ambitious architect wanting to realise a personal project that stems from creating a relationship with your client, which in this case was an entire village.


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