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The Future of Mud

Efforts to combat global warming and climate change often look to new technologies, but a renewed focus on ancient, low-tech building traditions is also showing promise. Thanks to the efforts of Pritzker prize winning architect, Francis Kéré, greater attention is being paid to the benefits of mud-based construction due to its low environmental impact and insulating qualities.  When Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, came to Senegal last February for an economic summit, he took a break from conference rooms in the capital city of Dakar to get his hands dirty, literally, as he learned to make compressed-earth blocks from a mix of iron-rich soil, sand, water, and a bit of cement. His block-making tutorial was part of a groundbreaking event for a cultural institute promoting German-language study. The institute’s new building was designed by the distinguished Burkina Faso–born and Berlin-based architect Francis Kéré, who is renowned worldwide for his graceful structures adapted to their local climates. The building in Dakar is oriented so that nearby trees provide shade, and its thick walls—made of the type of unfired compressed-earth bricks Steinmeier tried his hand at making—insulate the interior from the hot Senegalese climate. A layer of claustras, or perforated walls, wraps around the building like a membrane, filtering sunlight and directing airflow.