One of my recent observations has been how hot many Nigerian buildings tend to get without an air conditioner – and it seems perverse that with the sun being the one environmental factor we can take for granted on the continent and architecturally this wasn’t factored into modern building methods. It prompted a conversation with architect Giles Omezi, founder of the architecture and urban design firm, Laterite. Below is a summary of our conversation, which started off from my inkling that cement might be a problematic building material.
Is cement the ideal building material?
Cement is not the problem; actually it’s a very responsive material. Essentially the issue you have is that buildings are not designed around the peculiarities of our environment – anymore.
What is the problem?
What you’ll find is that the old buildings – like you would find in many a village, are always very cool; In the rural areas, traditional buildings are responsive to the sub climates they exist in; it’s blazing hot outside – and you find that you step inside and the space is cool – and dark. That’s because the principles used are to build around the constraints of the environment.
But are there examples in Modern African architecture?
Very much so yes, you can build modern buildings on those principles, so that the building benefits from passive cooling; the whole tropical architecture movement actually started very much as an English thing – and very much before the introduction of air-conditioning as a major technology. So for example if you go to a number of the buildings at University of Lagos or Ibadan from the 1960s – you will find that they are cool, because of the way they have been built – to be spaces in which there is passive cooling. These were built by a variety of architects, for example, Godwin Hopwood, Maxwell Fry & Jane Drew.
Are there examples of African architects?
Yes, the work of Demas Nwoko – his buildings are technically accomplished, and designed to be cool even in the heat; there are examples – though not many examples of African contemporary design. For example, we’re also building this school in Benin – which is designed to cool passively – single storey quadrangles, simple straightforward, passively ventilated, utilising solar energy and collecting rainwater, all laudable environmentally sustainable intentions, but one can argue, critical in our environment.
Is the problem architects or consumers?
The problem is that we don’t engage with architecture so much in Nigeria – except in terms of aesthetics; clients are resistant to suggestions that might seem over-elaborate – and we tend to design with off the shelf technical solutions, for example the air conditioner, rather than building around our constraints, which are the heat and other factors. Then there is the cultural and aspirational factor, technology is viewed as somewhat progressive, therefore your average client won’t permit any experiments with passive energy buildings.
So it’s possible to build with cement, and get a building that cools without air-conditioning?
The short answer? Yes