New architectural approach to improve rural housing

Written by: Michiel Smits
Published on: 06.03.2020

“Pro bono architect”, Michiel Smits wants to challenge the very model of modern-day Development Aid which he perceives as top-down and capitalistic. “We’re trying to penetrate this wall of ‘I’m the expert, I know what is right and although you can’t do this yourself, we’ll pay people from outside to do it for you’.” Much better to assess people’s existing knowledge and capacities, and then advise them how to improve, suggests Smits who is currently helping people in remote African communities build and maintain better houses for themselves.

People want “modern houses”

Chepchoina is a village lying high on the slopes of Mount Elgon in western Kenya, just five minutes walk from the border with Uganda, and 90 minutes drive from the nearest town. In this remote community, 75% of the inhabitants live in mud-based huts built according to traditional or ‘vernacular’ architecture, using the same materials and techniques that have been used for centuries. And the traditional design can also be unsuitable for the climate; for instance at 2000 metres altitude, the temperature in these Mt. Elgon communities drops sharply at night and people get sick because of draughts blowing through massive cracks in the walls of their current houses. “Yet these inhabitants continue using old techniques to build and repair their houses simply because they don’t know how to improve them themselves.” In a recently conducted survey of 200 households, Smits discovered that families are unhappy with their houses and want modern ones, but as these require skilled labour and non-local materials, they are just too expensive.