Designing African Architecture To Suit The Environment and Needs of Africans


Livingreen caught up with US and Nigeria Based Urban Designer and founder of CPDI AFRICA, Nmadili Okwumabua, who is in town, for the first ever private sector organized environment sustainability conference, the One Environment, and is currently working on an African architectural design project in Abuja. Okwumabua, dishes on her journey to learning, and designing, African Architecture and its inherent environmental features.

What inspired you to found the CPDI?

Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to design buildings. It wasn’t until I got to school in the US, that I realized that the profession I liked was termed Architecture. There, in the University, I wanted to represent my Igbo culture, my Nigerian culture and in essence my African culture in my design projects. You know the way Chinese architects are inspired by their Chinese cultures and the Britons inspired by their British architecture. I wanted to reflect my Nigerian culture, its aesthetics and materials in my school design projects. My professor said it would be difficult since Nigeria does not have an architecture culture.


Yes. That’s what he said. He said that in the design and building conversation, Africa has been very silent. We really haven’t progressed from huts (mud houses in the village). In the modern architecture, in our cities, we simply copy the American architecture, basically what they taught us during the colonial era. That entails, how to lay blocks, cement, built spaces and so on. He further said there is no such thing as black or African architectural language. It doesn’t exist.

As an excited young person at the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that. I decided to return home and discover for myself, what we are building in Africa. Is it all European designs? That’s how my journey to understand Africa’s position and future in design and built environment. If we had an Africa architectural design in place, what will it look like? What are the aesthetics, patterns and motifs that would go with that design environment? What materials would we use and how affordable are the materials? Africa should look different from China, and America. Likewise, our communities. That 20-year journey inspired CPDI architectural design project. I just wanted to hear our own voice, the African voice in architectural world.

So, in 2015, I came up with an idea, to launch an Architectural competition. I wanted to challenge architects around the world, to present an image of a modern Yoruba house or a modern Ashanti house. They are to send in their best designs, and I, alongside other architects and urban planners, and people in the built environments, will pick the best ones. We also provided cash awards, and further build them.

Now, I could have made it in a manner that only black students and designers should participate, but I opened up submissions to participants of all races. Anyone who feels they can do the research, and find out how Africans build their living spaces, how those spaces would look in the present times.

We had amazing designs submitted from 29 countries. We went through the designs to select those that responded best to the challenges set before them. We had given them five things to address:

One, African Culture and Lifestyle. Take this illustration, in my Delta Igbo Culture, our culture is to bury the head of the household right inside the house, for many reasons. In Africa, culturally, the living, the dead, and the unborn, are in one continuum. They communicate with their ancestors. That they (ancestors) are dead do not mean they don’t communicate with them. For example, Africans paying libations to our ancestors. Burying an ancestor in the house, shows they still live with us. That’s culture and lifestyle that has been inculcated into the building. So, when designing a modern building, how do you incorporate this cultural aspect into homes? Rather than bursting up floorboards and cement when such circumstances occur, a modern architect will make provisions for this in a home. You make room for a 6 feet inch grave, cover it up with a trap door, and place your carpet over it. When the head of the family dies, you need not destroy the house to bury him, rather, simply put them in that space meant for them.

Another illustration, is that of a polygamous home. In a typical house, the master bedroom belongs to the man. The other wives have separate rooms. From a polygamous viewpoint, that isn’t going to work. The master bedroom belongs to the master. The first wife has her own room, and the young wife has hers. A modern approach can also require you build the main house for the master and his first wife, while the second wife and her family live in the other side of the town.

Religious concern to African architectural designs, especially the Islamic religion, indicates that women rooms require more privacy than the male’s. you are mindful of the fact while laying out the rooms. There are hallways that women walk through and those that men walk.

In the Igbo culture, women use the Uli, and Uli patterns for beautification purposes. Women also used the Uli patterns to draw symbols around front doors, sometimes to indicate that those who enter the houses will attract fertility. How would you incorporate these patterns, by choice, into the design Aesthetics of your house?

Colours: What colours are dominant among Africans?

Africans are partial to earth colours.

Yes. They also incorporated materials. In terms of our climate and geography, laterites are most suitable and accessible. We don’t have to put in air conditions in homes built with laterites. Laterites should be free; it should be free.

But it isn’t?

No. You consider what materials to build with that is compatible with our hot weather. That’s laterite. Next is the Affordability of the house. The cost of land should be low. Africans take showers, not bath. We are used to scooping water with bowls and rinsing our bodies. There is no need to import bath-tubs. Europeans love to take baths. They fill up bathtubs, soak in the bath gel and sit in it. Who loves to do that in Africa? Africans don’t do that. Once you consider all these features into the house, then the house is more affordable. In the olden days, somebody had the sense to manage construction of homes. Ease of Construction factors in too. In our modern society, homes can be made so easy that anybody can build them. So, Lifestyle and culture, religion, aesthetics, affordability, religion and ease of construction; these were the building blocks of designs that CPDI competitors worked with.

We indicated that the best designs will be rewarded and used to design estates in Nigeria. Now, if black communities in America, or Brazil want to copy those designs, that’s fine. The important thing is to solve our problems, ourselves. Let us build an Africa that respects our culture and environment. Let’s make our society sustainable. As we do that, and our societies and communities begin to look different from the rest of the world, architects around the world will go, “Oh Okay, we can respect Africans, they are building a design architecture for themselves. It’s real”. They will recognize our architectural aesthetics, the same way they’d recognize Chinese architecture and aesthetics.

Look at the way our African clothing and fashion are everywhere. If we can be creative in our fashion, arts, why can’t we be creative in our buildings? Buildings are the ultimate expression of the arts. They are the biggest art forms ever.

That’s because one can incorporate many cultural aspects into buildings?

Yes. It must come to a point where people marvel just walking or driving down a street, privy to the peculiar architectural designs that can only come from a black man’s mind. That way, people can say, “Oh! I am in Nupe land”, or “Oh! I am in Igbo land”, by simply viewing the design and aesthetics of the buildings. Our architects and artisans should pally and discuss that masterpieces. The intention is to ensure that soon, we start to see the Africa we envision.

The CPDI competition took place that one time. However, you also mentioned opening the competition in Nigeria as well. How do you intend to generate interest and participation?

A lot of people think the CPDI was launched outside the country. It wasn’t. The CPDI office, is based right here in Abuja, Nigeria.


My team, so talented, and smartest, design and social media team, are all based in the F.C.T, Abuja. It wasn’t launched in America, rather in Nigeria. However, because the competition was advertised on social media, it seemed that there is no real location. The school of design at Ahmadu Bello University, (ABU) were aware of the project, I had a lot of submissions from the ABU students. Lagos State University students were also aware of it. Likewise, schools in Ethiopia and Ghana. We sent emails informing them about the competition. However, we didn’t do a traditional media publicity. We need to do that. We do need to do some roadshows too.

I guess that’s why I didn’t hear about it. I know an architect who is quite keen to delve into sustainable, green building. That directs the next question, to the affordable aspect of the African architectural designs, you mentioned earlier. How can ordinary Nigerians own affordable and quality African architectural designed homes? How affordable is an African architectural designed home?

First, is your land. The cost of your land matters. If you can get a land at an affordable price, if only, lands cost N200,000, and government developing the will, to build affordable housing for the people. Secondly, is to employ the use of available and affordable materials for building, such as laterites. We can incorporate a little bit of cement, just to toughen the facades, and wooden panels to divide the rooms. Our architects need to leave off that mentality that we can only build with cements. They must wear the mentality that understands that we are trying ways to build that work for us; ways that can enable everybody own a home, via affordable housing.  What does it require to have affordable housing? We need to tackle that. Let’s recap; affordability, availability, materials and ease of construction, are important. Let’s not use any imported material. A beautiful, nice tiled shower will do. In the kitchens, am I cooking inside or outside? In the village, it is quite a lovely thing to cook outside.

Interestingly, food cooked on firewood tastes different and better than those cooked on stoves or cookers.

Yes. So, in ensuring affordability, you think, how can I design a kitchen in a manner that I can cook with my gas cooker inside, but also cook on firewood with the local pots, outside? The outside can come with a little fireplace, a corner for smoking Suya or cooking soap. How do I design a kitchen, interior and exteriors for an African woman? Can I get a two-bedroom house that at the end of construction amounts to N2m to N3m?  Can I build in phases, where I won’t experience every expense in one swoop, since no one is ready to offer potential homeowners loans? Can urban planning development control reduce the cost of land? Can the development control commission approve building designs that is not of the present imported standard designs and approve creative designs? It is necessary for the urban planning commission to approve the new designs, if they don’t, they won’t get built. Can we have a modern African home that costs less than N10m.

Yes, we can. But, your architect has to sit down with you and agree to use only available not imported materials. He must be fair, and cite fees non-overblown fees. Hopefully, with this design competition, we (Nigerians and authorities) will start to see more design prototypes of Africa architectural designs to build. Thus, people can select designs of their choice.

Is CPDI likely to replicate the think-tank conference it held sometime back in the US to educate Nigerian architects on this phenomenon?

Yes. Definitely. The first think-tank was held in Abuja, Nigeria, in partnership with the International Institute of Creative Development (IICD). The following two, held in US. Our next project with the One Environment, is another Think-Tank platform, where architects, builders and home-owners can be in a space and talk about these ideas. They toss ideas about what the home owners really want, the prices they can afford. They take a look at this African architectural designs, and decide how really affordable they can be. They discuss how environmental friendly such designs are, that way, homeowners won’t make unnecessary expenses purchasing air-conditioners. We are initiating these think-tanks again in Nigeria. The first was held in Abuja in 2014, in the US in 2015, and in Nigeria in 2016. The think-tanks can take place as part of activities in events such as One Environment. It can also take place in university campuses, on the streets of architecture, construction, art, estate management and all the schools of built environment we can find. Those are where we need such discussions to thrive. So, our students are exposed to these ideas before they leave schools, and advise they clients, when they begin practice.

Don’t you think the knowledge should be extended to both uneducated clients and builders?

Yes. They can persuade your clients, “let me show you design buildings that can save costs, energy, celebrate your culture and wow your friends”.

That’s true. The impressive thing the traditional about Japanese houses and the South Korean houses, the Hanok, is the peculiar cultural aesthetics and value inherent in it, and importantly, the space, lots and lots of spaces in them. Can we create space in the African architectural designs?

That’s where land comes in. if we had more land, and more space, we can infuse the courtyard, a feature of the African culture, which was discarded with modern imported architecture. The courtyard, is a beautiful space, that is surrounded by beautiful red mud houses in a compound. In the daytime, people sit, sleep, chat, tell tales in the courtyard. They only go to sleep inside the huts. It substitutes as the living room. How can we bring back the courtyard feature in modern design? Do our plots have enough space to accommodate a courtyard? How do we design our small plots to accommodate seemingly big and spacious courtyard?

Homeowners wouldn’t want to feel cramped in, they would want high ceilings and windows too. We cannot use too much cement, which induces heat in a hot environment as ours. We have to design differently.

What are the benefits of incorporating history, culture and environmental sustainability into the built environment?

The benefits of building environmentally sustainable homes and communities that celebrate us (Africans) are very many. First, let’s define the positives and negatives of designing buildings as we are designing now.

Positives: when we build using western design standards makes our city look modern.

The negative aspect, is, if we cannot build up to the standards of the west, then, that is a problem. That’s the present challenge. We are not able to build perfect replicas of western built environment. Why? One, we don’t have the training to build perfect replicas. We don’t have the materials to do so. What we build is not really celebrating who we are. It is uncomfortable and unaffordable. Take the illustration, we have not got to the point in our evolution like the US or UK, that’s been around for 500 years and more, where we can afford to build replicas of their homes. American government subsidizes affordable houses. They know where they get affordable materials. They have salaried jobs from which they can pay for the kind of housing they want. I may have the education to replicate their built environment in Nigeria, but we don’t have the salaried job that can pay citizens N20, N40 or N60m (over a short period of working years). We cannot use materials from a society that we, “are not on their level”. We are neither Americans nor British people. We are Africans. Where have Africans reached in their evolution? Looking at our history and story, we gained independent 60 years ago. We are yet to develop to the extent where a citizen earns the equivalent of N50,000 per annum. Nigeria, like most African countries, is trying to stand to on its feet. It must develop organically, naturally. It has to grow at its own pace.

What kind of houses should Africans design and live in, that suits their level and their needs? The average African house should be a modern version of our traditional house (equal to what the average employee (the public mass) can afford. It means it should be beautiful, well designed and constructed. Materials should be sourced locally, it’s aesthetics designs reflect our culture, and the house spacious. We are yet to come up with those prototypes.

It’s not really complicated. It just requires desire and the will, to design for we who we are and where we are. You and I should be able to afford a house of N4m and it should be quality housing. If you put a price on land and building materials, that no one can afford, you find places like shanty towns in Jabi or Utako. The only other housing units are those of N100m built by the rich. Where are the houses in between, that allows human dignity and celebrate our culture and affordability?

What are the benefits of African architectural design? Universities should function as idea incubators. Our universities must turn out innovative students that will provide solutions to our built environment. The benefits we get to live in an environment and houses that fit our culture, environment and ensures environmental sustainability. People in America are happy, because they live in houses that culturally, environmentally and aesthetically suit them. They are living in the perfect architecture for their weather. It is up to us to find ours. CPDI starts the conversation and challenges people in the built environment, to tackle this. Let’s solve our own problems.

Do we have actual African architectural terms?

It is about modernizing our materials such as the rammed earth. It exists. Others use laterites, some rammed earth. They have made it standard for their communities because its aesthetically pleasing. The rammed earth is used in Texas, US, where the climate is a bit similar to Africa’s. They know it keeps out heat. Why can’t we do that here. It is all about our engineers and architects making conscious effort to effect this change. Government development control can demand that ‘in order to get approval for any building, you must use local materials. If a building is made of more than 25 per cent cement properties, you cannot build. If you do, it will be bulldozed down. Our government should take the research that comes out of the CPDI competition seriously.

Research derived from the CPDI competition, for instance, from our winner Vietnamese winner May Dao Lee Hong, said that she found solutions to Vietnamese housing problems from researching about the traditional African building architecture. Africa had these properties that she abandoned for modern imported civilization. She was finding solutions to her peoples’ problem from Africa.

We are hoping that our architects and town planners will, from the research that emanates from the CPDI competition, make it easy to develop modern African designs. Authorities must make building codes that obstructs building houses with over 25 per cent cement. That law will force Nigeria to modernize our laterites and local building technology. We will start using laterites overnight in building. We will get creative with laterites block designs.

Laterites are not as accessible as it should be to ensure the scenario you envision. How do we make laterites accessible?

That’s because no one is asking for it. If a client demands his house be built with laterites, then, the architect, who is interested in getting a commission, can do anything possible to get. The more architects design with laterites, the higher their availability and demand. But because, there is no demand for it, it is a novelty, and expensive because the makers of laterites are few. However, with a higher demand for laterites the more people learn the art of molding laterites. Once it is mandatory to build with local materials, everybody will begin to build with laterite blocks. It will be everywhere. The demand for cement will grow lower. Mr. Dangote who owns a cement factory, will make more laterite blocks and lesser cement products. I want to meet Dangote, and discuss ways to promote African building materials.

I think it’s good to get the manufacturers of the built environment on-board so they don’t frustrate your actions.

True. Dangote and other stakeholders can still make money. We just simply change materials. We all make profits, the architects and the manufacturers. They will always be use for concrete and cement blocks. However, when it comes to affordable housing, and the not-so-affordable, we just open up laterite industries.

Is laterite found in Nigeria?

It is right outside. We can see it from the one of the buildings outside. It is everywhere. Laterite is mud. The thing to do is to is to make it stronger by mixing a little cement to the laterite. In our local mud houses, we re-plaster the mud walls occasionally. Every year we re-plaster. With laterites, you can re-plaster every five years or more. I am presently working on a project, that I have built with over 30 per cent laterite. I let my client know that laterites keep houses cooler and he agreed. The building is barely past the foundation level, but in a month or so. You can see the laterite blocks in place.  To maintain building rendered with laterites, you occasionally re-plaster, once in 5 years.

That’s part of its maintenance measure?

Yes. That’s also like modernizing our local building materials, when we add a little bit of cement to fortify laterite.

What do you think an African architectural designed community or estate look like to you?

It’d look like paradise, the garden of Eden. In this community or estate, you’d have everything you need. It’ll have a courtyard, African aesthetic designs, it will have a community center with performing arts center, ponds, lots of vegetation, palm trees and fruit trees. The concept of live, work, play, popular in the west today, originated from Africa. In our original community, within the small environment, we live, work, and play. Our ancestors didn’t go far to work. Everything was quite pedestrian. This neighbor will look like complete cities, like we have in some estates. The houses will look like little works of art. The colours, the patterns and motifs will wow people. The furniture will be quite organic and the curtains made of African print materials. In fact, it will be an imitation of a modernized African society without British colonization. All design will be organic. We will have solar power, few fuel generators. The buildings made of laterites and stones, to keep out the heat. In spite of individual kitchens, communal kitchen exists where the extended families sit and chat. We begin to know our neighbours again. That’s what I aim for. That way people will not assume Africa does not have an architectural culture. We’d show them designs that they’ll see nowhere else but Africa.






  1. Intersting, I particularly find myself in the story because I had very similar experiences while studying architecture back then in the university.

    I wanted to explore more of locally sourced materials and design concepts.

    • You can do that Femi. Just letting your clients know their options and benefits, makes a great difference. With technology, sooner rather than later, we will find ways to make sustainable houses cheaper.


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