Okwumabua: Building Environmentally Sustainable & Resilient African Architectural Homes



What does a modern African home, without colonial influence look like? “Eden”, says Urban Planner and Architecture Historian, Nmadili Okwumabua.

“It’d look like paradise. The concept of live, work, play, lived by Europeans, originated from Africa. 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 for performing arts, lots of vegetation, and fruit trees. The houses will look like little works of art. The colours, the patterns and motifs will wow people. The furniture will be quite organic. In fact, it will be an imitation of a modernized African society without British colonization”.

When I met soft-spoken and soft-looking Okwumabua for an interview, I hardly suspected a rebel behind the gentle exterior. But that is precisely what it took in her 20-year journey to research, define and promote African Architectural Designs. Today, she is not only setting standards for modern African architecture, but further generating national and international discussions on the phenomenon via her project, The Community Planning & Design Initiative (CPDI) Africa.

 At a very young age, about five or six, Okwumabua knew she loved to build things. It was not until her high school days, when her family moved from Nigeria to the United States, that she realized that her unknown passion is termed Architecture.

She was quite excited to gain an admission in the field of the built environment, and worked hard to incorporate her African history and culture in her school projects. But every single time, she runs into impenetrable walls. The answers are always the same. Africa Architectural designs are non-existent.

“My lecturer said besides the traditional mud huts in villages, African architecture had progressed no further than what western world exported during the colonial era”. Rather than discourage her, the response triggered her 20-year research and study of African cultures and architecture. The study transposed into the CPDI project in 2015, an African architectural design competition which challenged architects worldwide to study and design their perspective of what a modern African house looks like.

Each participant in the competition studied an African culture and incorporated peculiarities of that culture into their graphic and built environment designs. The winning design must (and did) incorporate five major principles – African culture and lifestyle, affordability, religion, local building materials and aesthetics.

By incorporating these five major principle building blocks, Okwumabua promotes the environmentally sustainable and resilient nature of investing in African Architecturally designed houses.

A typical modern African house as it should be today without colonial influence, she says is ‘affordable, can be paid for by Nigerians, costs less than N4m; it works with local materials that suits the needs of the people, such as laterites and rammed earth that keeps houses cool, successful preventing expenses on air conditioner; it incorporates African motifs and symbols not just as aesthetics but also as symbols of fertility and good fortune; it further accommodates the culture and lifestyle of a people or community, and finally, naturally absorbs the religious lifestyle of its owner’.

“Burying an ancestor in the house, is a culture and lifestyle that has been inculcated into some African societies. When designing a modern building, rather than bursting up floorboards and cement when such circumstances occur, a modern architect will make provisions for this in a home.”

But land is not cheap in Nigeria. Homes are owned by the rich. And laterites are scarce. To promote the African Architectural designs, she noted certain factors are principal to its existence. First, government make land affordable, if not the political will to build affordable houses for its citizens. Two, government and urban development authority should legislate and make mandatory laws that promote use of local building materials, like laterite. “Development authorities can demand that ‘in order to get approval for any building, one must employ 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,” Nmadili enthused.

She recommends that training architects and students in design schools, kills two bird with a stone. Younger professionals gain familiarity of the phenomenon, and preach it to their clients. Likewise, clients increased demand for laterite houses, increases the supply and availability of laterites.

The next phase of her project looks at generating discussions between architects and prospective home owners via its think-tank seminars and workshops, in collaboration with concerned platforms to determine the impact of African architectural designs and how best to identify and satisfy the homely comforts of Nigerians via the phenomenon.

“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,” Okwumabua concludes.

A typical modern African house is affordable, works with local materials that suits the needs of the people, and incorporates African culture, lifestyle and motifs. 



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