Building materials and social status in Cameroon

As I have become more familiar with how we're going to achieve our goal of building classrooms in Cameroon, I've started to gain a broader understanding of the local building materials there and what they represent to the community. Each material varies greatly in terms of accessibility, price, durability, and sustainability. But on a deeper level, these materials also reflect cultural day-to-day practices of a region, and even a community's social status.

There are more or less four main social classes in Northern Cameroon: lower, lower-middle, middle, and upper class. The traditional hut housing is used by the lower class, as they can't afford to buy building materials. Instead, they collect local materials from the area immediately surrounding them, such as mud and thatch. This way, they can construct their homes essentially for free.

Making the walls of their homes requires a three-step process. First, they mix sand water and soil and bring it to the correct consistency. Then, they place the mixture into a mold, which is made of wood lined with sand. The last step involves placing the mold in a shady area to let it cure. These bricks are obviously readily available, affordable, and sustainable, but they are weak in terms of durability and have a short lifespan.

The second main material that these villagers use is thatch, which functions as the roof. It has a bit of an overhang to protect the sides of the structure. Every year after the rainy season, women and children spend time collecting thatch to rebuild whatever had been destroyed by the elements.

The three next social classes have access to increasingly durable materials, but these materials are less affordable and generally less sustainable. They are also not found locally, which adds to cost and lowers sustainability (because of the required transportation).

The lower-middle class may purchase concrete blocks instead of using bricks made of mud or clay, giving them a stable home that requires much less maintenance. This kind of building is similar to a traditional mud hut in that it has a thatch roof and retains the circular shape of a hut, but it will usually have a front door and a window.

Middle class homes are also typically made of concrete blocks, but this structure abandons the thatch roof in favor of corrugated metal and is square in shape. The interior is more spacious and the home will usually have a door and a few windows.

Those of high social standing enjoy homes that we are accustomed to seeing in developed countries - they are made up of many different materials (such as wood, glass, and tile), have multiple stories, are fully enclosed inside a fence with a gated entrance.

As you can see, the materials that a building uses clearly indicate the social standing of the community that it's in. This is why Saint Andre de Ngong, the school we are working with in Cameroon, requested concrete blocks for the classrooms we're planning to build. As mentioned above, concrete is recognized as a symbol of status in this area, and the school wants to establish itself as a quality institution. This proved to be an matter of contention as Kelsey found cheaper alternatives that could function just as well, but that the community wasn't as impressed by. After some negotiation and alternation the community is now excited to try these new materials and feels confident that they represent the modern, strong appearance they are looking for.

In previous blog posts, we've discussed how most architecture programs don't really teach students to consider the perspective of the customer, assuming the architect is the expert and knows best. We don't believe this is a good way of looking at things. Without listening to the customer, the architect may end up designing a space that doesn't function as well as it should, because they don't understand how the space will actually be used. This is especially true in international work, where you may not fully understand the culture. Navigating this difference in opinion in a way that prioritizes the customer's satisfaction is, in our opinion, ideal.

Thank you for reading! You can learn more about what we're doing on our website, Click here to check out our YouTube mini-series, which includes a few short, informative clips about the project.

As always, we'd love if you could contribute - any amount is welcome :)

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