“It’s a different kind of invention—looking more at typology and returning to the roots, which I like.” — juror Mimi Hoang, AIA
Like many cities in the developing world, Niamey, the sprawling, dusty capital of landlocked Niger, is in the middle of a housing crisis. Already home to 1.3 million people, it is expected to grow 5 percent per year until at least 2030. A big part of the problem lies with trends in the city’s residential design and construction: Modern houses are built in low-density Western styles, with cinder blocks and metal fixtures that often have to be imported, driving up costs.
Mariam Kamara, who grew up in Niamey, understands this shortage well. “I kept having conversations with people back home who were saying they couldn’t even get married because they couldn’t find their own home, not even a rental,” she says.
Working with her thesis adviser, Elizabeth Golden, AIA, while a student at the University of Washington, Kamara hit on an idea: Why not try a different building style altogether, one that brings local materials and production methods together with increased density? She and two other designers then formed a collective called United4Design and set out with a goal to find a better way to do things.
The result is Niamey 2000, an 18,000-square-foot housing development that packs six family units into the space that a single conventional, Western-style unit would occupy. “If you look back at the cities in the region, they were denser at one point, but then things became spread out,” Golden says. “The idea was to go back to this precolonial model.”
Eschewing cement and steel, the structure is made from locally sourced and produced unfired earth bricks, which are formed with a manual block press. Not only are the bricks cheaper and more sustainable than imported materials, but they create work for Niamey’s skilled laborers. Using a small number of reinforced concrete supports, the building rises two stories—in a city of mostly one-story homes—with a solidity that surprised even native Niamey residents who came for a tour. “People weren’t willing to believe that a building made with earth could be that sturdy,” Kamara says.
Niamey 2000 employs a series of passive cooling techniques, including breezeways and the inherent thermal properties of earthen construction. That makes it significantly more efficient than the neighboring concrete-and-steel houses. “Cement makes you literally cook inside the homes, so a lot of money is spent on cooling, if you can afford it,” Kamara says.
The units are arranged around a set of internal terraces that are wholly closed off from the street, providing a level of privacy that Nigerien culture expects—but that is often left wanting by modern Western designs. “Western homes have big windows, but that’s not acceptable in our culture,” says Kamara, who has since graduated and now has her own practice, Atelier Masomi, based partly in Niger.
Her neo-traditional approach seems to be catching on—Kamara already has four more projects underway in Niamey, including a library and a school. “There’s a changing mentality in Niger,” she says. “There’s a younger generation that is yearning for something more contextual.”
Project: Niamey 2000
Design Firm: United4Design, Seattle, and Niamey, Niger . Yasaman Esmaili, Elizabeth Golden, AIA, Mariam Kamara, Philip Sträter (project team)
Structural Engineer: Urbatec SARL
General Contractor: Entreprise Salou Alpha & Fils
Fabricator: Atelier de Technologie Metallique