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A new-yet-old building material is revolutionizing construction and energy consumption in Mali. Promising to drive down base costs, improve insulation, and keep out heat, this green innovation is great news for one of the world’s poorest and most beleaguered nations, especially since wood, a major component in most hoses and source of fuel, has been scarce there for well over a decade. The name of this miracle building block is mud. That’s not an acronym or anything. Mali and many other neighboring nations have recently discovered how to solve a slew of development problems using plain old, dirt-and-water mud.
Mud has a long history as a building material all over the world, but Mali is particularly famous for its pre-modern soaked earthen constructions. For at least a thousand years, the peoples in what is now Mali constructed homes and monumental mosques of sunbaked mud bricks. The mud was interspersed with palm branches to reduce cracking from humidity and pressure changes and to provide scaffolding for builders to climb, in order to regularly reapply a mud plaster finish. To this day, the nation’s most famous landmark is the Grand Mosque of Djenné, a UNESCO World Heritage site originally built in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1907. Surrounded by preserved mud-brick houses, some of which were built in the 19th century (showing the longevity of Mali’s mud architectural tradition), these structures are still a source of employment for local mud masons and a center for local celebration, commemorating their annual re-plastering.
Yet these buildings are fairly unique. Somehow, over the last century mud-based houses fell out of favor with the rise of seemingly more modern and durable homes built of wood walls and corrugated iron roofs. As with many trends, though, this architectural fashion didn’t actually make a whole lot of sense. Each home consumed four to five of the nation’s dwindling trees and the heat-and-cold-sucking properties of a metal covering wound up literally driving heating costs through the roof, increasing the risk of respiratory illness from warming fires and baking residents on sweltering summer days. ….