Natural laterite finishing technique brings Nigerian architectural language to life

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Open – Ed 

  • In Lagos, a city with a complex urban fabric that includes historical buildings and vast interpretations of contemporary architecture, lies PatrickWaheed Design Consulting (PWDC).
  • This design practice, Co-led by Adeyemo Shokunbi, aims to contribute to a Nigerian architectural language through the renaissance of local materials.
  • Through explorations anchored in local laterite, they have developed the material as a modern finishing technique, investigated its potential as a natural dye, discovered new ways to employ its thermal properties, and now build the research prospect of other local materials.

I had the opportunity to speak with Architect Shokunbi, who discussed the initial inspirations and investigations during the construction of two building projects (Mad House & Abijo Mosque) in Lagos. These projects brought the Laterite finishing technique to life and now help build the case for a Nigerian architectural language.

Abijo Mosque, Lagos showing laterite texture applied in comtemporary architecture. Image © Mujib Ojeifo

In Nigeria, building wall finishes heavily rely on hand rendering methods to achieve smooth surfaces. However, these methods may result in imperfections and undulating building faces. This was the major motivation for PWDC to initially adopt Tyrolean finishing, which textures the surfaces of buildings in the design of their projects. “We wanted to conceal the imperfections in buildings. And how did we do it? We textured the building with a rough texture,” says Shokunbi. “I found that by covering those imperfections with something that is not perfectly smooth, it starts to give the building some level of credibility” He adds noting the essence of visual integrity the technique sought to provide.

Early on, the firm used the Tyrolean technique to explore darker colors that could combat the dusty nature of Nigeria’s tropical climate and keep the building’s finish durable. However, according to Shokunbi, this led to design questions that challenged the aesthetics and architectural language of buildings in Nigeria. “I feel that we’ve got to a stage that we should be able to have a language, an identifiable language, that is ours, based on what we have locally, not just from a material point of view, but from our understanding, and also from our response to context” he noted. He also sighted that other elements of culture, aside from architecture in the country, such as music, fashion, and arts, have a distinct and recognizable language. This became the foundation on which the firm anchored laterite as a local material and explored its use as a finishing technique for modern architecture.

Laterite tyrolean technique applied to container structures. Image © Mujib Ojeifo

Laterite is a naturally occurring reddish clayey material that forms the topsoil and subsoil in tropical regions. It has been widely used as a building material in West African vernacular architecture, taking various forms, such as adobe bricks, traditional rammed walls, and integrated techniques like wattle and daub houses. In the Mad House project, which involved designing a stack of containers to create vocational spaces, the PWDC team first experimented with the use of Laterite. They initially used it as a simple render on a block wall but found it to be expensive to apply evenly. They then switched to the tyrolean technique and substituted parts of the mix with various ratios of Laterite to explore its spraying capabilities, bonding abilities, toning, and durability. The team began with a mix of 1 bag of cement, 1 part sharp sand, and 3 parts Laterite (1:1:3). The cement was inflated in the ratio to aid in binding. “We noticed that by adding a higher ratio of cement, we could bond the Laterite properly. However, the mixture lost its tone – you know, that very burnt earthy color – and became very pale,” alluded Shokunbi.

As a result, a mixture of 1/2 bag of cement, 1/2 part of sharp sand, and 1.5 parts of laterite (1/2:1/2:1.5) was explored to reduce the cement content. Ultimately, a mixture of 1/4 part of cement, 1 part of sharp sand, and 3 parts of laterite (1/4:1:3) delivered a good tone while retaining the properties of the laterite. The PWDC team is still investigating the technique ratio as the consistency of the toning and bonding depends on the source of the laterite. Laterites from different locations can behave differently because of variations in their sources. This expanded the scope of experimentation and incurred new challenges when the team moved the technique to their next project, the Abijo Mosque in Lagos.

Laterite tyrolean technique can be applied in various colours. Image © Mujib Ojeifo

During the rainy season, the team faced challenges with the technique because the finish would wash off or distort due to the rain. To address this, polyvinyl acetate (PVA) was included in the mix to bind, seal, and protect the finish from harsh weather. The mosque building is the epitome of the Laterite tyrolean technique as the finish completely wraps the envelope, creating a unique visual language. Shokunbi notes that this language is inspired by traditional Yoruba mud buildings and reflects the climate, culture, and beliefs of the people. The use of laterite in the Abijo mosque project had a significant impact beyond visual aesthetics. It contributed to the building’s thermal performance by providing a cool indoor space and reducing energy consumption. With this in mind, the team explored the use of laterite in the container structures of their current projects. They used techniques such as wattle and daub to insulate the interior and developed mud ball finishes to give the containers a unique character. Additionally, they experimented with a “laterite paint” by mixing the material with PVA and applying it to the container surfaces. This made the surfaces more receptive to receiving tyrolean.

The Nigerian architect believes there are many more prospects to explore the use of laterite and other local materials. “It was all about developing the consciousness of wanting to understand how we used to construct back in the day, and how we use the materials that we used to work with, and also about the responsibility that we have for our environment, of trying to lower the carbon footprint,” he says. To push the development of local materials, the firm has started a new research arm called NANA Collaboratory and Workshop, with NANA standing for New Alternative Nigerian Aesthetic. They aim to start with innovative laterite panels and precast mud walls and collaborate with other architects in the country to evolve different techniques. More recently, through a collaboration with Tosin Oshinowo, her team at CmDesign Atelier, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Laterite tyrolean technique was employed in a housing scheme called Homes for Ngarannam.

Consequently, contributing to defining a language for Nigerian architecture is an aim of the firm. “What we want to do is find new and innovative ways of using locally-sourced materials to construct our architecture,” says Shokunbi. “How can we develop that language in our architecture? What principles can we draw from our traditional architecture? How can we translate and incorporate those principles into buildings that we construct within the constraints of the city, which are absent in rural areas? How do we fuse that? How do we find a synergy? These are the questions we need to ask,” he adds. The laterite exploration by the PWDC team provides a template for rethinking and redefining the use of local materials while retaining their environmental benefits with modern techniques and creating unique forms of architecture.


This article was first published in ArchDaily and is republished with permission.

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