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Insights & ideas from our recent trip to Uganda

The value of importing ideas from other places

We’ve just returned from a trip to Kampala, Uganda where we’ll soon be starting on site with Kampala’s first rammed earth building. What struck us, was that many of the low carbon technologies we’re employing in Kampala are far more common there than they are here. So why aren’t we building with earth more here, and whilst we’re at it what other ideas can we import? Here are some insights and ideas for the UK construction industry and its approach to reaching net zero:

 

Reusing & recycling has immediate cost and efficiency benefits  

In Uganda, reusing and recycling is favoured over landfill, not because it’s good for the planet but because it is the most practical and cost effective way to solve a problem. Materials are expensive (see below) as is removing material from site (as in the UK). So using what you already have and ensuring everything stays on site is a no brainer. Here reusing and recycling building materials is complicated and difficult, which equals expensive. In Uganda the balance is tipped the other way. So what do we need to do here to tip the scales toward incentivising reuse and recycling over waste? 

 

Materials are precious and finite 

In Uganda, there is a different relationship to materials. They are expensive, and outside of a few standard choices very hard to come by. Our local partner often has to import expensive ironmongery from Europe as it can’t be sourced locally. But, because materials are scarce there is an understanding of just how precious all this stuff is - to be treated with respect and not used wastefully. In the UK construction industry time is the most precious commodity. Doing things expediently but wastefully does not serve the planet well, whilst doing things more considerately and therefore more slowly might.    

 

The inverse relationship between labour costs and material / product costs

Here labour costs are high and material costs lower, but in Uganda the inverse is true, favouring materials like rammed earth which is labour intensive. In the UK construction industry we are reducing the need for highly skilled labour because it’s expensive and because it is hard to find. We lack the technical training needed to create a skilled workforce. Quality, craft and workmanship are lost for the sake of ‘efficiency’. In Kampala we’re training as part of the project and creating a better skilled low carbon labour force for the future as a result. As our economy here in the UK shifts downward in light of the pandemic we need to be investing in skilling up in the low carbon sector. Another argument for the green new deal.  

 

Incentives for innovation

Before this project, I believed that innovation belonged in the world of technology. But, now I realise that innovation comes in many forms. In Uganda, innovation and invention come as standard, because often there is no other way but to start from first principles and problem solve. Our partner architect (Localworks.ug) is doing all sorts of incredible things with technology: in earth (earth bags, earth blocks, rammed earth etc) and with water recycling systems, power infrastructure and much more. They are solving the problems they encounter in innovative ways simply because they have to. 

 

In the UK, contractors and architects tend to go with the things we already know. We favour the materials, systems, supply chains and products we have experience of. This is natural but it doesn’t lead to innovation. Hempcrete is a carbon-eating-super-material but no large scale contractor will go near it, because it is novel, untested and a bit messy. Rammed earth is common in places like New Zealand and Australia. There are only a handful of such building’s here in the UK (a couple of gems spring to mind: Bushey Cemetery | Waugh Thistleton Architects and Peter Zumthor’s Devon villa).  In Islamabad they’ve built a rammed earth building 30 metres high. 

 

…. A few lessons for the UK’s low carbon construction industry from Uganda, but the biggest one by far: it’s time to stop favouring what we know and to start innovating like our lives depend on it - because they probably do.