In architecture, a Nubian vault is a type of curved surface forming a vaulted structure. The mudbrick structure was revived by Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy after re-discovering the technique in the Nubian village of Abu al-Riche. The technology is advocated by environmentalists as environmentally friendly and sustainable since it makes use of pure earth without the need of timber. The technology is of Nubian origin.
One of the key advantages of the Nubian vault is that it can be built without any support or shuttering. The earth bricks are laid leaning at a slight slope against the gable walls in a length-wise vault, as in this photo of a building from the ruins of Ayn Asil in Egypt. The same principle can be used to build domes, as in the example below from Cameroon.
The age-old Nubian vault technique was notably revived by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy in the 1940s with the building of a new village at Gourna, near Luxor. Architecturally, this village is a singular success; however, the families who were moved there soon abandoned it to return to their original village.
More recently, since the year 2000, a French /Burkinabé NGO La Voûte Nubienne, by simplifying and codifying the VN (Voûte Nubienne) technique, has promoted the construction of over 1600 vaulted buildings in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal (mainly village homes, but also a Catholic church, several mosques, schools, literacy centres, and a dispensary). These environmentally sound, comfortable, and aesthetic buildings require neither imported sheet metal for the roofing, nor expensive and increasingly rare timber beams. Over 260 masons have been trained in the technique, and there are as many apprentices currently undergoing on-the-job training on building sites (2012). The programme organised by the Association “Earth roofs for the Sahel” is experiencing around 30% year on year growth in response to demand from rural families, with many requests for help and technical advice coming from the countries of the Sahel, and from further afield (a programme was launched in Zambia in early 2009, under the aegis of AVN-Belgium).
Various advantages are expected: lower construction costs, use of local materials, better insulation, longer service life, simplicity. Thus, earthen constructions according to the principle of the Nubian vault “are fresh, well insulated, easy to build, made of materials available at hand and inexpensive2”. This land use also reduces the consumption of wood in very largely deforested Sahelian regions. In terms of duration, “their life expectancy is fifty years when that of sheet and earth houses does not exceed ten years2”. The construction technique is based on soil taken locally, and “does not require wood or sheet metal, materials still used in the vast majority of African villages” 2, a continent where the Nubian vault is mainly developed. The raw earth is “kneaded in the form of mortar and bricks dried in the sun” and allows “to dispense with the use of formwork for the frame of the arched part1”. This vault is therefore built directly above the void until it closes. The Nubian vault has one last characteristic, its technical simplicity, allowing rapid training of masons and builders. Although historically unknown outside its area of origin (the Upper Nile), the method is currently experiencing some expansion in other regions of the world, in particular in the Sahelian part of West Africa.
The term Nubian vault was popularized by the constructions carried out by the architect Hassan Fathy in Egypt. In 1973, Hassan Fathy worked with three student architects, founders of Development Workshop (DW). One of them, John Norton, established an office in France in 1985. www.dwf.org Since 1973, thanks to Development Workshop (DW), many masons have been trained in the technique of vaults and domes in Africa and Asia. More recently, since 2000, the association La Voûte Nubienne (AVN) has simplified and codified the technique, then launched the large-scale popularization program “for Earth Roofs in the Sahel” in order to propagate this architectural model to all of Sahelian Africa which lacks wood for the construction of its roofs (and therefore uses imported sheet metal which handicaps family and national economies). At the end of 2008, AVN had contributed to the formation of a network of more than 120 Burkinabé, Malian, Togolese, Senegalese masons (2008 data) which had produced more than 500 Nubian vaults in Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Senegal, Guinea, Côte ivory. The popularization program “for Roofs of Earth in the Sahel” is gaining momentum from year to year following an increasing number of requests for construction of houses, schools, dispensaries, agricultural buildings, churches, mosques, hotels and other buildings.
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