Our NM2000 project ran into unforeseen challenges recently. From the beginning, we were very excited to use compressed earth blocks (CEB) and our biggest challenge has been to make sure we have access to high-quality bricks. But through it all, we didn't really consider the implications of our choice in the context it was meant for, in terms of access to a skilled labor force.
We hired a contractor who had completed a project using CEBs before, so we were fairly comfortable with his team’s expertise. However, our project is much bigger than what the contractor and his team had previously worked on, so he had to hire more hands to increase his workforce and meet our agreed-upon deadlines. A few weeks into construction, the new workers started leaving the construction site, never to return! It turns out, they found work on other projects that was more appealing to them. Niamey is undergoing a construction boom these days and there is no shortage of work for masons.
What was surprising in this turn of events, was the reason so many workers were fleeing our project. Essentially, building with earth blocks demanded a lot of patience: bricks had to be laid in a particular pattern, the mortar had to meet a certain height and everything has to line up perfectly. This is very painstaking to learn and even more painstaking to put into practice day in and day out. So people left because they did not want to put up with the complications… They could get paid the same and sometimes even more, doing mindless tasks on a typical construction site that uses cement blocks and concrete. In the end, our contractor had to import an entire new crew from Togo (a neighboring country) which is reputed for its skilled construction workers to fill the gaps!
Obviously this incident gave us a lot of think about. How can we motivate construction workers to learn these skills and enjoy working on projects such as ours without a direct monetary incentive? Is it realistic to hope for a wider adoption of compressed earth blocks in the city when, not only are clients resisting the notion, but even the labor force would rather not bother?
One Nigerien architect we discussed this problem with suggested that an official “field” of Earth Architecture should be created by officials that would set standards and training guidelines. The argument is that making building with earth a recognized and formalized endeavor, would legitimize it and justify the additional effort in the workers’ minds. Perhaps. But why stop there? Taking this idea further, if workers obtained rigorous, consistent training, at the end of which they got state-recognized certificates that show their proficiency, it could help things along. It might even help them earn more. The argument could be made that skills learned through earth architecture training would make workers even more proficient at building in general. They would take a new level of skill, rigor and attention to detail with them on on any construction site. Training, being certified and becoming highly qualified, could also be a way for them to feel pride in this type of work, see themselves as experts (which they would be) at something that is really challenging and rewarding.
Another issue this problem has uncovered is the need to modernize building techniques for earth construction. Devising new ways that are faster and less labor intensive would help in evening out the playing field.
Ultimately though, all the above solutions are contingent upon having earth architecture being adopted by everyday people and creating a real demand for the material and method. This then lands the problem squarely back on the architect's lap who must find ways to create desirable solutions to a resisting client base. Much must be done in terms of design to contemporize architectural forms and expressions in order to destroy the long held belief that earth architecture can only produce rural or "backward" looking buildings.