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How We Cracked It

08 - British High Commission, Kampala, Uganda

Building Design, 1 July 2005

'Richard Nightingale and Ben Kilburn explain how they adapted traditional Ugandan construction techniques to create the custom-made terracotta products used in their new building.'

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Step 1

The challenge

'Most modern buildings in Kampala advertise their modernity by using inappropriate imported cladding materials – a typical favourite being blue glass and aluminium curtain walling imported from Dubai.

'By contrast, the low-cost structures built by their owners in the city outskirts use crude clay bricks made from the site and burnt in wood or charcoal-fired kilns in situ.

'When designing Kampala’s new British High Commission, we were determined to use locally appropriate materials and take advantage of local skills and construction techniques, but upgrade them to suit the requirements of a 21st century embassy building.

'The challenge was to develop terracotta products to use as walling, windows surrounds, sun shading and paving that would develop existing local skills, be practical, affordable and relate the building physically and visually to the red lateritic soil on which it is built.

Step 2

The strategy

'We tested products from existing clayworks and ad-hoc brick kilns around Kampala.

'What we wanted was not immediately obtainable, but we believed that with the raw materials and local skills available, along with ingenuity and a willingness to experiment, we could develop a palette of materials for this project that may prove useful to others building in Uganda.

'The first thing was to choose a main contractor that already had a brickworks in operation (using local clay and burning coffee husks to fire the kilns) and to develop a sequence of investigative design, mock-ups, prototypes and sample testing into the overall design-and-build programme for the project.

Step 3

Using terracotta

'Our aim was to use terracotta in different forms – paving, walling, perforated screens, window surrounds (including lintels and sills), sunshading louvers and roofing – for as much of the exterior of the building as possible. All these had to be made to work with the increasingly demanding security requirements of a modern embassy, including bomb-blast proofing and security grilles.

Step 4

Mock-ups

'We first made card models to find forms that would work. We then discussed these on site with the clay-workers in order to establish the limits of mould casting, clay extrusion (and the cutting of special steel extruding profiles) and the problems associated with drying, shrinkage and distortion in the kiln. This also allowed us to look at different textures and finishes to the clay products. The builders then made full-scale timber mock-ups, in particular of window surrounds and sunshades, followed by samples of the various clay components.

Step 5

Testing & trying again

'We coordinated our trips to Uganda with the production of samples from the kiln and then assessed the samples with the contractor. Some elements changed shape too much in the drying process while still “green”, others broke or exploded in the kiln or came out cracked and deformed – and some were perfect and beautiful.

'We also made accidental discoveries that informed the finished result. For example, the bricks were laid rough side out, contrary to normal Ugandan practice.

'Where prototypes were acceptable, they were built into sample sections of the building (walls, windows, roofs), which were then used to establish standards for the building itself and to explain to the people on site our requirements. Where they didn’t work, we adapted the design or abandoned that particular proposal and started again.

Step 6

Building it

'Once the sample panels had been approved, the clayworks went into production and we held our breath. The contractor produced 945,000 fired clay elements to construct this building, which is now complete.'