polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Construction Materials and Social Status

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Nearly half of the world today — about three billion people — live or work in buildings made of raw earth and wood. This number is rapidly decreasing, which is normally attributed to rapid urbanization. The real reason seems to be that earth and wood are rarely used today as construction materials. In fact, raw earth and wood are excellent materials that can be used in modern architecture, drawing upon ancient yet sophisticated techniques.

I've had the chance to work as an architect in Vietnam and South India, and in both places I experienced the dilemma of having to design concrete houses in contexts where earth and wood were more appropriate (in terms of climate, durability, and ecology). Construction materials in Vietnam, India, Brazil, and many other countries where earth and wood have been traditional materials for thousands of years, have a strong social meaning to most people, particularly to poor people who have lived all their lives in houses made of such materials.

It is true that most traditional houses in developing countries are poorly built and maintained and can hardly accommodate modern life. Perhaps that is the main reason why most poor people, whenever they have the chance, build with reinforced concrete and cooked bricks. When asked why they do not use raw, earth, and wood, they say that these are the materials of the poor. Reinforced concrete and cooked bricks are generally seen as symbols of wealth; changing from an earth and wood house to a brick and concrete house is directly associated with escaping poverty and gaining social status.

A traditional earthen house and a contemporary interpretation made of concrete and bricks, in Nagercoil, South India.

A traditional wooden house and a contemporary interpretation in Xishuangbanna, South China.

A traditional earthen house and a contemporary interpretation in Florianópolis, South Brazil.

Concrete and cooked bricks are now cheaper than traditional materials, and it is easier to find masons qualified to work with them. However, concrete, steel, and cooked bricks require large quantities of energy to produce, while wood and raw earth need no energy apart from labor. Cement production alone accounts for five percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

Architects have an important responsibility in their choice of construction materials. Raw earth and wood (from tree plantations rather than deforestation) are slowly becoming popular choices among young architects, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes mainstream.

Credits: Opening photo of a building in Auroville, India, by Satprem Maini. Photos of homes in China, South India, and Brazil by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca. Photo of a rammed-earth house in Australia by Morris Partnership. Photo of a rammed-earth office building in London by David Marchetti Architetto.