Appropriate construction

Compression-only shell structures have the advantage of requiring very low material strengths while still being able to efficiently span large spaces. This advantage allows the construction of robust structures in contexts where reinforced concrete or steel are not readily available, using local materials instead. This research examines the role of structural design in building low-cost, environmentally responsible and safe structures with locally produced elements and local labour.

More info

Projects like the Sustainable Urban Dwelling Unit (SUDU) in Ethiopia or the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretation Centre in South Africa have shown that tile vaulting techniques using locally-made, pressed soil-cement tiles successfully generate local entrepreneurship and helped to create income and employment for local communities.

The construction system employed in these projects takes advantage of funicular geometry to limit the amount of material required and to avoid tensile reinforcements. Stresses are low within the structure, so soil tiles with relatively little material strength can be utilized. The resulting knowledge transfer was adopted in the local culture of the region, with masons privately continuing the skills they have learned, and therefore created an impact much longer than the actual building process lasted. Furthermore, the structural technique helped to avoid large embodied energy and high costs of conventional solutions. It minimized building waste and increased the independence from expensive imported materials.


Further reading


Block P., DeJong M., Davis L. and Ochsendorf J.Tile vaulted systems for low-cost construction in Africa,Journal of the African Technology Development Forum (ATDF),7(1): 4-13,2010 (October).
Davis L. and Block P.Earthen masonry vaulting - Mexican and Catalan techniques,SUDU: Research and Manual,Hebel, D. E., Moges, M. and Gray, Z. (editors),Ruby Press,Berlin,2015.
Block P. and Paulson N.New Opportunities Through Informed Structural Design,Addis Ababa: A manifesto on African progress,D. Hebel, F. Heisel, M. Wisniewska and S. Nash (editors),Ruby Press,Berlin,2018.
Ramage M., Ochsendorf J., Rich P., Bellamy J. and Block P.Design and construction of the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Centre, South Africa,Journal of the African Technology Development Forum (ATDF),7(1): 14-23,2010 (October).
Block P. and Rippmann M.The Catalan Vault – A historical structural principle with a bright future,DETAIL ,5: 528-536,2013 (May).Issue on 'Simple and Complex'.


ETH Zurich
Institute of Technology in Architecture
Block Research Group
Stefano-Franscini-Platz 1, HIB E 45
8093 Zurich, Switzerland

+41 44 633 38 35  phone
+41 44 633 10 53  fax

Copyright © 2009-2024 Block Research Group, ETH Zurich, Switzerland.