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Hellen's House

Last year we launched a research project at the Mackintosh School of Architecture (MSA) called the £1k House with the simple aim of designing a house using earthbags at a very low cost. Our Nakuru Project, also built with earthbags, generated considerable interest and optimism in what this relatively new technology could offer, an optimism that we hoped would lead to a subsequent boom in further construction within the local area.

Not unexpectedly the optimism has remained but the boom has yet to follow. Speaking with those on the ground the reasons were simple: more information was required to source the bags direct from the supplier and there was a disconnect between our much larger building for St Jerome's and a smaller scale dwelling such as most would be inclined to build themselves. The key for us was to design a simple dwelling that didn't dictate a particular form or fixed way of living but instead acted as a toolkit for teaching which would give the builder enough knowledge to make informed decisions about changes to the design. This approach would then allow the same building methods to be applicable across different cultures, housing needs and aesthetic preferences, whilst still responding effectively to climate, budget and available resources.

Despite all of this, a major barrier to our aspirations would be that of wider acceptance. In many parts of African society, earth or mud building is seen as backwards, or counter-development. Today, rural homes are built using stone, concrete or brick with a corrugated metal roof. In short, the modern rural African home is too hot, typically poorly lit and under ventilated. Within the parameters of good design, earthbags can help negate these issues and, contrary to preconceptions, will also last a very long time indeed.

In Kenya's Rift Valley, where daytime temperatures are hot and the nights somewhat cooler, the thermal mass of earthbag construction is a significant benefit, so much so that we felt confident that once experienced, wider acceptance would quickly follow. We needed a prototype, a show home to promote our ideas.

In early March, James returned with a team of MSA students and photographer Peter Dibdin, artist Becky Milling, and their daughter Suki, with the aim of building the first 1k House for Hellen Nyambura Kamau.  

Hellen had previously been part of the construction team on the Nakuru Project and represents a vast number of desperately poor single mothers in rural Kenya. With eight children, she owns no land, instead having to rent a low quality timber structure on land she cannot utilise for financial gain, and earns so little that she can barely provide for her family let alone contemplate saving what she earns. In a country where agriculture and livestock are major rural industries, those in positions such as Hellen's are unable to progress or change their fortunes.

On this occasion, Orkidstudio have purchased land, provided the funding for the house which is now built and included enough funds for some chickens and the first month's feed. Through this, Hellen has the opportunity to generate income far greater than before, building the scale of her home enterprise step by step. We have introduced a five year stepped repayment plan with no interest, following which she will be the outright owner of both the land and house and with an earning potential through livestock and agriculture which should ensure she and her family have enough to live on and to save for the future on an ongoing basis.


Hellen's house took 3 weeks to construct and was built by a team of previously unskilled men (6) and women (13). This team now have the ability and knowledge to build more houses and are forming, with our support, a contracting company called Build Equality, where at least 50% of those involved will be women. A significant shift in thinking, this new enterprise gives previously unobtainable opportunities to poor women in rural areas and is a model, which we hope will grow significantly in time. We are currently working on funding models for more women to self-sufficiently obtain low cost earthbag homes and plan on launching a new initiative in October/November this year.