You cannot underplay the influence of stone masonry in the history of Kenyan architecture. Throughout the ages since colonialism took grip over the nation, there came stronger and stronger forces that have led to the development of many Kenyan buildings using stone as the main building material in both structural and aesthetic applications. One only needs to look at Kenyan buildings done in the 1940s to the 1960s era prior to the modern movement taking root in the country’s buildings to appreciate the detail that the stone craftsman of yore brought to the buildings of the day.
Stone craftsmanship is a major defining influence in Kenyan architecture
Looking at the manner in which buildings which form a major part of Kenyan architecture are made up of stone, one must agree that we must have a good understanding in the use of stone for construction of our buildings. Stone has been integral in the construction of buildings in Kenya, from commercial buildings to residential buildings. Of course, commercial buildings that were done in stone are subject to the construction and structural limitations of stone construction. However, as this was the most abundant material easily available for builders at the time when some of these buildings were being done, they ended up being the materials of choice.
Probably the biggest distinguishing feature of buildings done during the pre-independence era of Kenya is their characteristic craftsmanship. People took time to build with stone. There was an inherent attention to detail and ability to spend time in getting the details just right for the stonework. Probably a large part of this was caused by the fact that using stone as a structural material becomes quite a precise science when you start dealing with the way stone bears structural loads. Building elements that we take for granted in our buildings such as beams and foundations that we readily do in reinforced concrete are treated very differently when done in stone. Stones must be cut in an extremely accurate fashion for it to play structural roles properly.
This precision cut/ precision dressed stone was one of the things that defined master craftsmanship in classical buildings. The ability to craft details into the stone was an added master stroke, and to this day we still wonder at the level of detail that went into building cornices, columns and capitals, with each piece looking like it belongs more in an art gallery than at the top of a building. The precision crafted elements that define lintols and arches that skillfully channel structural loads to the building’s foundation with such finesse are the defining factors that set the master craftsmen of the time from other industrial building systems.
You only need to look at the architecture of beautiful gothic churches to appreciate the power of a well done piece of stone architecture. From details such as the naves and flying buttresses, to the ornate gothic arches internally, all shaped using well crafted stone pieces, you cannot but admire the power and wonder of a well cut stone building. The very character of the building becomes that much more special through the use of stone masonry.
Sustainability advantages for the use of stone masonry in Kenyan architecture?
Strictly speaking, stone is not considered as a renewable resource in the realm of green architecture. As it is harvested from quarries and dug out of the ground, it does lead to environmental degradation in the area it is coming from, and once it is used it may not be reused as easily in the same form. Strong types of stone may be cut up into smaller pieces and reused on a construction. However other types can be reused from an existing building through grinding it into smaller stone chippings that can be used as hardcore sub-grade material on a site, or even used to create a rough cast packed stone cladding on the face of a column or wall through stacking them off cement mortar on a wall’s surface.
In as much as stone is not per se a renewable material, its use offers other great advantages to the furtherance of the green agenda in Kenyan architecture. For one, it has very good insulation character, especially if one is to use thicker 8″ blocks on their walls. One may find stones that are not as thick for the purpose of creating thinner walls, especially for partitions. Thinner stone walls may suffer from less acoustic insulating ability, but still have a good enough thermal insulation. Use of stone masonry therefore leads to better internal air quality due to its ability to keep the heat out during the hot season, allowing it to seep in via conduction later in the evening when it is cooler. At the same time, it gives good insulation from heat loss during the cold season, allowing good savings from reducing the use of HVAC systems.
Probably the greatest strength of stone construction in kenyan architecture is in its durability. Buildings built using stone have virtually a lifetime guarantee, affording the building several decades of lifespan (up to 70 – 80 years) depending on the specific application that the stone masonry elements were used.
A few examples of the application of stone masonry in Kenyan architecture
Stone architecture has always featured in residential architecture in Kenya. In larger buildings, it has been used in conjunction with framed structures, although as a subsidiary material mainly used for partitioning and screening. However in residential architecture, its application has been very creative. By and by, it has again been embraced in commercial architecture, especially through the use of crisp stone finishes such as mazeras / flagstone cladding and random uncoursed stone chipping finishes. These have been used often to create an interesting durable external look that when merged with modern materials such as textured paint and aluminium cladding forms very interesting effects are established.
Particular interesting applications such as bush hammered stone mixed with zero joint stone finishes allows for creation of very interesting textures on the building’s facade. A mix of machine cut stone with hand dressed stones can allow an interesting contrast of smooth and rough textures on a building’s face which is very appealing. Even through the use of bush hammered stone by itself, a rustic texture can be achieved that will give a building the appeal of an old classical look.
Design of the built environment by an architect takes much creativity for the development of an iconic building. By skillful harnessing of building technology and materials, interesting architecture can be achieved. Use of stone masonry to create good architecture definitely has its place in our society. Indeed, stone masonry in Kenyan architecture is still very relevant.