Alternative Housing in the Congo

Check out our video to get a quick summary of our project!

Firebrick Housing Alternatives

Changing attitudes toward eco-friendly housing in the Congo.

Reina Ingham, Lindsay MacLeod, Reyna Schenck, Melissa Sullivan

Problem Statement

The current firebrick housing trend in the Ruzizi Valley in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is popular, but inefficient and expensive.
Ideally, the housing would be cheaper, made with local materials, well insulated, and stable using sustainable building materials and practices.
We want to find environmentally friendly alternatives to the firebrick housing in the Congo and devise a plan to motivate people to choose these building practices.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Working Villages

We hope to work with Working Villages International and Alexander Petroff to address their main goal:
“Working Villages International gets rural people out of poverty using a scale of development that drastically and sustainably increases the quality of life” ( The local region was reduced to poverty with the destruction of their farms and infrastructure as a result of an 8 year civil war that ended in 2004. In 2006, Alexander Petroff founded Working Villages International and was able to provide the community the money to start up a large scale agricultural project. By 2016, their goal is to resettle the region with many productive 10-acre farms that produce enough to feed their families and provide income for the community.



Our Research Goals

  • Finding case studies where new, sustainable building practices have been successfully implemented.
  • Creating a plan so future buildings to be constructed will be done so with sustainable materials and maintainable practices.
  • Finding environmentally friendly solutions that are also aesthetically pleasing.
  • Finding ways to add on to current buildings and make them environmentally friendly and suitable for the environment without tearing them down.
  • Researching other housing practices used in the Congo and how they can be improved.
  • Writing a grant proposal to build Working Villages a community center built out of straw bale building materials.

Potential Problems

  • Residents are content with their current housing.
  • Residents find the firebrick housing aesthetically pleasing.
  • How to find mutual appreciation for sustainable building practices, and to save the community members money while providing the community practical, inexpensive and sustainable housing.
  • Funding a model house to encourage new attitudes towards sustainable housing.

Plan to work with Working Villages

The Working Villages community has what we have found to be an ideal environment for introducing straw bale building. Our goal is to propose to Alex Petroff the benefits of straw bale building techniques, and build a straw public building in the Working Villages community. Currently Petroff feels that if the people are able to earn the money and bring themselves out of poverty they should build the desirable firebrick houses that are currently the housing of choice. We plan to build a community building out of straw bale to introduce a more environmentally friendly housing option to locals. Within the first year we plan to decide what type of building will be of most use (library, community center, etc.) secure community builders, sources of building materials and a design plan. Once the building is constructed, the community will be able to access it for a variety of uses. We expect that demand for straw bale housing will grow after the community is able to experience one. A local community member will be trained to build straw bale buildings, and then the community can continue to build straw bale housing!

Possible Solutions and Alternative Building Practices

These case studies are examples of projects that have implemented sustainable housing techniques and inspired the continuation of these building techniques.

1) The Canelo Project

Bill and Athena Steen

Bill and Athena Steen moved to Sonora, Mexico to work for the organization, “Save the Children”, to help provide low cost housing for the poor community of Aves de Castillo. According to the Canelo Project website, they “started on a course of building small and simple one room houses out of local and very inexpensive materials. On their website, they say, “It would not be over-stated if we said that we tried just about every material and method we could imagine”. After they had been in Mexico for a while researching, “Save the Children” got a grant to build a office building, which they completed using the straw bale methods they had researched. It is a very beautiful 5000 square foot structure, and opened the minds of the community members to consider living in straw bale housing. They were able to provide community members with affordable, beautiful, and sustainable housing.

For more information about the Canelo Project, please visit their website.

2) Semmes Builders and Co. Inc.

Turko Semmes

Turko Semmes is a local businessman whose innovative company designs and constructs buildings with innovative technology and sustainable building practices. He co-founded the California Straw Building Association in 1996 which works on getting straw building codes as well as promoting straw building. Semmes and Co Building has many current projects and supports new ideas for better building materials and practices.

3) Claiborne and Churchill Winery

Claiborne Thompson and Fredericka Churchill

The building on their property is a straw bale building, and was the first of its kind in California when it was built in 1995. The building regulates the temperature and keeps the cellars cool without the use of any external heating or cooling system. We have contacted them as a source to find out what inspired them to build a straw bale building, what barriers they came in contact with, and what the benefits of building with straw bales are!


4) Dancing Rabbit Community

“Dancing Rabbit is an ecovillage and intentional community of about 50 people set amid the hills and prairies of rural northeastern Missouri. Our goal is to live ecologically sustainable and socially rewarding lives, and to share the skills and ideas behind that lifestyle.”

Stakeholder Analysis

Peter Schwartz
Schwartz is especially important for the first 2 years of our 5 year plan. He was our original connection to Alexander Petroff of Working Villages and is our project’s advisor at Cal Poly. He is interested in introducing a more sustainable building practice in the Congo in order to provide as many people in the community with housing as possible.

Alexander Petroff
Since he is the founder of Working Villages International, Petroff is interested in providing housing that pleases the community members. Because the current trend of firebrick housing is what the community members want, he may resist the introduction of straw bale housing. If he is pleased with the outcome of the community building he may be able to help introduce the straw bale houses to the community members and encourage this new style of building.

Community Members of Ruzizi Valley
They will be huge in helping advise when an abundance of agricultural material is available. This is most likely after a harvest. The community members may resist the straw bale housing because the firebrick houses currently in the area are a sign of social status, and we do not know if introducing a new style of housing will effect this. Without the support of the community members we will not be able to successfully introduce and implement the straw bale housing.

Bill and Athena Steen
Although the Steens are not yet involved with our project, they could be interested in being involved because of the work they have done in Sonora, Mexico. We used their model of introducing the straw bale housing to a community that at first rejected the idea. They could help advise us on how to plan our introduction of the straw bale community center and houses to the area. Their interest could be that if our project was successful it would help ease the introduction of future building projects.

Cal Poly Student Team
As a team we are interested in providing more environmentally friendly housing to the community. We are looking to gain knowledge and experience in introducing new technologies to developing communities. We recognize that change is ultimately up to the community. We can introduce the idea and a model, but it is up to the community to decide if this new building method is right for them.

The grant money from the NCIIA would allow us to design and build our community center model. The NCIIA would want to see the community interested and pleased with the straw bale housing. Because they would be providing funds through the grant, they would want to see our project be accepted and successful.

Working Villages International
Working Villages’s goal is to help bring the community out of poverty and raise enough money to afford housing. Working Villages is our main contact for information and advising in the Congo. They might not be receptive of the new building style at first since they aim to help give the community members the tools to make choices for themselves, even if it is not the most cost efficient and environmentally friendly.

Straw Bale Building

Why straw bale housing?


  • When the bales are in contact with an earthen floor, the straw bale houses retain heat in the winter and keep the insides cool during the summer time. In addition to temperature insulation, they have been used for recording studios and houses near free ways to keep traffic noise out.
  • Q: What else could straw be used for? Is it wasteful to grow it instead of crops?
    A: Straw is used as fertilizer for agriculture, but what is not used is generally wasted.
  • Q: But what happens when it rains?
    A: With large window sills, it is difficult for water to get inside of the straw bale homes, plaster is applied to create water resistance.

  • In addition “load bearing” straw bale homes don’t need beams for roofs to be supported.

Additional Research, and More Ideas!

We recognize that building appropriate housing for the Democratic Republic of Congo will not always be a one solution fits all situation. Straw bale building can be improved by using more appropriate technology! Here are some ideas that could be researched and how they will benefit straw bale building.

French Drain Pipe and Gravel

Why use a French Drain system?

For areas that receive plentiful rain fall, french drain systems can be helpful because
they divert water away from the house and can be directed to gardens or fields.
They are an inexpensive to any home that is being flooded in the rainy season.

Bamboo Building

  • Could be used for roofing material for straw bale building!
  • Provides good insulation and keeps houses cool.bamboo-kit-house-cottage.jpg
  • Durable,easy to work with, and affordable (about 20% less expensive than the usual type of social housing).
  • Available resources in the forested region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Elastic qualities provide good resistance to earthquake pressure.
  • Requires little energy for production.

To view our PowerPoint presentations from throughout the quarter, please click on the appropriate button below:
UNIV391 Presentation 1.pptx

UNIV 391 Presentation 2.pptx

UNIV 391 Presentation 3.pptx