By Prof. George W. K. Intsiful
How much does a building costs in Ghana? How many people can afford the cost of a building even though the lowest paid labourer in the country aspires to build his or her own house? Can such costs be reduced? These are some of the questions that are asked by thousands of Ghanaians everyday. In attempting to address questions of this nature, building in Ghana will be discussed along two lines – small ones which could include private residential units and public ones which are financed by the central government and could include offices, classrooms, markets etc.
For small buildings, in days gone by and in traditional or rural societies in Ghana, building activity was a communal one, which involved virtually the entire community. All that the proposed house or building owner, for example, needed to to was to provide food and drinks for the workmen and women who provided one skill or the other. The building materials were obtained in the surrounding areas and virtually every member of the community participated because those who did not were also denied such communal assistance when they wanted to build. Communal labour for building construction, however, appears to have died in the Ghanaian communities and may even sound like a fairy tale to the present generation.
In spite of that, there exists across the country several traditional buildings. It is a well – known fact that the advent of the rains in the rainy season also means that many of such traditionally constructed buildings collapsed . Several issues of the local newspapers have documented this over the years. The major reason for the collapse can be described as poor construction methods which include the absence of foundations and the lack of durable materials . Most traditional buildings have no foundations and the walls sit on the ground. What passes for a foundation in many traditional buildings is simply raised compacted earth and rain action results in erosion and weakening of the whole structure. In a tropical climate where sound roof construction is very essential, many rural buildings have poorly constructed roof substructures to carry the final roofing material.
Even though over the years, corrugated metal roofing sheets, which can be described as more durable than the flimsy materials such as bamboos and thatch are now widely used in traditional construction, the rather weak substructure of flimsy timber members, which receive the roofing materials, results in a shorter lifespan for the roof as a whole. Additionally, many rural buildings of swish or mud construction have several cracks developing around doors and windows. Mud walls are also not plastered or rendered. Thus, rain action again leads to rapid deterioration. The effects of water on earth buildings have very often been totally destructive. All these problems are further worsened by the lack of surface drainage. Waste water from kitchens and bathrooms and bathing enclosures, as well as rain water from the roofs, collect in the alleys separating individual building units. The stagnant water consequently eats at the base of the buildings and weakens the structure which eventually collapses.
Needless to say, such building activities take place without the involvement of the district, municipal and metropolitan assemblies. Admittedly, in more recent times, due to urbanisation, many buildings across Ghana are being developed with building materials such as cement, sand, iron rods etc. The prices of these modern building materials never come down. They are always on the increase. So what is the way forward? The widespread use of earth buildings suggest that improved earth construction could go a long way to lower building cost across Ghana. Some people might shout that you need kilns and other sophisticated machinery to make that possible. In a country with huge unemployment problem, particularly among the youth, is it not possible to revisit the concept of the Builders’ Brigade of the Kwame Nkrumah era to produce even sun-dried bricks in large quantities for construction purposes?
One of the major needs of the country is the availability of skilled labour for building construction. My understanding is that one of the original goals of the introduction of the junior high school (JHS) and senior high school (SHS) systems was to pave the way to students to be trained for skilled labour in the vocational and technical areas since not every product of the two systems can continue to pursue tertiary education at the University. Is it not possible to return to this initial goal? With a wider training programme for artisans, more people could be trained at the regular upward movement of fees charged by artisans could also be stabilized.