GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building Curmudgeon

In Mali, Mud Hut Upgrades Are Nixed by World Heritage Label

It never occurred to me that I would have much in common with Mali homeowners

The largest mud brick building in the world, the Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, is part of a World Heritage site, causing problems for local homeowners wishing to improve their homes

I’ve never been there, but according to a recent article in the New York Times (sorry if I am relying on this paper too much for inspiration), the city of Djenne, Mali, is a veritable museum of historic mud brick buildings. Among them is the Grand Mosque, the largest mud brick, or adobe, building in the world, originally built in the 13th century and replaced with the current building in 1907.

In addition to the mosque, there are hundreds of mud brick homes in current use that, according to the city’s World Heritage site designation, may not be updated. This apparently restricts owners from making improvements such as tiling floors, adding windows to rooms that have none, and installing showers or even screen doors. These restrictions have created quite a backlash, including a riot in 2006 following an initial restoration survey.

Tourist-driven urban planning?

In recent years, the city has developed serious sewage problems, as there is no central sanitary system. This, along with open trash dumps in the area, caused tourists to complain to UNESCO, who warned the city that it was at risk of losing its World Heritage site designation.

Apparently this designation is important to the tourism industry, which is a major source of income for the area. So, while in theory, the city welcomes the designation, the program prohibits many changes to buildings, including many interior renovations. One house is described as having a room that measures 6 feet by 3 feet, without any windows; under UNESCO regulations, the room cannot be changed from its grave-like current design. While I appreciate the efforts to avoid losing historic buildings, since when does tourism trump the right of people to improve their homes? Man, I’m starting to sound like a libertarian!

I feel their pain

I imagine that these residents hope to improve their living conditions through home improvements, which apparently they are restricted from doing. While I make no claims that my problems with the local historic commission compare to the challenges of the residents of this World Heritage site, there are some similarities.

They just want to make their homes comfortable, clean, and safe, but by doing so they run afoul of regulations. In my historic district, things I want to do that will create a higher-performance, more sustainable home are restricted, due mostly to pressure applied by a small but vocal minority in the neighborhood.

While I believe that effective laws and regulations help maintain a safe and comfortable living environment, many of those laws and regulations are out of date, are counterproductive, and often lead to poor solutions that benefit no one.

Is there a solution?

Obviously, having no regulations isn’t the answer, but neither is more regulation necessarily a suitable solution. Some neighborhoods have elected not to seek historic designations, leaving more options for homeowners choosing to build or renovate than those living in areas that have been designated historic. I haven’t seen that being in a historic district implies better or more appropriate design; rather, it tends to satisfy that vocal minority and its particular tastes.

Historic committees are made up of people who are fallible and, like most groups, tend to make decisions that comprise a range of compromises (not unlike our federal government). I’m not sure that there we will find solutions that will satisfy me and my local historic commission, or the citizens of Djenne and the administrators of the World Heritage designation. Maybe we can find a benevolent dictator to take over and judge with a fair hand. Any volunteers out there?


  1. 5C8rvfuWev | | #1

    Every stupid move -- and here it is going global -- to perpetuate the bad decisions of the past out of respect for the bona fide contributions of the same past reinforces the obvious -- regulation without common sense makes no damn sense at all. In addition, it certainly wins no respect for the history it is 'their' goal to preserve.


  2. Will M | | #2

    We're seeing some similar roadblocks up here in Maine; largely because of incentives for residential energy efficiency improvements, though, it's a problem that's getting increased attention, and that's a good thing, precisely because of articles like this that will hopefully shake the sleep out of the eyes of dinosaur preservation committees.

    Nietzsche, on topic: "We require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action."

    Another great post, Mr. Seville.

  3. user-659915 | | #3

    Not a good parallel.
    Easy to dump on the bureaucrats but the Mali example has no connection with Carl's historic district problems, with which I sympathize.
    Here's the problem in Djenne: WH designation brings both grants and tourists, tourists bring more money, money brings the opportunity and motivation to 'improve and upgrade', the improvements undermine the authenticity of the environment that brings WH designation and the tourists in the first place. It's a circular dilemma that's familiar to tourist economies worldwide, not just cultural sites. The 6' x 3' 'coffin room' in Carl's example was probably a store room, the growth of a tourist economy brings unprecedented pressure to derive financial revenue from every inch of space, hence the window and probably a cot to go with it. The educational importance of an intact low-energy ecosystem at Djenne gets one more nail in its coffin, and this should be of concern to all GBA readers. Certain places tell us something important not only about our social and economic history but also about our climate and our environment - this is why Ruskin called the buildings of Venice (another WH site) "sermons in stones", echoing Shakespeare's 'As you like it': "Find tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.

    Properly considered historical preservation guidelines such as those of the WHF and of our own National Park Service seek to ensure that these lessons contained in our historic structures remain clear and authentic, and so discourage not just thoughtless modifications of the original but also new construction that seeks to emulate its form. So-called preservationists on local historic district committees frequently do not understand this concept at all and so tend to formulate rules which while satisfying their ideas of visual comfort ends up destroying the actual historicity of the neighborhood, and these are the people with whom Carl justifiably has issues.

  4. Sam Young | | #4

    Upgrades in America Historical Districts
    Considering all the home energy improvements that can be made, I think almost all of them can be accomplished in an historical home. In Berkeley, CA the major issue is changes to windows. This is easily resolved with interior storm windows, which are invisible outdoors. Other sore spots are changes to the landscaping. For both of these permits are required. What other home energy improvements are objected to? Most are done inside, without messing up wall, ceiling, and floor finishes.

  5. 2tePuaao2B | | #5

    Join the Historic groups
    I've been restoring buildings historically for 32 years. Sometimes these groups are un educated with regard to current building technologies. The stigma of "home improvement" or "remodeling" came about as a result of cheap ticky tacky paneling jobs and vinyl siding coverups from the 70's &80's. Many very fine structures that held historic significance to communities were bastardized by poor workmanship and materials being used. These were not quality additions to the buildings history but rather damaging in many cases by the lack of proper detailing.
    Most quality building improvements are readily accepted as a significant addition to the buildings history when properly proposed.
    If the historic group in your community seems to be an obstacle, become a part of it and share some knowledge. Most people love to learn, and by demonstrating that your plans will be a valid addition that demonstrates the best improvement that today offers, it will simply become a welcome part of the buildings history.
    Test of time technique~ meet technique of the time...

  6. StevenL | | #6

    a room that measures 6 feet by 3 feet, without any windows--- It's a closet that they want to rent out as a bedroom to unsuspecting tourists!!
    Seriously re house the people and leave some of those charming adobe buildings as living museum structures.
    It won't happen the country is too poor -- easier to just restrict the freedom of the people to do as they wish with there 1000 year old house.

  7. Michael Blumenthal | | #7

    At last some common sense. I
    At last some common sense. I thoughat we'd end up with a 3 Dog night (unless the PETA pople block that!

Log in or create an account to post a comment.


Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |