Uganda-based architecture and design collaborative Localworks bills itself as a “one-stop master builder service” that’s fine-tuned its track record of delivering complex projects in challenging environments. With 20 projects under its belt and several more in development, it’s apparent that the company has indeed mastered the art of building sustainably while honoring the materials found, oftentimes, at the very site where the building will live.
The collaborative was founded around 2013 by architect Felix Holland, along with building consultancy firms Studio FH Architects, Aquila Gallery, and Equatorsun, after nearly a decade of working together on various projects around Uganda. The company has about 30 employees, a third of which are architects and designers and since 2019, they have streamlined operations to rely less on contractors as they focus more on building their designs themselves.
“What propelled the creation of Localworks was the need to start constructing ourselves,” says director and founder Felix Holland. “We struggled quite a lot to find the right contractors that were willing to do the types of designs we had in mind, especially using the materials that we use.”
With green architecture being the primary focus at Localworks, the firm specializes in earth construction and uses materials like timber, glass, stone, compressed earth, and rammed earth. One of its most recent projects was Mustardseed Junior School, located just outside of Kampala and completed in 2021. It was the first end-to-end design-build project for Localworks and was built using earthbag technology, which the firm had never applied in any of its previous designs.
“None of us had ever touched earthbags before,” explained Holland. “So, we did a lot of research and tried to learn from others, including the American methods of constructing with earthbags. We ended up developing our own method and applying it to the local situation.”
The school’s design was driven by the desire to create a structure that resembled a large home while allowing for organically-shaped spaces and classrooms that were all distinct from one another, with none being shaped rectangularly and all having its own dedicated outdoor learning area. Since the client didn’t want metal roofing, Localworks proposed using offcuts from eucalyptus trees to construct the roof, inserting aluminum sheets between the layers of wood that allows for them to fully dry after rain.
“The concept for the roof came from the disadvantages and weaknesses of having a metal roof, which are still standard when building schools, but not ideal,” says Holland. “Metal roofs are very loud when it’s raining and the temperature aspect, especially if it’s brown, creates heat being pushed down into the classroom.”
Repurposed plastic drinking straws were also used as inserts in the roof structure that help bring in filtered light. Inside of the school, ceilings display local woven mats made with grass and palm leaves that help keep the spaces comfortable without compromising natural light. “It’s quite crazy to put something like that on the roof but the materials are cheap and the skill required for upkeep are very low,” Holland says.
It is these types of innovative uses of local materials that Localworks prioritizes and wholeheartedly believes are pivotal in reducing the negative impact that the construction industry has on the world. By challenging the idea that buildings and materials should last indefinitely, Localworks illustrates that buildings should be treated as a living organism within its environment and it should be maintained and reinvested into over the course of its life. “The idea that things must last forever and not weather or change over time is a narrow concept,” states Holland. “The attention that someone gives a building is actually something beautiful.”
Building primarily with locally sourced materials in Uganda doesn’t come without a unique set of challenges, which has propelled Localworks to conduct more research that can unveil solutions for these issues.
For instance, Uganda has one of the richest varieties of stone in the world—from sand stones and granites to marble and quartzite—but a lack of local craftspeople that know how to work with these materials for things like drystack (a building method where structures are constructed using stones, without any mortar to bind them together) makes it incredibly difficult to use. “Sometimes, we come across a fantastic stone, but you almost can’t afford to use it because there isn’t anyone to machine-cut it to scale,” says Holland.
Despite this, Localworks have found opportunities to utilize local stones for some of their projects, including the AWF Primary Schools in Karamoja. The project consists of two buildings in a remote area in northeast Uganda, where high transport costs resulted in the firm sourcing some of the area’s local stone for the foundations and plinth walls. They also opted to manufacture compressed earth blocks on site that would form the upper portion of the school’s walls and incorporated other sustainable elements like rainwater harvesting, solar power, fuel-efficient wood stoves, and aqua-privy toilets.
While the for-profit collaborative doesn’t consider itself as activists, the projects that they take on and the insistence on building quality structures that are beautiful and considerate of the environment is activism in itself. Localworks also offers a pro-bono program where they work with a group or organization that normally wouldn’t be able to afford their services.
The Gahinga Batwa Village, which is a settlement for 18 families living in poverty after being evicted from their homes in the forest, was one of these pro-bono projects. Working with the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, who donated 10 acres of land, Localworks created 18 small houses built on foundations made from local stones and with walls constructed from eucalyptus poles, bamboo, and earth plaster. Instead of planning the location of each house, the firm allowed builders to determine the placement of the homes themselves, resulting in a freestyle pattern that respects trees, rocks, and other elements of nature on site.
A recent expansion of a monastery in southern Uganda, designed by Localworks, shows that the use of local materials is not just for modest buildings and homes, but can work on a large institutional level as well. Completed in November 2021, the Our Lady of Victoria Monastery features four new buildings that are strategically arranged around three courtyards and constructed with clay bricks. One of the buildings, which functions as the church, include ceilings that soar as high as 12 meters, with a barrel vault structure, reinforced brick work, and inserted “light arches” made from glass bottles. “Using brick as a primary material follows the Cistercian principle of ‘material only’—the brick is available close to site, ages well and is easy to handle,” says the project description.
All of the buildings are outfitted with reflective roofing materials to ensure comfortable indoor climate control, cross ventilation, and ventilated ceiling voids. “Not only is the design monastic but also, it closely carefully considers the project’s local context, including material, climate and culture.”
At Localworks, the mission to show that local materials can produce high-quality architecture in Africa is something that prompts them to conduct extensive research before a project takes off. There’s even bigger plans for a more refined research program in the future, that looks beyond the projects in front of them and will allow the growing company to do more realizing of their own designs in the years ahead. But for now, they remain focused on finding innovative ways to create fully functionable buildings crafted from things like earthbags, rammed earth, compressed earth, and traditional methods like wattle and daub (a traditional style of building with earth that has been around for thousands of years).
“We want to be at the forefront of green architecture in East Africa,” Holland declares. “We haven’t quantified what that means but right now, our focus is on increasing our capacities to build, creating better buildings, and learning from mistakes along the way, which is something that will never get old.”