NSF grant enables professors, students to research climate-resilient architecture in Tanzania

Assistant Professor of Architecture Liz McCormick and co-investigator Brett Tempest, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to engage students in McCormick’s continued research into climate-resilient architecture in tropical regions.

The three-year, $300,000 grant, awarded in the category of International Research Experience for Students, will allow six students per year to join McCormick and Tempest in Tanzania, Africa, for applied community-engaged research in summer sessions.

McCormick, Tempest and their student researchers will develop and test material and design innovations in brick to create homes for Tanzanians. The architecture professor has begun to tackle this problem in studios she has been teaching in Charlotte’s Ravin School of Architecture.

“Our work thus far has focused on the brick geometry and how it can be improved to allow for ventilation, cooling and to prevent mosquito intrusion,” she said.

A design from fall 2021 by graduate student Nathan Smith “uses the principles of the Venturi effect to increase the cooling effect of air while also increasing air velocity above a level that mosquitos can fly,” McCormick said. Michael Serrano, a student in her current spring 2023 studio, designed a brick that “uses material friction to create convective vortices, allowing fresh air to flow but disturbing mosquito flight.”

Brick is the most common building material in the world, but the manufacturing process can often lead to high levels of environmental pollution.

McCormick and Tempest will work with researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to study how changing the composition of brick – using, for example, Cassava flour as a binder – might reduce emissions associated with manufacture, resulting in a more climate-friendly building material.

During the three years of grant funding, McCormick and Tempest will co-teach a joint, semester-long research studio for 14-16 undergraduate and graduate students in both architecture and engineering. In each studio, students will begin with the bricks, working to develop building blocks that can permeate air, store water and deflect insects. Then, they will create design strategies for how those bricks are used. Throughout the course of the research studio, students will interact regularly with international partners through remote presentations and regular website updates.

A subset of six studio students will be able to continue their research through paid internships, traveling to Tanzania in the summer to work with local materials and regional experts to develop housing prototypes that rural Tanzanians might adopt. Each year, students will build on the knowledge produced in previous years.

NSF grant enables professors, students to research climate-resilient architecture in TanzaniaNathan Smith, who graduates this spring with a Master of Architecture, traveled with McCormick to Ifakara, Tanzania, during spring break to explore local housing typologies and traditional modes of construction.

“We went to visit a designated brick-making site in Ifakara to see the process firsthand,” Smith said. “After seeing our designs, the brickmakers said that it would be easy to create these bricks and started trying to work out how to do it. When design is based in a community, it can bring people together from different backgrounds for a common good. During my visit, I saw this firsthand as I spoke with the people in Mtimbira and saw the excitement on their faces as they heard about our brick designs. I saw it in the laughs of the brickmakers as they joked about how they could make these bricks. And I saw it in the absolute openness of all the folks at Ifakara Health Institute as they told us all about these communities.”

Photo, inset, Master’s student Nathan Smith, left, with McCormick in Tanzania this past summer