Chapter 12 Farm dwellings

Contents - Previous - Next

The traditional life style of the farming communities of tropical Africa is undergoing many changes. People are becoming better educated, coming into contact with other cultures and technologies, and are gradually losing their knowledge of the traditional crafts and agricultural methods that were practiced by their ancestors. This is encouraging a change from the traditional way of life to a more modern, in some respects, westernized, mode of living with a desire for appropriate dwellings.

Planning the design and construction of a farm dwelling requires decisions with which the farm family must live for a long time, perhaps a lifetime. These decisions are likely to be highly personal because of individual preferences, financial situation, family size, location and other circumstances. There are a number of factors to be considered and questions to be answered before building a home.

This chapter presents information relating to space requirements together with ideas for planning farm dwellings. It leaves a great deal of opportunity for designs to evolve through the cooperation of the farm family, craftsmen and perhaps engineers and architects. The planning will involve careful evaluation of factors such as traditional family culture and social life, climate, government regulations, available materials and the skills of local craftsmen. The planning process will result in unique designs that may differ greatly from one area to another. However, only if the planning process aims at producing designs which within a cultural and environmental context are general in terms of layout, materials, construction and details, will they contribute to develop an indigenous building tradition that pursues the native architectural heritage.

Helpful information related to the planning of farm homes will be found in several other chapters including: Chapter 3-Materials, 5-Building Construction, 7-Climate and Environment, 8-Functional Planning, and 14-Water and Sanitation.

Space requirements

In planning a farm home, adequate space must be allowed for each of the daily activities. This is not so much related to total space as it is to such things as door widths and heights, corridor widths, adequate space for a bed or a table and chairs, clearance for a door to swing open, etc. It is essential that these dimensions be checked in every design as very minimal changes can often make a considerable difference in convenience. Figure 12.1 as well as several figures in Section "Functional Requirements for different rooms and spaces" provide a guide to space requirements.

Family cultural and social requirements

Various tribes and ethnic groups with different cultural and religious bac kground have developed distinctive customs and social requirements. An analysis of the farm family's daily life, including present requirements and future plans, will help in selecting the important factors for designing an appropriate dwelling house.

A number of questions relevant to a farm home design are listed as follows:

Family size: How many persons will live in the house initially and in the future? What are the family relationships - age, sex, marital status?

Sleeping: Are separate bedrooms and/ or houses needed for the husband and wife (wives)? Where do small children sleep - in parents room, separate room nearby? Where do the older children sleep - separate room, separate house? Are children of different sexes separated?

Figure 12.1 Critical human space requirements.

Cooking/eating: Is cooking done inside or outside the house or in a separate structure? Are cooking and eating done in the same area? Is there a separation between women and men, children or visitors during eating? What kind of water resources are available?

Store: How much food is stored, where? What type of storage conditions are required? What other items need to be stored - fuel, water, implements?

Resting/conversation: What kind of room is required for resting and conversation - outside, verandah or separate shelter, - inside, kitchen or living room? Are men, women and children separated during these activities?

Special requirements of farm dwellings

The farm family accustomed to working with nature, has different needs in a dwelling than a family in the urban area. Although many of the basic requirements are the same for both rural and urban homes, additional factors must be considered in designing the rural dwelling. They include the following:

Figure 12.2 Orientation of a farm dwelling.

Categories of farmhouses

Farming communities may be grouped according to the type of agriculture practiced in the area: subsistence, emergent or commercial. The size of the home, materials used and the method of construction will be influenced by the type of agriculture and the resulting income. The dwelling may range from a self-built structure using local, natural materials and costing little or nothing, to a contractor-built house using mostly commercial building materials and requiring a considerable income to finance. Table 12.1 summarizes various factors relative to housing for the three categories of farm families.

The improvement in layout, design, construction and building materials may allow further development of the farm dwelling and will help to extend the life span of the dwelling house and make life more comfortable. Table 12.2 summarizes some of the improvements to be expected.

Function and communication schemes

Good communications play an important role in the successful management of a farm business. Close supervision and control will help to maximize profits and keep losses to a minimum. Therefore, easy access to the ongoing farm activities is imperative. A functionally placed dwelling will serve as a communication center within the farmstead and will aid the farmer in supervising the farm operation. Figure 12.3 graphically shows the dwelling as the center of operations for the farmstead.

Human environment and the traditional social life strongly influence the functional arrangement of rooms within a dwelling. In Figure 12.4, an attempt is made to show functional communication between rooms with the essential connection to each other.

Traditional house design in East Africa may combine functional and communication requirements in one large multi-purpose house with one or several rooms, or in several small one-room single-purpose houses. Three traditional plans are shown followed by four contemporary plans with varying degrees of privacy and security.

Table 12.1 Summary of Factors Relative to Farm Dwellings


Substance Farmer

Emergent Farmer Commercial Farmer
Village Farmer Single Farmer    
Agricultural method used: Traditional Traditional Traditional/Modern Modern
Agricultural products for: Self- Self- Self  
consumption consumption consumption/ Sale
Income: Nil - low Nil - low Low Medium
    medium -high
Dwelling situated at: Village Plot Plot/farm Farm
Design used: Traditional Traditional Traditional/ Modern
Building materials used: Local Local Local mainly, Industrial
only only few industrial products
    products mainly,
      few local
Expected life span of dwelling 5-30 years 5-30 years 30-50 years 50-150 years or more

Figure 12.3 Farmstead functional scheme.

Figure 12.4 Dwelling house functional scheme.

Multi-purpose House with One Room

Figure 12.5 shows this type of house which is very economical in use of buildings materials and has good security because of only one entrance. Its disadvantages are a lack of privacy and a health hazard because cooking, eating, sleeping, meeting and even keeping of animals are done in the same room.

Figure 12.5 Multi-purpose house with one room (Mijikenda house - Kenya).

Multi-purpose House with Several Rooms

In terms of building materials, this type of house, shown in Figure 12.6, is less economical than the previous one. The security is good and the individual privacy has improved because of separation of the rooms. Health standards are still not good because of cooking, food storage, sleeping and keeping animals under the same roof.

Figure 12.6 Multi-purpose house with several rooms (Maasai- Tanzania).

Table 12.2 Summary of Improvements in Farm Dwellings

Further Subsistence Emergent Commercial
Improvements Farmer Farmer Farmer
In layout: separation of animal shelters and dwelling accounting for further expansion functional and flexible farm dwellings
nearby water resource trees for break windbreak and farm use future extension
trees for wind break    
facilities like garden, pit latrine etc. facilities such as garden, latrine, etc. carport
In design: improvement of traditional design (minimum floor space, minimum room height, etc.) design to allow building in stages functional design (may consult architect)
In construction: proper drainage of surface water further training of basic knowledge in consult/employ contractor, experienced foreman, etc.
raised floor    
strong foundation construction  
efficient roof slope    
good roof overhang    
In building material: improvement of local building materials, e.g. treatment of wood, surface treatment of walls, etc. use of appropriate or improved building materials, e.g. soil cement, fibre- reinforced roofing, etc. use of suitable, well-tested material according to the manufacturer's recommendation

Single-purpose Houses with One Room

This type, shown in Figure 12.7, is uneconomical in terms of building material and may not provide satisfactory security in some areas. However, privacy is very good and the separation of the houses will keep the health hazard to a minimum. Further expansion is possible and modification in use is simple.

Figure 12.7 One-room, single-purpose houses (Mesakin house- Sudan).

Further development of the traditional multi-purpose house with several rooms has lead to a more contemporary design, influenced by western culture and industrial building materials. These designs combine the advantages of privacy, security and improved health conditions without excessive expense for building materials or skilled craftsmen.

Considering the arrangement and communication between rooms, these houses can be divided into four main types, each of which can be easily varied.

External-access. Type

All rooms have their entrances from outside. Security depends on several expensive outside doors. The lack of internal connection between rooms is often a disadvantage from the functional point of view, but the resulting separation can be advantageous in situations such as an extended family or a change of owner. See Figure 12.8.

Courtyard Type

This type, shown in Figure 12.9, resembles the previous design but the rooms have their entrances from an enclosed yard, which improves the security and privacy of the house.

Figure 12.8 External-access type.

Figure 12.9 Courtyard type.

Corridor Type

All rooms have an entrance from a corridor running through the house as shown in Figure 12.10. This type provides good security and privacy. A long corridor, however, often tends to be dark and may be thought of as wasted space.

Figure 12.10 Corridor type.

Central-room Type

Instead of a corridor, a central room such as the meeting or dining room provides access to the other rooms as shown in Figure 12.11. Security is very good in this type of house, but the central room must be large enough to allow space for both circulation and the furnishings for its primary purpose.

Figure 12.11 Central-room type.

Functional requirements for different rooms and spaces

Farm families have different needs for rooms and space depending on their daily activities, way of life and financial resources. The following recommendations cover the basic needs for a subsistence farm family and range on up to the high standards of an affluent commercial farmer. Accordingly, a design should be chosen which will best fill the needs for each farm family.


One of the most obvious purposes of a house is to provide shelter for comfortable sleeping. The sleeping rooms need to be clean, well-ventilated, dry and well-lit by day. The minimum floor area for a bedroom should ordinarily not be less than 9m with a minimum floor area of 3m for each person accommodated. In hot humid climates cross ventilation is essential, while in highland areas it may be difficult to have both adequate ventilation and at the same time protection against the cold nights. The protection of windows and ventilation holes with insect mesh is recommended in mosquito infested areas.

Meeting and Rest

An important part of African daily life is a place to meet to talk with family and friends or simply to sit down to rest. To a large extent, this activity takes place outdoors in the shade of a tree, a separate shelter or a verandah. In order to function well, this outdoor space should not be less than the recommendation given in Figure 12.13.

There should also be some indoor space such as a living room for similar activities during the evening and inclement weather. A room with a minimum floor space of 12 to 15m, furnished with chairs and tables will ordinarily be sufficient. Although not an ideal solution, this room can be used for sleeping by children or older boys. If the room is to be more elaborately furnished, an increase in floor space of up to 25 to 30m may be needed. Cupboards, book shelves, a TV, fireplace and other amenities may be included.

Figure 12.12 Recommended sleeping spaces.

Figure 12.13 Minimum space for outdoor meeting/rest.

Figure12.14 Recommended indoor space for meeting/rest.

Taking Meals

Traditionally meals are taken either indoors or outdoors utilizing the same space as for meeting and resting. Dining can be a strictly private matter (out of sight of neighbours) and even in separate groups (men, women, children). In contrast, other families may eat together as a group with no particular desire for privacy. Depending on the culture, in one home it may not be appropriate to have a separate dining room, while in another this facility will be appreciated.

Figure 12.15 Space for taking meals indoors.

Figure 12.16 Working levels for food preparation and cooking.

Figure 12.17 Recommended arrangements for cooking.

Preparing and Cooking Food

Again, cultural and tribal customs may determine whether food is prepared and cooked inside or outside of the house. In areas where nights are cold, it may be desirable to cook inside to conserve the warmth, while in warm humid areas it is preferable to cook outside the dwelling. In either case, the cooking area should be kept clean and raised above the ground for basic hygienic conditions.

Outdoor cooking facilities in a separate shelter or on a small verandah need to be protected from sun, rain, dust and animals. Food preparation and cooking done inside the house require good ventilation, enough openings for lighting and nearby access to the backyard.

Figure 12.18 Storage of food and kitchen equipment.

Figure 12.19 Storage for clothing and bedding.


In a farm dwelling, space is needed to store foodstuff, kitchen equipment (pots, pans, dishes), clothing and bedding, fuel (firewood, charcoal), and perhaps some small farm tools (hoes, spades, pangas). The small things like foodstuff, kitchen equipment and textiles may be stored in the rooms for cooking, sleeping and meeting. Larger items need a separate store which can be another room in the house or part of an out-building. Kerosene should be stored outside of the house.

Kitchen utensils and foodstuff kept in pots or containers should be raised off the ground for storage. They may be either hung from the roof, placed on racks or shelves or in kitchen cabinets. For larger quantities of grain or produce, a separate store will be needed.

Clothing and bedding and small personal belongings should be stored in a clean, dry place, well-protected from dust. Boxes and built-in shelves are adequate and inexpensive. Cupboards are more convenient and more dust proof but are somewhat more expensive.

Recommendations for space for separate storerooms for foodstuff and larger items such as fuel and equipment are given in Figure 12.20.

Figure 12.20 Recommended spaces for separate storerooms.


Personal washing (ablution) and washing of dishes and clothes is done either inside or outside the dwelling, depending on the availability and source of water (stream, lake, well, piped). If washing is done inside the house, it is important to take care of the waste water.

Well-drained surfaces and a properly constructed soak away will avoid muddy areas and breeding places for mosquitos. Easily cleaned, waterproof materials should be used inside the house. Floors should slope towards a drain leading to a soakaway.

For washing dishes and clothes outside, an easily cleaned, hard surface of at least 3m will be necessary. An open shelter and a work bench are recommended improvements. Clothes washing inside the house is usually done in the bath or a separate utility room, while dishes are washed in a kitchen sink or in a basin.

Personal washing, if not done in a nearby stream or lake, can be done in a simple shelter constructed near the home. A drain and soakaway are essential. Section Aqua Privies in Chapter 14 discusses and illustrates a combination bathhouse and privy. Personal washing done inside the house requires a well-ventilated room finished with waterproof and easily cleaned materials. If piped water is available, a flush toilet is a desirable amenity. A septic tank and drainage field will be necessary with a flush toilet. Figure 12.21 shows space requirements and facility arrangements for various combinations ranging from a simple washroom to complete bath and toilet facilities.

Figure 12.21 Recommended space for indoor toilet and bathing facilities.

Reading and Writing

Education of the rural population is increasing steadily and places to read and write are becoming more essential for the farm home, especially for children going to school. While the sleeping room may provide the best place in terms of privacy, the meeting room and verandah are possible but less appropriate places for intensive studying. The farmer also needs a place to store documents and records and attend to the farm business. The dining table in combination with a cupboard is sufficient for the small farmer, while on a large farm, a separate office of about 9m of floor space may be required. Good natural lighting as well as artificial lighting are essential wherever reading and writing are done.


The traditional African house has an entrance protected from wind, rain and sun by a roof overhang which also provides privacy for the family. In a low cost farm dwelling the entrance may be combined with the verandah or the main meeting and resting room and is often used for additional storage space for equipment, farm clothing, bicycle, etc. A larger more modern farm dwelling should have at least two entrances, one at the front of the house where visitors are received and another near the kitchen or utility room which can be used for coming and going in the performance of daily work around the home and farmstead.

Improvement of existing dwellings

In many cases, improvements can be made to existing homes similar to those shown in Figure 12.22 at little or no cost. For example, separating the animals from the dwelling and installing a well designed latrine should improve sanitary conditions. Developing a nearby water supply of adequate quantity and good quality will make the women's life easier. A mud stove will save fire wood and contribute to forest resource conservation. However, the waste heat from a traditional fireplace may be needed for warming the home in cool climates.

Another improvement desirable in many rural homes is additional backfilling with soil to raise the floor level to 10 to 15 cm above the outside ground level. Unfortunately this will sometimes make ceiling and door heights undesirably low. Cut-off drains will also help to prevent surface water from entering the home. Although it may be difficult to install in an existing house, a waterproof foundation will be helpful in preventing moisture from penetrating the floor and lower walls.

Contents - Previous - Next