In South-East Nigeria, building materials typically consisted of:
Loam is a result of processing building earth and it varies considerably over the Igbo-speaking region. It ranges from the red, clay like, viscous material that is generally regarded as the best to the greyish soil which requires an inner reinforcement of wattle to be used.
The earth was usually dug in the rainy season from pits very near the building site. This soil was broken into small lumps with hoes and left in the pits till the next rainfall channels were run into the pit to add extra water to it. When wet enough, the clay was stomped to the required consistency by young workers who added more clay or water as required.
The mass was then scooped out, piled on the ground and covered with banana leaves in order to drain the excess fluid. If the mass got too hard, water was added and the stomping done again. By the beginning of the dry season there would be enough properly matured loam to start building. This mass was sometimes strengthened by adding fine gravel to the mix.
The rain forests, which extend very much into Igbo territory, are an excellent source of various types of wood suitable for different purposes. Iroko and ukpi are used in the construction of beams and posts in buildings for the rich, mangrove-which is extremely hard and termite resistant is eagerly sought for building houses and both the ubili and oil palm provide construction materials from all their parts- timber, fronds and fibres. Bamboos are also used in construction for roof construction.
The midrib of palm fronds were split and shredded to create material for ropes for lashing the framework of wattle and daub walls while the fronds were used for any matting required. Various lianas and creepers also provide binding material.
Iron was not so much a material used in construction. As far as studies have shown, iron was employed only in the creation of hinges and tools.
The structure of the wall was determined by the quality of earth available and as the soil was distributed almost evenly with the good red earth in the northern parts of Igbo land and the sandy greyish soil in the south, there were two different methods employed in wall construction- they were either erected in thick solid layers of processed loam or made using the wattle and daub method.
The walls were usually built on foundations that were 0.15 to 0.45 metres deep and the thickness corresponding to the thickness of the walls- 0.3 to 0.4 metres. The processed loam was brought to the builder in kneaded lumps about 0.3 metres in diameter, then thrown into position and pressed until a layer about 0.3 to 0.5 metres high was achieved. When dry successive layers were added until the desired height was reached. Sometimes each layer was tapered making the successive one overlap and spread over it. This overlap served as a binder between the separate strata of the wall which was later smoothed over with a coat of plaster.
Walls were organically connected with the roof but hardly carried the purlins and rafters directly- this was usually carried out by forked posts.
The wattle and daub method involved a standard wattle which consisted of a number of vertical rods placed about 0.15 metres apart with three stronger forked posts supporting the roof at the ridge and the edges. These were all driven into the ground below the base of the foundation. To these rods were bound horizontal laths using creepers. With the wattle created, small lumps of loam were pressed into the frame and plastered on both sides. The surface was then flattened and smoothened with a wooden float and crushed stalks respectively.
The standard element of Igbo roof construction was the forked post. It was generally made of various materials and was either driven into the ground or into circular or rectangular bases of loam. Forked posts carried horizontal beams, purlins elongated eaves and could be fixed clear of the walls or within them in the latter case bringing extra stability to the wall. Purlins and ridge beams were made from strong trunks of slender trees or split trunks of thick ones or from solid bamboos.
The ribs of palm fronds also served as rafters when they were thick and battens when they were thin and were the roof was made from heavy layers of grass thatch, midribs were used for both rafters and battens and were set close together in parallel rows.
The battens were set on top of and beneath the rafters and secured with cords made from creepers. A gable roof projecting over the walls was common for rectangular buildings and only became conical when and ellipsoidical veranda was attached to the building.
In thatching the roofs, palm fronds or grasses were used by matting or closely binding them. These were then arranged in layers one above the other until the desired thickness and shape is acquired.
Floors were raised about 0.5 metres above ground level to prevent flooding during torrential downpours. Floors were usually made with good red building earth which is first stamped down, smoothed over and then beaten down with a mallet or the lower part of a palm frond. Sometimes cow dung or palm oil was used to give the floor sheen.
Ceilings were only built in multi storey houses which were popular in the Enugu section of Igbo land. This upper floor was used mostly for storage but sometimes served as sleeping quarters. During the war, it served as shelter for the women and children while the men were out fighting. Some upper floor spaces were secret hiding spaces created with a strong wooden construction of joists and thick planks and plastered over to blend in with the rest of the building.
The doors to the Igbo house were also works of decorative art more often than not sporting intricate carvings to give the illusion of panelling on the doors. They were made
from whole blocks of wood which were chipped until the desired thickness was achieved. While some doorways were the standard rectangle, some doorways especially those into the compound took the form of an inverted triangle. For doorways within the building, thick curtains of straw were attached to a horizontal rod and fixed to the door head.
Dmochowski Z.R. An introduction to Nigerian Traditional Architecture
Ethnographica Ltd., London 1990, 3 vols
Frobenius, Leo The Voice of Africa
London 1913, 2vols
S.O. Izomoh Nigerian Traditional Architecture
S.M.O. Aka and Brothers Press, Benin City 1994
Art And Architecture Of The Igbo People – Culture – Nairaland