How to Build A Mud House

Extraordinary engineering goes into a mud hut, as I learned from “Doctor” when he showed me his new home as it was under construction in the village of Siankaba on the Zambezi River. Many of the details he explained found their way into my novel, Heart of Diamonds.

Doctor's New HouseIn Siankaba, just as where I live in New York, no project begins without a building permit issued by the appropriate authorities. Before Doctor could build his new home, he had to get permission from the village headman since all land belongs to the village. Doctor’s old house, by the way, won’t be sold. It will belong to the next person who needs a home as adjudged by the headman.

Once the site is approved, it is cleared and leveled, then holes where the walls will be are dug about a foot deep and two feet apart. They will hold upright studs of straight mopane logs about four inches thick and perhaps eight feet long. They’re held in the foundation holes with tamped earth, not cement.

Headers of similar size longs are lashed to the top of the studs. Thin sticks and reeds are woven through the studs, with holes left for doors and windows. Along with the headers, they provide stiffness to the framework. They also serve as lath to hold the mud which comes next.

The mud is more than just dirt and water. It’s mixed with soil from the gigantic termite mounds that dot the countryside—earth that has passed through the insect’s digestive tract. It contains a hardening agent that enables the mounds to withstand rains and attacks by predators for a hundred years or more. The walls of a well-built hut will be as hard and durable as concrete once they dry in the hot equatorial sun.

Mopane joists are lashed to the wall frame and a roof is laid on top. It may be tin, which lasts 20+ years, or thatch, which is good for seven but costs considerably less. Depending on the financial health of the builder, doors and windows may be nothing more than cloth or canvas draped over the openings or prefab manufactured items with glass and locks.

–Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds


4 Responses to How to Build A Mud House

  1. Morgan says:

    I am hoping to build a mud-home when I am older and out of the house. I want to live eco-friendly so this was my choice. I want to use all eco-friendly products and eat “green”. Do you think this is the best kind of home I should build for my eco-plan? Please reply as soon as possible, I am researching everything about this today. Thank you for your time!


    Ps) do you have any good sites I could visit that have information about living completely “green” and house building/house designing ideas?

  2. Hi Morgan,
    It’s hard to say whether this type of house is best for you because a lot depends on the climate, type of soil, and availability of materials where you live. It’s a good option in many parts of the Africa, however, because the materials are readily at hand.
    Best of luck with your idea.

  3. LorriAnne says:

    Do you think that this would work well in Bolivia? I have researched about termites there, and they are plentiful, with one daycare being built where several termite mounds were found. They didn’t use the termite mound earth, though. I want to move to Bolivia, and build from what is available on whatever land I buy. I am looking into mud homes because they are more insect proof than what i think other styles of homes would be. I am wondering about this in Bolivia, though, because of the rainfall level. Any help you can give me, I’d appreciate.



    • I would think this type of house would work well in Bolivia if the earth were mixed with soil from the termite mounds. There is a great deal of rain in Zambia, too, but the termite soil mixture becomes as hard as concrete when it dries. The original mounds themselves can last for a hundred years–and they don’t have roofs!

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