Zuhura House

Zuhura - named after the Venus star so often visible in Lamu's beautiful night sky. A traditional Swahili house in Lamu's historic Mtamwini neighbourhood and our first Lamu project, carried out in 2006 and 2007.

When we first saw what was to become Zuhura House three or four years ago it was a habitable but very unloved traditional small Lamu town house, which had been owned by the same local family for many decades.  The elderly lady owner had, as custom often dictates in Lamu, been given the house as a wedding present by her father in 1958.  She had retired to Mombasa after the death of her husband several years previously and was now keen to sell.

'Daka' porch before and after
(click to enlarge)

The house was of a traditional layout, with three downstairs galleries and a small courtyard at the front of the house, accessed by a somewhat mean and cramped daka porch.  A narrow staircase led up from the courtyard to a mezzanine kitchen area and flat roof on which two or three ramshackle makuti thatched rooms had been built.  While the house appeared to be in reasonable structural condition, much of the lime plaster interior was in very poor condition, and several areas of traditional decorative plasterwork and wall niches had been covered over or destroyed.

Over a period of months, plans were drawn up, planning permission sought and approved to extend the house by two storeys – on the first floor to build a large master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, together with a double guest bedroom, and small guest bathroom under the stairs leading to the second floor.  On the second floor a large living room with adjoining small study, both crowned with large makuti thatched roof, a roof terrace to the front of the house overlooking the courtyard and small ‘teahouse’ or occasional bedroom above the daka and spare bedroom tower, with flat roof above to hold a rooftop water tank.

Ground floor gallery before and after
(click to enlarge)

To the rear of the house was a large but very overgrown and rubbish-filled garden plot, which, after several months of tortuous negotiations, we were finally able to agree to rent from the neighbouring owners.   Plans were made to build a large makuti thatched dining terrace adjoining the house, but meanwhile the garden needed to be thoroughly cleaned out and prepared for use as a place to store building materials, to mix cement and to cut and to plane roofing timbers.

The very first step of the renovation was to remove the elderly and decaying boriti mangrove wood roof beams downstairs, and to replace then with new and much stronger mwangati hardwood beams, before any building work could take place above.  Then came the process of ‘opening up’ the downstairs rooms and galleries in oder to create a more spacious and light interior -  increasing the height of existing archways, replacing old windows with new ones, removing old doors and creating larger and higher open archways and making a large open doorway into the garden.

Garden before and after
(click to enlarge)

Every inch of old and crumbling plasterwork downstairs had to be chipped off by hand – and this process revealed that at sometime in the past, substantial parts of the walls had been roughly repaired with mud and earth and sand – udongo in Kiswahili - and then roughly plastered over – these areas would have to be hollowed out and the resulting holes filled with a much stronger combination of coral stone and lime mortar.  In addition, several downstairs walls were increased in depth and strength in order to better support the future upper storeys of the house.

At the same time, the painstaking process began of renovating and recreating the substantial areas of traditional carved plasterwork and ‘zidaka’ niches in the first two downstairs galleries.  We also designed two large zuhura plaster friezes with central niches for each end wall of the first downstairs gallery – these were adapted from a traditional star pattern often used in older Lamu houses.

Garden terrace before and after
(click to enlarge)

One other major task was to excavate the deep shaft below the ‘long drop’ lavatory – and to remove several decades of accumulated waste.  The customary method of long drop excavation and extraction of waste is to dig a deep parallel shaft in the street outside the house (latrine pits tend to be sunk beside an exterior wall which runs beside a road – for ease of access) and then break through into the existing pit and extract the waste through the new shaft.  The waste that we took out turned out to be excellent fertiliser for the garden.   Another large hole needed to be dug in the front courtyard and a big water reservoir tank constructed and connected to the town’s water mains – from this tank water would be pumped up to a rooftop tank which would feed the kitchen and bathroom and other taps.

Several months later, with the ground floor now considerably strengthened and renewed, construction of two upper floors could begin.  First, the entire front daka entrance porch needed to be demolished, in order to build a larger porch, large enough and strong enough to support a double guest bedroom on the first floor above it.  In the courtyard, a curious structure consisting of cramped staircase with storeroom and lavatory below and mezzanine kitchen above needed also to be knocked down, the lavatory shaft filled in with concrete and rubble and a more substantial and easier-to-negotiate staircase built in its place.

Ground floor gallery before and after
(click to enlarge)

Planning the upper storeys was complicated by the need to leave a statutory gap of six feet between the new structure and the neighbouring large house owned by a former chief of the town.  This meant that the supporting exterior wall for the two upper storeys would need to be built across downstairs ceilings, rather than above the outer structural wall.  This neccesitated installing a strong 6x6 mwangati beam in the ceiling below, and two steel reinforced beams on the flat roof above before construction of the external wall could take place.  It was also important for the new construction not to become structurally involved with the small and very dilapidated house that adjoined the entrance porch and courtyard – a building whose strength and support could not be relied upon.

Building the two new upper storeys was a relatively quick and easy process in comparison with the renovation of the ground floor.  First the existing structures on the first floor roof were demolished the roof surface leveled and strengthened. Two steel-reinforced concrete ringbeams were used to encircle the new construction on each floor, and steel-reinforced concrete pillars were built at significant corners of the new construction, in order to give strength and stability to the upper storeys..  New walls were built of coral limestone blocks mined on nearby Manda Island, and roof beams and lintels of mwangati hardwood placed above them, and an eight inch thick concrete floor laid above to complete the second floor .  Windows and doors were ordered and fitted, and work began on installing brand new electrical and plumbing systems throughout the house. Work also began on 'outfitting' the interior of the house - building kitchen and pantry shelves and units, bedroom wardrobes and baraza seats for the roof terrace, 3rd floor living room and garden terrace.

Courtyard and stairs before and after
(click to enlarge)

With the two upper storeys completed and the big makuti roof topped-out above, work could then start on plastering the whole house, exterior first and from the top downwards.  Tall scaffolds of boriti mangrove poles were built around the house and plastering began section by section, wall by wall – first a layer of grey cement some inches thick to give a smooth and uniform surface upon which the final layer of white ‘niru’ plaster could be laid.   We chose a particularly tough and durable mixture of white cement and lime as the final wall finish.  It was important to let this dry slowly and uniformly in order to obtain the most attractive and weatherproof finish, and this necessitated protecting it from the worst of the sun’s rays and regular gentle applications of water in order to stop cracking and discolouration. 

Kitchen before and after
(click to enlarge)

A week or two after plastering, with the ‘niru’ dry, the process of weatherproofing the outside of the house started – this involved sanding the entire exterior of the house with fine sandpaper and then applying two or more layers of wax floorpolish – the resulting gleaming white finish is not only quite beautiful, but also as waterproof and reslient as it can possibly be in a harsh tropical climate such as Lamu’s.

With water and electrical systems in place, the same laborious plastering process could then take place in the interior of the house, again from the top downwards – first walls, then floors, which, after numerous experiments with pigments and colours, we chose to plaster in a fawn coloured cement and lime mixture.  

With interior walls and floors finally dried and sanded and waxed, the very final process could take place – the sanding and waxing and polishing of all the beams and woodwork throughout the house – interior and exterior.  While many old houses have beams painted in the traditional Lamu colours of red, black and white, we decided to leave the beams their beautiful natural colour, simply treating them with two layers of wood preservative. And while the larger cross-beams and lintels displayed the customary inlaid white lines, we opted to keep them plain and unpainted too.

House (from garden) before and after
(click to enlarge)

Zuhura is our house in Lamu – the place we spend most of our time on the island - and over the last year or two we have loved furnishing it in typically eclectic Swahili style – with all kinds of furniture and ornaments picked up in local curio shops or commissioned from Lamu’s excellent carpenters, brass lamps we found in Mombasa and Cairo, African artifacts from Lamu’s wonderful Gallery Baraka and elsewhere, traditional Islamic masharabya screens from Egypt, chunky decorative brass door bolts and taps from Morocco, old photographs and prints from Nairobi, colourful old crockery imported from Europe and the Far East and much valued on the Swahili coast, and cushions, mattresses and curtains made from colourful local kickoi and kitenge fabrics.

We wanted a secluded ‘jungly’ garden too – and in less than a year we had one. As well as the existing banana and papaya trees, we planted almost every plant, flower and tree we could find here – and everything has thrived. Red, white, pink and yellow bougainvillea now climb the coral rag walls of the garden and overflow into the narrow streets outside. The several palm trees we planted seemed to do nothing for a year – and then shot up several feet in a month or two. Sweet jasmine and ylang ylang give off delicious scents – particularly at night. Red hibiscus, white frangipani, lemon grass and papyrus have flourished too – as well as a variety of cacti and succulents, and the purple, pink, white and blue flowers and shrubs common on the island. The garden is also home to an ever-increasing tribe of tortoises, to a very vocal kitten called Songombele (‘jump forward’ in Kiswahili) - and of course to Ratty our hyperactive local Basenji dog.

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