Thatching is the craft of building a roof with dry vegetation such as straw, reeds, grass or leaves and layering the vegetation so as to shed water away from the inner roof. It is a very old roofing method and has been used in both tropical and temperate climates. Thatch is still employed by builders in developing countries, usually with low-cost, local vegetation.
By contrast in some developed countries it is now the choice of affluent people who desire a rustic look for their home, would like a more ecologically friendly roof, or who have purchased an originally thatched abode. Thatching methods have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation and Royjan can still remember his grandfather teaching him as a young boy how to re-thatch the family home roof on the farm.
Thatching in the Tropics
In equatorial and tropical countries thatch is the prevalent local material for roofs, and often walls. There are diverse building techniques from the ancient Hawaiian “Hale” shelter made from the local “ti” leaves or pili grass of fan palms, to the “Na Bure” a Fijian home with layered reed walls and sugar cane leaf roofs.
Africa is obviously a place that is synonymous with traditional thatched roofing found almost everywhere south of the Sahara. There is no exception in Kenya as we have thatched grass houses called “Isimba” amongst the Luhya in Western Kenya to the “Kibanda” a local palm leaf thatched hut made from ”Makuti” along the entire coastal region, including right here in Watamu.
What is Makuti?
Makuti is the thatching pieces made from the naturally drying palm leaves of the Coconut palm Cocos nucifera. It is a very eco friendly or “green” building material as it is made from leaves that are naturally wilting on the palm tree and therefore harvesting does not affect the parent plant in any way. The individual pieces (or tiles) have to be weaved first. Local women in the villages usually do this during their spare time. THL insist wherever possible to purchase makuti pieces from the closest villages to the roofing projects that are undertaken in order to support those communities.
Royjan first made his name in the Makuti roofing trade in the mid 1990’s, while working as the Site Manager during the construction of Legend Casino in Diani.
It was his specific understanding of the way Makuti needs to be laid in order to get the best out of it that got him the job of Site Manager to build Bluebay Beach Resort in Zanzibar.
Having brought all kinds of specialists from Europe to get the job done, it was up to Royjan and his team to get the massive hotel public area roof built in Makuti. The job was an outstanding success!
Many years since then, and a lot more makuti roofs later, there is no doubt that the THL team under Royjan’s leadership is now very experienced in Makuti roofing.
Having built several makuti roofs in Watamu, all successfully, here are some points that we at THL recommend that you think about.
- Lifespan. The lifespan of a thatched roof is dependent on the skill of the thatcher and if you ask us at THL to do it for you then you don’t need to worry about how it is laid. Remember makuti is a natural material and so will only last several years no mater what you try to treat it with.
- Climate. In our case we have been in the business of building makuti roofs along the coast for many years and so realise the extremes of weather the coastal climate can throw at a building in the Watamu area.
- Materials. The quality of the materials used is important. It has taken us years of trial and error to learn about this. There is a very big difference between good and bad makuti.
- Pitch. Very importantly the pitch of the roof needs to be designed correctly. If one does not design the pitch right then the roof will leak no matter what you try to do to it.
- Air. A makuti roof needs to breath. A lack of understanding of this can get you into a lot of trouble with this kind of roof.
- Ridges and Valleys. It is important to understand how to fit these into a makuti roof. In some cases valleys just don’t work and we have learned through experience that these need to be very carefully designed into the roof to be successful.
Pros and Cons
Like with all building materials there are arguments on both sides regarding the use of makuti roofing. We have met those that love it as well as those that loathe it in equal measure. Our position on it is simple. It all comes down to design. Some houses need a makuti roof to complete the Style. It is very difficult to get a Swahili style house or an eco-friendly lodge without using makuti somewhere in its design. Here are our main arguments for and against its use.
- It’s Eco-friendly. Because makuti is a 100% natural, untreated building material it is very ”green” and so not harmful to the environment in any way.
- It’s Community Supportive. Due to the way it is prepared it directly supports the people in the local communities, in both providing jobs for the weavers and in cash for the palm tree owners.
- It’s Cheep. Makuti thatching in smaller roofs is very economical indeed. Few roofs can match it from a cost perspective. Note the word “smaller”, big makuti roofs need serious support poles, sometimes even logs. This can bring the cost up dramatically. - It’s Light. Due to Makuti being lightweight it can be used on structures that would not take a heavy roof.
- It’s Cool. Probably the most common main reason for its use, sitting under a makuti roof, even under the mid-day heat is not hot at all.
- It’s Tropical. Aesthetically nothing brings to mind a tropical feel than a beach, a pina colada and a makuti-thatched roof.
- It’s Temporary. You may ask how is this a benefit but sometimes for building approval purposes the temporary nature of a makuti roof will allow for approval to be obtained where a more permanent structure will not.
- It’s Flexible. There are design challenges that have so many twists and turns that few roofing materials are as flexible as makuti when it comes to having to roof the curvy building.
- It’s Quick. We can knock up a makuti roof in Watamu very quickly indeed. Much faster than any other kind of roof.
- Fire. Makuti burns like a cardboard box! Probably the biggest reason why some people stay away from its use, not only because of how easily it burns but also the huge premiums that are charged by the insurance companies. It is worth checking this out, as some insurance firms no longer cover makuti roofs.
- Wind. Unfortunately makuti is not the best roofing material in very windy situations. Depending on where you want to build your house in Watamu this is something to think about.
- Replacing. Because makuti is a natural building material it will eventually need to be replaced. We say 6 to 8 years with no valleys on a good pitch. Valleys maybe every second year and ridges every third, usually just after the rainy season.
- Dudus. This is the local Swahili slang name for insects. Again because makuti is natural it attracts all sorts of creatures that try to live in it. For some people this is unacceptable, while for others it is just a refuge for the local wildlife. I guess it depends on the individual.
- Rain Collection. This is something that unfortunately you can’t do with makuti roofing. At least not for drinking. The Makuti thatch stains the water like tea. For use in the garden it is fine but we also do not recommend in the shower or toilet as the makuti stained water stains the tiles and porcelain.
Even really good thatch will require frequent maintenance. In Watamu we normally say that a makuti roof should last 6 to 8 years, and re-ridging and re-valleying in particular will be required several times during the lifespan of the thatch. Covering the thatch ridge with galvanised iron sheeting is not recommended by us, as this will slow evaporation, introduce rot and reduce its longevity.
Thatch was falling out of favour in much of the industrialised world not because of fire, but because large roof thatching was becoming very expensive, good thatchers were hard to find and alternative cheaper and easier to install materials had become more readily available. This situation, however, is slowly changing. There are about 60,000 thatched roofs in the UK today and many more are being built every year. Makuti roofs along the Kenya coast are also gaining in popularity and Watamu is no exception.
Makuti roofing is a specialist roofing trade. If you want to put up a good makuti roof that is going to give you all the satisfaction you want, without any of the problems that can arise, then you need to have it done by a specialist.
THL is that specialist in Watamu. If you want to fit a good Makuti roof on your house in Watamu then give us a call and we will be more than happy to make sure you get what you want.