Eye to eye with Madagascar's lemurs

6 June 2018

Blue eyed black lemurs- female and male


"Madagascar is unique in having such a large number of primate species that occur nowhere else in the world, but it is also unique in the extreme level of threat these animals face." Christoph Schwitzer, Ph.D., Director of Conservation, Bristol Zoological Society.

Madagascar is a habitat quite unlike any other in the world and is home to hundreds of indigenous species found only on the subtropical island. Bristol Zoo has been working with the Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park in North West Madagascar since 2006 and participates in specialised captive breeding programmes and is a world leader in lemur research. However, of the 60 species of lemur found in Madagascar, all are on the endangered list, and some of which are critical.

In June 2017 we were invited by Bristol Zoo to collaborate on an exciting new project on Madagascar’s Sahamalaza Peninsula to develop a new research facility within the remote Ankarafa Forest to support their research and education programme.

The project is my first as a Project Architect. I have been given the opportunity to work with a Zoo, an impassioned and engaged client with an agenda that is aligned with many of my own beliefs. The project is in such a remote location that it will have to be completely self-sufficient once built and as such will demand the best in sustainable design. The wider-reaching educational and economic effects of the project will be significant, both locally and internationally, allowing me to play a small part in its important legacy and hopefully help secure a future for many species of lemur.

With initial project meetings held in the lemur enclosure of the zoo, in the Giraffe Meeting Room (above the giraffe house with our heads level with the giraffe’s) and walking around the wolf den, the realities and importance of field research were made clear.

The largest threat to lemurs in the wild is habitat destruction (caused by man) and also subsistence hunting. Malagasy communities hunt lemurs for survival rather than commercial gain. The research facility will provide an opportunity to deepen our understanding of lemurs in the wild and engage the Malagasy scientific and local community in the work. It will also create opportunities for education and jobs and aim to reduce the local economic reliance on forest clearing and cash crops or the need to hunt lemurs for food.

Focussing on lemur conservation, the Ankarafa Field Station attempts to gather vital infromation about three particular species: the blue-eyed black lemur, the Sahamalaza sportive lemur and the Sambiriano mouse lemur, as well as recording information about the Madagascar sacred ibis and other indigenous species.

Working in a small team alongside landscape architects Grant Associates and engineers Buro Happold, we, on behalf of the Feilden Foundation, were tasked with designing a self-sufficient camp where local researchers, international PhD students, guides and tourists could sleep, eat and work.

The site is located in a particularly remote and challenging area and can only be accessed by boat followed by a two hour hike from the nearest beach village. During the rainy season the area becomes totally inaccessible.

To minimise the amount of material brought to site we chose to source the primary structure from the ground. Using win spoil from the foundations, earth is compressed to form an Interlocking Stabilised Soil Block (ISSB). We have used ISSB previously, in schools projects in Uganda where it proved to be a very effective system. This innovative method does not require mortar and the strength is achieved through the brick’s profile and interlocking nature. The bricks are sun dried and so do not need to use timber to be fired in a kiln. Over the past 50 years Madagascar has been significantly scarred by deforestation, losing over 40% of its original forest, consequently every effort was made to reduce the amount of timber used in the construction. Where we have used timber to create a structural frame for the roof we have ensured that it is kept ‘in-the-round’ maximising the potential of the tree and reducing waste.

Given the isolated nature of the site, we had to ensure that the camp was self-sufficient and able to function sustainably without any reliance on expensive generators and other non-renewable energy sources. Where possible the scheme implements passive strategies, maximising the environmental potential of the site and the chosen construction materials.

The building is limited to 4m deep and through perforated ‘hit and miss’ brickwork allows cross ventilation, delivering cool fresh air into the rooms. Projecting eaves provide much needed solar shading and also help shed water away from the compressed soil blocks (the climate in Madagascar is very different to that of Uganda, and the soil bricks here need to be protected from the rain.) The earth walls provide a degree of thermal mass, creating radiant surfaces that help to dampen the daily internal temperature fluctuations. A hybrid roof construction of corrugated metal and traditional roof palm creates an insulated breathable construction, providing protection from the heavy rain and able to successfully deal with the strong cyclonic winds. Photovoltaic panels on the roof capture enough solar energy to run low energy artificial lighting, power water pumps and charge research equipment.

Not only can little be brought to site, but the station must also manage its own waste. Several composting toilets provide a sustainable means of breaking down human waste which in turn can then be used as natural fertiliser within the adjacent kitchen garden. Supplemented with ash from the kitchen stove, after a year, this nutrient rich compost will help grow native fruits and vegetables which can be harvested to feed locals, researchers and visiting students.

The educational impact of the project will be as important as the building work. We are working with Bristol Zoo’s existing network to ensure that the station can continue to support the guides and volunteer researchers who already work in the Ankarafa forest. In the construction of the building and the water tower and pump we will be engaging local workers; these new skills will allow them to find future employment as well as equipping them with the necessary knowledge to help maintain the camp in the future.

For every international research student posted to Ankarafa, a Malagasy equivalent must also be funded, according to Malagasy laws. This enlightened piece of legislation increases the local knowledge base and will provide social mobility in a remote part of the world.

And for myself, as a young architect, the opportunity to lead a project such as this is inspirational. Working with like-minded young professionals across the project team, I can develop vital skills to support my future career and bring a fresh perspective to our commercial projects. I’ll be going to Madagascar in July to help get the project off the ground, and hopefully spot some of those rare lemurs.

Michael Lewis


  1. Visualisation of the new research station in the Ankarafa forest
  2. There are eight species of endangered lemur living in the Northwest of Madagascar. Monitoring and research at the station will help scientists to learn more about these animals and preserve lemur populations from illegal activities as well as slash and burn agriculture and forest fires.
  3. Representing 65% of the Critically Endangered Blue-eyed Black Lemur’s (Eulemur flavifrons) habitat, preserving the forests of North West Madagascar intact is critical to the species’ survival prospects.
  4. The research station is very much part of the forest, and part of the project will include trials of planting and reforestation.
  5. Aerial view of the proposed research station.

Photographs © Andrew Grant / Grant AssociatesVisualisations © Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios / Grant Associates