For decades, when people built themselves new homes in Ghana’s capital, Accra, you could be pretty sure it would be a compound house.
These mini-complexes of houses — grouped around shaded courtyards set back from the street — were the building blocks of modern Accra, bringing together extended families that had migrated from the countryside. The compound offered close kinship connections and semi-private space, even in the heart of the big city.
But more recently, these complexes have experienced a change in character and status. As international-style apartments and villas for nuclear families become the preferred housing type, the compound houses are increasingly being divided into smaller, tighter rooms, mixing strangers together and becoming places for poorer tenants with few options.
That was not the intention when compound houses started to cluster in Accra when the city urbanized in the late 19th century. As Accra grew, following its naming as capital of the Gold Coast in 1877, new residents to the city constructed homes similar to the ones they inhabited in their home villages.
“Rural versions of the compound house were deconstructed and translated for more urban settings as cities like Accra densified,” said Bushra Mohamed, co-founder of the research, design and architecture partnership Studio Nyali.
The compound houses reflect long-standing building traditions in the region, with similar layouts found in Nigeria’s Igbo family houses or the sunken courtyard homes of Tunisia’s Matmata. They have echoes of Ghana’s oldest known houses, built under the Ashanti Empire that peaked during the 18th century but was largely destroyed by the British during the Anglo-Ashanti wars of the 19th century. A collection of surviving UNESCO World Heritage-listed buildings near Ghana’s second urban center, Kumasi, were also designed as adjacent units surrounding a courtyard, similar to modern-day compound houses.
Urban life transformed the model into something new. With the growing influence of European colonization, the typology started to borrow from Western-style architecture. Compound houses started to include two-story buildings around their courtyard, instead of just bungalows, while the street-facing wing might adopt pseudo-European features, for example shifting from timber to stone. Gradually the form started to adopt a more urban form, with some compound houses starting to incorporate storefronts.
The houses in a compound usually cover about 100 square meters (just over 1,000 square feet), in the form of three or four blockwork bungalows framing an open courtyard. The units themselves typically have 10 to 15 rooms combined, with tin roofs extending into the yard to provide a veranda under which to cook or entertain. While the more upscale compound houses have separate facilities for each unit, others will share a bathing area and kitchen, and maybe a bucket latrine.
Initially, these houses were built by extended families, with the wealthier members constructing a complex in which others could then live rent-free. Historically, a central unit might be occupied by a patriarch, who would assign the annexes to each of his wives and their children.
Communal activities took place in the courtyard where children played and women cooked. It would also be a space to socialize and hold family events, ranging from meetings to Ghanaian funerals. The compound thus became a center for family and community organization and identity, even a spiritual place. Architect and Ph.D. candidate Kuukuwa Manful recalls her childhood:
We lived in one of these compound houses in Accra that had four buildings: one for the landlord, another for one of his wives, one for another member of the family and one for my family. I loved that house and playing with the kids from the other families. I was a picky eater and sometimes I’d just go and eat in someone else’s house.
This cozy extended family structure has been stretched by dramatic urbanization. Between 1984 and 2019, Ghana’s urban population, most heavily concentrated in Accra, has accelerated rapidly, rising from just over 31% of the population to almost 57%, swelling the urban population from 4 million to 17 million, according to World Bank data.
This huge swing inevitably created more cramped conditions in the compound houses which, despite still being considered safer for families with young children due to the enclosed courtyard, started to earn a reputation for loud, crowded living conditions. The slum-like conditions that have developed, common in a country where nearly half of citizens live below the poverty line, are likely only to worsen.
Ghana’s urbanization is set to reach 72.3% by 2050 and the shortage of low-income housing remains unaddressed. Affordable housing routinely targets the growing middle class instead of lower-income families. Mortgages come with interest rates of 20%, even as the government predicted some years back it would need 5.7 million new rooms by 2020 to meet the country’s housing needs.
“As accommodation gets harder in the city, they keep chopping these houses into smaller and smaller units, and some of the communal feel is lost,” said Manful. “The less and less privacy you have, the less you appreciate living so close to your neighbor.”
The occasional difficulties of getting along with neighbors in a compound house has filtered into Ghanaian popular culture, with articles light-heartedly discussing conflicts over privacy and maintenance cropping up in the media. The shift has been captured in social media parlance, where arguing Twitter users, who expose too many personal details, may be called out for dragging their audience into “CompoundHouse Twitter.”
“The contemporary context of the compound house is that it’s quite transient — for a young person just arriving in the city, on the way to a better thing,” said Nana Biamah-Ofosu, the other co-founder of Studio Nyali.
Despite changes in residential fashion, compound houses are still very numerous in Accra. As UN-Habitat notes, 55% of all urban Ghanaians still lived in this housing type as recently as 2011. In the long term, many compound houses are nonetheless unlikely to survive demolition.
Allotey Bruce-Konuah, a historical tour guide whose ancestral compound is in Jamestown, one of Accra’s oldest districts, says the compound house where his grandfather’s family once lived is now occupied by people who are not blood relations, and will likely be demolished once it finds a buyer. When even historic landmarks such as the Sea View Hotel — one of Accra’s oldest hotels, which once hosted the Welsh-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley — was demolished in 2016, less well-known structures stand little chance.
More and more, home owners and investors are ditching compound housing, preferring to build Western-style single-family villas or flats, reducing affordable options and shifting the way people live, often away from the communal life that defined Ghanaian living for the past century.
“It’s a question of economics but it’s also a question of aspiration and what people consider aspirational,” said Biamah-Ofosu. “We are careful not to overly romanticize compound house living but there is something at the core of it that is better adapted to the way we live. We live much more communally, we support each other much more.”
While no one wants to preserve crowded conditions or limited facilities, the compound houses might still provide helpful inspiration for a distinctly local form of housing for the future. Biamah-Ofosu and Mohamed would like to see architecture that builds on and improves the compound house rather than abandoning it entirely.
“The challenge is to translate the ethos of it and the spatial ideas behind it into something that’s suitable for dense urban housing,” Biamah-Ofosu said.