Challenges To Sustainable Housing In South Africa

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Written by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

Despite the influx of foreign investment, sustained economic growth, and successful government developments, housing in South Africa has yet to strike a balance between affordable construction and ultra-modern design.

Apartheid shaped the landscape of South African housing to embody the inequality at the heart of the regime. Ever since democracy was born in the country in 1994, government policies have been put in place to attempt to reduce the housing imbalance and offer universal access to affordable housing and government-funded developments in critical areas.

South African housing design has a long history of attracting talented architects and designers from all over the world.

Companies such as Cape Town-based Tsai Design and U.S.-based BSB Design are creating sustainable and affordable options to help solve some of the countries long-standing housing problems.

Developed by Doug Sharp in 2006, BSB‘s ABOD project is a sturdy, low-cost prefabricated home made of lightweight materials that can be easily shipped and built in one day by one family.

Tsai Design has created several award-winning community projects using shipping containers and other affordable building materials. These include a classroom made from a shipping container at Vissershok, a school for underprivileged children in the Cape.

State-of-the-art design companies like Tsai and BSB are focusing on non-profit projects and building homes for underprivileged South Africans.

According to national government data, the 1996 census reflected a housing backlog of 2,202,519 homes. South Africa has built 1.4 million houses since 1994, providing at least 5 million people with homes. In the aftermath of apartheid, South Africa presented such a unique scenario in terms of housing accessibility that large studies were devoted to trying to assess the situation and offer ideas for possible long-term solutions.

In 2013, a paper published in the Journal of Housing and the Built Environment provided an analysis. Authors Caroline Newton and Nick Schuermans said long-term consequences of assigning racial groups to different residential areas, has, unfortunately, continued to play a key role in South African housing developments since the end of apartheid.

Newton and Schuermans analyzed the role the private sector played in South Africa’s urban development.

“Developments by the private sector reproduce the brutal social and spatial inequalities of the country,” they concluded, referring to gated communities that continue to be built for affluent South Africans.

While the private housing market in South Africa has generally catered for the up-market segment, new policies have had a positive effect on the democratization of access to secure housing across the country. These include offering low-income families access to mortgages and the South African Human Rights commission’s declaration that the erection of boom gates and other measures of enclosure were a violation of the human rights a few years back.

Eric Bigot is the creator of Zenkaya, a company that caused quite a media stir with its sustainable housing and prefabricated, movable lodges used for tourism in South Africa.

He talked to AFKInsider about his experience with the South African housing market.

According to Bigot, “prefab” used to have negative connotations in South Africa, but he believes that Zenkaya changed some minds.

“South Africa has evolved since I built my first prefab,” he said. “New construction materials and systems are available, and new laws on insulation are in place. I don’t think a real prefab has much future except for remote places were economics and timing can make sense, but I do see a future in hybrid solutions — an in-between solution between site-built and factory-built units. This is, to me, the most promising housing solution for the South African market.”

Resistance to ‘prefab’

Although his visionary initiative failed to find its rightful market, Bigot said he’s hopeful for the South African market.

“I think prefab is not the right word or focus,” he said. “I think the solution lies in between, with a focus on green solutions, effectiveness, quality, durability, and price. There are new and old construction systems which I find exciting in terms of technology, sustainability, practicability, and market feasibility.

“South Africa is a difficult market, because it requires developing extremely affordable solutions, which is a challenge. I believe there are cement solutions and wood component solutions which I think might have great potential, but they need to be marketed properly.”

The South African private sector has a great challenge ahead of it. Basically, it needs to remain profitable while also contributing to eradicate the effects of urban apartheid.

South Africa’s housing market is showing moderate growth, which offers interesting advantages for foreign investors, as the law allows them to own local property without restriction.