Changing the blueprints of low-cost houses

by Darren
affordablehousing jnl5

The affordable housing market in South Africa remains one of the most challenging areas in the social and economic environment. Tokyo Sexwale, the Minister of Human Settlements, said in his budget speech in May last year that this mirrors worldwide trends as population explosions continue to create an increasing demand within the property market for well-located land and housing.

The Department of Human Settlements struggles to keep up with the public demand for Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses. These houses do not only have to be built to last, but also need to improve the quality of life of the occupants. Besides this, there is pressure on the government to transition into a low carbon economy, which means that these houses, commissioned by the government, also need to be sustainable.

Setting a new benchmark
A CSIR research team, commissioned by the Department of Science and Technology, set out to change the blueprint of RDP houses. Llewellyn van Wyk, a Principle Researcher at the CSIR, headed up the project. The aim of the research project was to find cost-effective and easy ways to improve the design of RDP houses that will not only save the government money, but will also improve the quality of life for residents in rural communities.  

According to Van Wyk, communities who depend on subsidised low-income houses could benefit greatly from technology development in the affordable housing market. The research team’s first task was to develop a demonstration house that would be more durable, comfortable and faster to build. “We used innovative design and construction technology for developing a demonstration house with significantly improved performance and sustainability,” he says. According to him, the research team not only found significant opportunities in reducing energy and water consumption of a RDP house, but also redesigned a blueprint that would be more cost-effective.  

The demonstration house was built based on a standard size of 40m², but the team optimised the design with the added advantage that it can be extended easily to double the surface area. The unit can be developed into a fully-fledged three-bedroom home without any demolition of the existing structure,” explains Van Wyk.

Features of the house
The research team also incorporated new innovative technology in the roof assembly, construction of a super-structure and sub-structure as well as the wall finishes and service structures of a standard RDP-house unit.

Van Wyk says they used a design-to-fit approach where pieces have to fit together correctly to form a bigger unit. “This also results in zero waste production during the construction of the house,” he says. He further explains that by using prefabricated, quality-tested waste outlets for the houses, the extent to which a plumbing installation has to be done can be reduced substantially.

The CSIR also took a look at how to eliminate cracked walls resulting in sub-standard foundations. “A CSIR technology developed for roads was adapted to form a single, continuous foundation slab instead of conventional foundations,” he says. “The foundation slab is based on ultra-thin, continuously-reinforced concrete technology. This contributed greatly to us being able to reduce the amount of concrete used during construction of the house by about one ton, which in turn will lead to an estimated reduction of CO2 emissions of about one ton per house,” says Van Wyk.

He further added that standard low-income houses have no ceilings and thus no insulation, which results in huge variations in indoor temperatures. “We improved the thermal performance of the roof significantly by adding an insulation material that doubles up as a ceiling,” he says. “In addition, the orientation of the house also provides optimum natural thermal performance and comfort. The house is orientated for maximising the winter sun, ensuring bedrooms can benefit from sunlight, while the living room faces north.”

Van Wyk says the team also improved the energy-efficiency of these houses by designing a unit that is less dependent on municipal services. “We decided to include a standard, commercial solar water heater on top of the roof for providing home owners with hot water.” The team also added a photo-voltaic panel above the front door that powers five LED lights and a cellphone charger inside the house. “As part of an integrated approach, a water tank was installed next to the house for harvesting rainwater off the roof.”  

Taking it to the next level
After the demonstration house was successfully designed, a local pilot study project was rolled out to measure the actual efficiency of the design in two rural settlements, Kleinmond and Mdantsane in the Western Cape.

Van Wyk says 411 houses were built in Kleinmond and about 500 units were constructed in Mdantsane. “We are currently in the process of completing a post-construction evaluation of the houses that will ultimately be used to modeler-assess housing policy,” he explains.

According to him, the CSIR wants to change government policy in this regard. “We want to compile a technical manual with our improvements to encourage innovation in the affordable housing market.” He says that when one considers the CSIR’s design, the government will start to generate big savings on a national level and open the door for more houses to be built with the same budget. “Making small changes to the design made a huge difference on various levels.”

Long wait over for Joe Slovo residents
Residents of the Joe Slovo squatter camp at Langa T¬¬ownship in Cape Town will soon be moving into their 40m² double-storey house, which are currently being built at a cost of R480 million and should be partly completed by July this year. Joe Slovo Phase Three is situated on prime land just 12km outside the Cape Town central business district and is well located with easy access to transport, educational facilities and economic opportunities.

According to the Department of Human Settlements, phase three of the project, which was initiated in January last year, will see 2 639 units being built over the next three years for the people who currently reside in the squatter camp along the N2 highway.

“The development has not been without challenges. The community challenged the government over plans to relocate them to Delft when plans to clear the site for construction were first mooted,” Sexwale said. “Residents feared that some of them would be prejudiced as there was a likelihood that they would not all have access to newly built houses in the area.”

Following a successful application by the government before the Western Cape High Court, the community appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, which found in the residents’ favour. The ruling of the Constitutional Court in June 2009 meant that the number of units to be built in the area had to be increased to accommodate everyone.

“We had to go high rise,” says Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale. “There was no other way and that is really the future because of the scarcity of prime well-located land for housing.”  He says the government had to make sure that the lives of residents of the informal settlement were not disrupted.

A member of the Mayoral Committee for Human Settlements in the City of Cape Town, Ernest Sonnenberg, says the city is pleased that construction in the area is progressing well. “The new spirit of co-operation between the three spheres of government in this project is encouraging. The completed project will be fully integrated with community facilities that contribute to building a caring and inclusive city,” says Sonnenberg.

The project is jointly funded and managed by the Department of Human Settlements, the Western Cape Provincial Government, the City of Cape Town and the Housing Development Agency.

The national budget
During his budget speech Sexwale highlighted accelerated delivery as one of the strategic priorities of the Department of Human Settlements that needs work in 2012. He said the department needs to focus on this priority. He also mentioned that the department will get greater clarity on the severity of the problems confronting the residential drive.

As part of the budget review, he pointed out that in 2009 the department committed to delivering over 200 000 housing opportunities per annum. “In that year we achieved the target, but in the ensuing years we came to the realisation that human settlements are more than just the number of units built. There are other key critical drivers which include land acquisition and infrastructure development.”

He further stated in Parliament that in 2011 his department spent 98% of its budget, which delivered about 180 000 housing opportunities. “This decreased figure is a result of factors including low economic performance, inflation, increased building material costs and increased labour and transportation costs. The situation could have been worse.”

According to him, the leftover funds have been spent on requisite infrastructure, geo-tech evaluations, feasibility studies and forward planning. He also admitted that over R400 million of the national budget was spent on the rectification of shoddy houses that predate the year 2002, which could otherwise have been used to construct over 7 000 housing units. “Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the houses which are being constructed are aesthetically superior and of a high quality standard and design.” Sexwale says that in the period under review the department has created over 76 000 job opportunities.

New legislation
The minister also talked about the progress made on the Rental Housing Amendment Bill, which introduces an internal appeal mechanism before a rental dispute can be referred to the High Court for review. “This bill has recently gone through Parliament and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). Its enactment will help to ease the financial burden of legal costs on tenants, the majority of whom are working people,” he said.   

He also mentioned that with the drive from the National Home Builders Regulation Council (NHBRC), the department piloted the building of houses using alternative technologies, including the use of recycled materials in Blue Downs, Cape Town, consisting of rubble from the imploded cooling towers of the now defunct power station.

Investigations into corruption complaints launched
According to Sexwale, the department currently focuses on corruption investigations in low-cost housing construction contracts. In this regard, more than 50 housing projects with the value of R4,2 billion were identified. “Over 40 investigations have been completed and 17 are ongoing,” the minister said.  

He further explains that provinces are participating in the fight against corruption with Limpopo taking the lead. “A total of 24 contractors are blacklisted for shoddy workmanship, non-delivery and incompetence and more than a million rand has already been recovered from these companies.” He says these cases have also been referred to the Special Investigating Unit for further action.

In 2011 Sexwale called upon the private sector, high net-worth individuals and captains of industry to help the government in minimising the backlog for low-cost housing. This was done by launching a campaign at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in September last year, which is now known as Each-One-Settle-One. The objective of the campaign is to mobilise the private sector to participate in housing provision towards the reduction of the backlog.  

“Anglo Platinum, the number one platinum-producing company in the world, committed to build over 20 000 houses in the next nine years for its employees in North West and Limpopo at a cost of R1,4  billion. These include members of the working class affiliated to the National Union Mine of Workers (NUM), National Union of Metal of South Africa (NUMSA) and United Association of South Africa (UASA),” Sexwale says.   

He further added that it is pleasing to observe that the idea that people should live near the places where they work is beginning to take root. “Gold Fields and BHP Billiton have also shown interest and we will be making an announcement in due course on Each-One-Settle-One.”

According to him, the response from the JSE-listed companies has not been as forthcoming as initially anticipated. “There have nevertheless been considerable responses from private individuals and smaller companies.” He further explains that over 22% of the enquiries and pledges to Each-One-Settle-One are from individuals who want to build homes for their domestics and 15% are from individuals who wish to offer technical expertise.

Although it seems that progress has been made on various government levels pertaining low-cost housing, the process still needs to be streamlined to catch up on the backlog. Opportunities to redefine and design low-cost housing in South Africa may hold the key to the challenges that this sector faces. The only way that progress will be made is if construction industry leaders, technology specialists and researchers as well as the government work together in creating a sustainable yet cost-effective affordable housing market.

Full acknowledgement and thanks are given to the Department of Human Settlements and the CSIR for the information given to write this article.

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