While government is addressing the backlog in subsidised housing, innovative building technologies can help to solve infrastructure and service delivery issues.

 

The huge backlog of good quality, affordable and suitably located houses in the country continues to grow, and the recent spate of service delivery protests has placed emphasis on the need for quicker delivery of subsidised housing and connection to basic services.

The Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, during his budget speech earlier this year quantified spending on human settlement programmes at R70 billion over the past five years, contributing to 590 000 houses being built. In addition, 850 000 households were connected to electricity over this period.

He announced an integrated city development grant, amounting to R814 million over the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework, to enhance long-term city planning and encourage private investment in urban development.

“The assignment this year of the human settlements function to metropolitan municipalities is a vital intervention in accelerating housing investment and integrated urban development,” he stated.

For rural municipalities, R3,9 billion has been allocated to capacity building programmes over the medium term, and includes R276 million for the human settlements Upgrading Support Programme in 53 municipalities, a new grant of R300 million a year to assist metropolitan municipalities in managing the human settlements function, and a further R180 million as part of the human settlements development grant earmarked for settlement upgrading in mining towns.

According to the Minister of Human Settlements, Connie September, the department, together with the country’s major banks, has agreed to establish a working implementation team to speed up financing and delivery in the affordable housing sector.

“Over the next five years, the department plans to provide over a million housing opportunities, basic services to informal communities and address the backlogs in sanitation.”

Addressing quality
The quality of low-cost houses that have been delivered in past years, however, has often failed in terms of quality. In an effort to address this, the Department of Human Settlements in the Eastern Cape has adjusted the norms and standards for building the minimum size 40m² housing unit in order to improve the thermal performance of these units.

The enhancements will apply to all houses built since April 2014 and will include the addition of the following measures:
• The installation of a ceiling with a prescribed air gap.
• The installation of above-ceiling insulation comprising a 30mm mineral fibreglass blanket.
• Plastering of all internal walls.
• Rendering on external walls.
• Smaller size windows.
• Special low E clear and E opaque safety glass for all window types.

Houses will now also have a standard basic electrical installation comprising a pre-paid meter with a distribution board and lights and plugs to all living areas of the house.
The challenge is three-fold
According to Llewellyn van Wyk, Principal Researcher at the CSIR, internationally the provision of affordable housing remains a challenge, and it is not necessarily one of technology. “The failures we are seeing are of workmanship rather than of material,” he says.

“Other challenges with the delivery of affordable houses are situated in the delivery chain. Typically you first secure the land, then install the services and then build the houses. However, most of the attention is focused on the third component, while they are actually all interconnected. So in a sense we are chasing our tails,” he explains.

According to Van Wyk, access to land is a major problem in South Africa. Even though there is an abundance of space, property close to the cities is very expensive and taken up by non-residential, commercial and industrial uses.

The second challenge around service delivery is equally problematic. “Almost every single municipality in this country has probably absorbed the capacity of their services infrastructure, so when you start delivering a backlog of 2,2 million units, you are stressing not only the system’s capacity, but also its operation and maintenance levels, and that is one area where we have gone backwards over the last 20 years,” he states.

Paradigm shift
An interesting notion mentioned by Van Wyk is to, instead of trying to find land in existing cities, build new cities that deal with the issues of land and infrastructure.

Currently there is a major project being considered in the Free State to develop the area next to the Bloemfontein Airport and locate people there instead of adding another suburb in town. Two other interesting opportunities relate to the new universities being built in Kimberley and Nelspruit. Considering between 15 000 and 20 000 students, employees for the universities, as well as other staff for necessary support services, they will bring together maybe 25 000 to 30 000 people, which can easily constitute a town. A similar prospect exists in Carnarvon around the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

At the next level, which is essentially infrastructure and service delivery, there is a global downward trend, according to Van Wyk.

“So we are starting to consider another way,” he says. “Instead of taking a top-down approach, is it not possible for properties to become responsible or co-responsible for providing their own services?”

Van Wyk is proposing a new kind of connection system where technologies are applied smartly to get a building to, or close to, net-zero – in order to reach service neutrality, with some form of back-up from municipalities. With technologies such as sophisticated rainwater harvesting solutions, breakthroughs in sanitation systems and more efficient and cheaper renewable energy sources, it is increasingly becoming viable.

“Decision makers are quite curious about how this can operate, particularly in rural environments, because it is economical and can help to solve the service delivery issue in these areas to a great extent,” he notes.

Sustainable human settlements
Once the first two components in the delivery chain are addressed, one should consider the role of building technologies.

“Off-grid energy becomes more viable when a house has a low energy demand and this is when the performance of your building material becomes critically relevant,” says Van Wyk. “By providing a highly insulated building, the beneficiary of a subsidised house doesn’t have to use other resources such as a fire to heat the house and the health and safety risks are subsequently removed, together with the potential social problems and associated costs to government.”

Building technologies
“There haven’t been major breakthroughs in technology over the last few years with regards to the building envelope, but we have seen a realisation of the potential of the technology. Light steel frame, for example, has seen tremendous growth,” notes Van Wyk.

Using the 40m² low-income housing unit as research model at the CSIR, he looks at building technologies and the extent to which they can be used in different building policies. The technologies put to the test on site are a light steel frame house, a structure comprising a Neopor board encased in cement mortar and another polystyrene system involving hollow blocks filled with reinforced concrete.

“All these systems perform better than conventional houses, and there are more that will perform at the same levels,” he says. “In terms of overall performance, my sense is that we probably don’t need much better than this to get to a neutral position. However, due to the fact that these systems essentially create an insulated box, we have to find ways of exhausting the heat, especially in anticipation of climate change causing higher temperatures in South Africa.”

According to Van Wyk, the government has set a target that 60% of schools, early learning centres, student residences and clinics are to be constructed over the next three years making use of innovative building technologies. The CSIR is currently involved in the building of 30 schools in the rural areas of Eastern Cape using such technologies.

“Of the 40 systems that we have identified for use in the construction of these schools, 32 of them perform better than conventional buildings,” he says. “We are very hopeful that this will help to stabilise the innovative building sector, and encourage new entrants with new developments.”

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

Key aspects of affordable housing:
– Housing and service delivery need to be accelerated.
– Over a million houses have to be delivered over the next five years.
– Quality, especially thermal performance, needs to be improved.
– The challenge involves land availability, infrastructure delivery and then building technologies.
– Service neutrality of buildings is becoming viable.
– Innovative building solutions are growing fast as alternatives to conventional methods.