Low impact, high creativity – greener approaches to housing


A greener approach to housing has seen two innovative answers to the housing problem lay foundations in the Western Cape. These have been developed alongside innovative financial models to facilitate home ownership. The Empower Shack 2.0 and the Umnyama Ikhaya container pod home are prototypes aimed at slightly different income groups and both are on their way to gaining official approval as alternative housing types.

A Memorandum of Understanding is under review between the City of Cape Town, Ikhayalami and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology regarding the further development of Empower Shack 2.0s, and the Umnyama Ikhaya container pod home is on its way to gaining Agrément certification.

Umnyama Ikhaya, the company behind the container pod home built from up-cycled shipping containers, has signed an agreement with GreenFin to assist future home-owners pay for the units, and facilitate green technology. “We offer 99-month unsecured loans with no deposit,” says Umnyama Ikhaya CEO John Venter. “We will also offer 20-year mortgages very soon. It will include pods and land, with the location of the land to be decided in the third quarter of 2016. Families will then qualify on single or joint income under R12 000 a month. Two- and four-sleeper pods fully kitted will sell, land inclusive, for between R450 000 and R600 000.” They can be fitted for off-grid living, scaled up and custom designs created.

The Empower Shack 2.0

The Empower Shack 2.0 is a low-cost structure made of mixed brick and mortar, and corrugated iron components – an example of what the Urban Think Tank team behind architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner term “incremental building to compliance” – and designed in partnership with community organisations. Having been completed in BT South, Site C, Khayelitsha, four units are awaiting connection to sanitation services.

Home ownership in this case is facilitated through linking individuals to cluster micro-financing, formalising a rental market through cluster associations, and introducing a Land Release Credit concept, where one resident will trade land for credits, in the form of discounts on the house, in return for releasing land to another resident. Fifty percent of the total cost is funded by a grant currently provided by a Swiss re-insurance company (which it is hoped will be replaced by the South African government), 25% is provided by the community, and the other 25% by rental income.

Designed and developed by Empower, an interdisciplinary project directed by the Urban Think Tank from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) and Ikhayalami Development Services, in collaboration with the BT Section (Site C) community of Khayelitsha, the Empower Shack 2.0 delivers a greater level of permanence than the original Empower Shack, described by Brillembourg as “just an activation”. Designed over two or three storeys, 2.0 incorporates bricks and mortar with corrugated iron set out in a row house typology. This allows external permanent walls to be shared, freeing up space for landscaping, thoroughfares and shared social areas, while residents, using corrugated iron, can build the front walls.

“The roof is a pre-fab Structured Insulated Panel made from Chromadek EPS-IBR, usually associated with cool room warehouse storage units, which provides optimum summer inside temperature comfort,” says architect Scott Lloyd of the Urban Think Tank team.

For electrification, Eskom provided switch boxes connected to the grid, which run like a pre-paid meter in each unit. “We are offering an approved electric plug and play system that is pre-made to fit the unit sizes and potential room layouts,” says Lloyd.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the project is the ideal of it as a solar feed-in site. PJCarew Consulting, under the guidance of the German-based company Transsolar, has developed a plan whereby eight solar panels will be fitted per dwelling, with 20kW inverters serving 8 to 12 dwellings in a cluster and 8 to 10 clusters for the whole development. The idea is that the sum of the inverters will amount to a medium sized solar installation of around 200kW. Residents can use the income generated by providing electricity to the grid to upgrade their homes.

However, sustainability consultant Paul Carew says the economics are currently against this. “We need to come up with a new concept,” he says, and suggests a “wheeling agreement” whereby the Empower clusters become producers of green electricity. Another company can then purchase electricity from them at less cost than conventional electricity, with the added social responsibility value. A renewable energy provider can then finance the installation and residents can rent their roof space back to the company.”

What is crucial is that residents group together to ensure the establishment of a medium voltage connection. “At the moment, Eskom won’t let you connect to the grid to feed back if you are an individual low voltage user,” says Carew, who adds that the team is currently “reassembling the parts of the puzzle to find a way to fit it into current policy and regulation requirements”. What is important though, is that there is a “direct association between the benefit of the panels and the people below them”, ensuring community buy-in and less likelihood of theft.

Umnyama Ikhaya container pod home

The Umnyama Ikhaya container pod home embraces the concept of up-cycling through repurposing of 12.19m x 2.44m x 2.9m-high used shipping containers into modular units in one or multi-bedroom configurations. The containers can also be attached side-by-side or stacked to form bigger homes and decks can be added. Container homes are produced at the factory in Paarl then assembled on-site. Though well suited to the low income market, Umnyama Ikhaya CEO John Venter says they also have projects on-going at high income areas like Three Anchor Bay and Newlands.

The homes can be connected to green power technology, though most of the home’s electricity needs in terms of water heating and cooking runs off gas. There is provision to connect mini wind turbines that can generate up to 1kW power. Sustainable SA supplies wind turbines as well as optional solar panels, which will also generate up to 1kW for residences, should the buyers choose this option.

To facilitate temperature control, the containers are insulated with four-centimetre fire retardant Chromadek panels with polystyrene. The unit will be partially cladded with Nu-tek. There are fans for ventilation and windows can be opened and closed.

The biggest challenge with the project was to conform the homes to off-grid living, says Venter, which he is hoping the new partnership with GreenFin will facilitate. The homes are also treated as conventional homes in terms of certification so the process is the same: he is hoping to get certification from Agrément by June to certify it as an alternative building technology, but factory production had already started by April. The pods are destined for Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, and Venter is also looking at producing for other countries in Africa.

By Karen Jayes