Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Sunday, February 8

Design solutions

Tim McKeough has a piece in GOOD Magazine about a team of architects who have come up with plans for a low-cost, build-it-yourself house as part of Cape Town's Design Indaba conference. MMA, a South African firm, in its novel design, eschewed bricks and concrete in lieu of sandbags, an abundant, cheap resource that requires neither special technology nor expertise to utilize. The model has spawned a pilot project, in which 10 families, chosen by lottery, will each receive a house, free of charge—it has proven so successful, in fact, that this is actually nine more houses than was originally planned. The project also won the first annual Curry Stone Design Prize, which honors design solutions with the power to improve lives. MMA is hoping to scale up the project throughout South Africa.

Now, these houses still cost about $7,000—well out of the reach for many people throughout the continent. The design employs materials—e.g., steel bars, plaster-coated wire mesh—that may be cheap by common construction standards, but which one would be hard-pressed to find in many rural, sub-Saharan communities.

Still, it strikes me that the essence of MMA's scheme—using a readily available filler, like sand, packed in nylon bags, as the primary construction material—isn't wholly inapplicable outside of South Africa. I remember in the summer of 2007, when devastating flooding struck a vast swatch of central Africa, from Mauritania to Uganda, one of the most pressing problems was that people's homes, which were little more than sticks and mud, were simply dissolving as the water table rose. Had those houses been constructed using mud in sandbags—which seems feasible—this problem could possibly have been avoided. By way of illustration, the photo at right is from an IDP camp in Kitgum, Uganda—you can imagine what would happen if the base of it sat in water for days or weeks.

In any event, scalable or not, it's nice to see an architectural competition, which, from what I've seen, tend toward the abstract and conceptual, tackle a problem so basic—yet so critical—as the fundamental inadequacy of millions of families' homes.