Sandbag housing in South Africa

The World

In the townships of South Africa, more than 2 million people live in one-room shanties made of scrap wood and sheet metal.  Adequate housing or the lack of it is a critical issue in South Africa. But an architect and a builder have come up with an innovative solution.  They are constructing affordable homes out of sand. Ten families are moving out of their shanties; they are part of a small public housing experiment in Capetown.  

"You can’t believe the time we have spent as architects trying to create this building," says Luyanda Mpahlwa of MMA Architects.  He leads a team comissioned by a local foundation to develop new ideas for low-cost homes.  "We had to be creative, in terms of finding a different way of building because we are all comforable to say that this is how we’ll build today, and we don’t challenge ourselves to find alternative methods."  

The South African government constructs about 150,000 homes for the poor each year.  But the single-story concrete-block houses are widely criticized.  People say they are poorly designed, and shoddily built.

Mpahlwa’s design is different.  There are two stories instead of one, two bedrooms and a balcony upstairs with space out back for gardening and for children to play.  It is nothing luxurious, just 581 square feet–about the size of a two-car garage.  But it has more room and more character than the homes that South Africa’s government is currently building.

"We have introduced the element of dignity in low-cost housing.  Now, as architects, we’ve got the challenge to apply our trade to impove the lives of people.  But, we should provide good quality for the people, so that they have a decent house."

The buidling’s most unusual feature is its materials.  The walls are made of sandbags packed inside a wood and metal frame.  The frames are pre-fabricated in a Capetown factory and then shipped to the building site.  He says they are strong, durable, and they provide good insulation.

"I think it makes it easy to build. It’s extremely fast. It’s ideal for situations where you have no infrastructure," said Mike Tremeer, creator of the framework design.  He learned to build with sandbags in the army.

It takes 3,500 sandbags to build one of the low-income homes.  To save money, a dumptruck delivers the sand and community members fill up the bags themselves.

"It adds so much value to someone’s property, if they’ve actually had an input in actually being able to help to build that house. And, this is an opportunity for people to actually do that. We can use extremely unskilled labor," said Tremeer. "Once the framework is up, it’s just a matter of filling in the gaps."

Once the bags are in place, the home is finished with plaster.  The finished product ends up looking like other stucco homes.  The original target budget for the homes was $5,000, the same amount that the government currently spends to construct their low-income housing.  Unfortunately, the final costs are totaling about $10,000 each for the sandbag homes.

Still, the design team hopes to give away budgets and blueprints to the government, and to anyone else willing to take a chance on a new technique for housing the poor.

PRI’s "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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