Harare — RESEARCHERS in Zimbabwe have been struggling to provide low cost houses, but now an answer may have been found.
It turned out that the researchers did not need to go very far to come up with one of the best solutions to the problem.
All they needed was just to look back into history and study how people used to build houses and improve on that a little bit to suit modern conditions.
Now the Department of Science and Technology in the Office of the President and Cabinet is popularising the use of rammed earth and micro-concrete roof tiles as one of the cheapest ways of building a house.
Some basic traditional knowledge about the rammed earth technology already exists in many societies in Zimbabwe.
Rammed earth has been a method of construction used for many centuries in various parts of the world.
The Department of Science and Technology in conjunction with the Scientific, Industrial Research and Development Centre (Sirdc) is taking the technology to urban areas and resettlement areas.
That the late Vice President Cde Simon Muzenda's house in Lewisam was built using rammed earth about 40 years ago shows the durability of houses built using the technology.
Already, a demonstration rammed earth house, standing immaculately in a bushy area at Rukanda resettlement farm near Mutoko Growth Point has been built.
The house's roof is under micro-concrete tiles, another new type of tile that is much cheaper than the common tiles available in the country.
The two bedroomed house was completed in August last year at a cost of nearly $18 million when building a similar house using the common methods at that time cost nearly $50 million.
It will become a teacher's house once a proposed secondary school at the site is completed.
The Minister of State for Science and Technology, Cde Olivia Muchena, says building houses using rammed earth technology has numerous advantages.
"This is a very solid and durable house which can be constructed in rural or urban areas," she said during a tour of the house recently.
"This teacher's house is a latter day improved rammed earth technology."
Building a house using rammed earth and micro-concrete tiles reduces construction costs by at least 40 percent.
The technology produces buildings that are safe, strong, durable and desirable.
The method has an essential simplicity and with its unskilled labour intensity it can easily become a valuable tool in the generation of low-cost housing in both urban and rural areas of Zimbabwe.
There is no need to cut down trees for baking bricks as what is required is to extract soil and compact it in layers inside specially constructed formwork.
After compaction, the formwork is released and moved along to a new position in the wall, forming the next layer of the house.
In this way, the building does up rapidly - layer by layer and row by row.
Rammed earth houses are said to be cooler in summer and relatively warmer in winter.
In Europe, the rammed earth technology houses are known as healthy living houses and have become fashionable.
Rammed earth walls compare favourably with other masonry materials such as burnt clay bricks or concrete blocks in terms of strength and resistance to erosion by moisture.
The combination of rammed earth and micro-concrete tiles can be used for constructing any structure including schools, hospitals, factories and hotels at very reduced costs.
Using rammed earth technology can create jobs as it is easy to grasp and training takes a few weeks.
There are plans to build all structures at the proposed Rukanda Secondary School using rammed earth.
Several youths from all provinces will be recruited to build the school and will be expected to impart the knowledge to their counterparts when they return.
The Minister of Local Government, Public Works and National Housing, Cde Ignatius Chombo, says the technology will benefit the country.
The innovation comes at a time the Government has launched the National Housing Development Programme to acquire nearly 310 000 hectares of peri-urban land for housing.
"This country has experienced numerous challenges with respect to the generation and transfer of new technologies in the production and utilisation of building materials," said Cde Chombo.
"Our standard bearers, including our planners and designers of local authorities and insurance companies have remained prisoners of classical designs and building technology which are invariably steeped in our history of colonialism."
Cde Chombo said micro-concrete tiles were appropriate in that they are half the weight of normal concrete tiles and cost about 50 percent less.
"Due to their light weight, lighter trusses can be used in the construction of the roofs thus further reducing the cost of such housing units," he said.
Micro-concrete tiles are low cost roofing tiles that can be used in advanced and cost effective construction.
Micro-concrete describes the cement and sand concrete which is the main component in the tiles.
It has been discovered that the tiles have minimal maintenance while on the roof, excellent aesthetics, good noise resistance, excellent fire resistance, excellent thermal efficiency and are easy to lay and repair.
The micro-concrete tiles originated in Cuba under the slogan "small is beautiful" and have spread throughput the world.
The director of the Building Technology Institute at Sirdc, Dr Jabulani Kuchena, says the organisation is looking at popularising the rammed earth and the micro concrete tiles throughout the country.
"This is the most ideal house which can be built anywhere in Zimbabwe," he said.
"We have established set standards and the houses will be of high quality."
With Zimbabwe having a housing backlog of more than one million units, the combination of the two technologies will obviously help.
This is because most of the house seekers have been prohibited from building because of the high cost of building materials.