A team of researchers from Stellenbosch University's (SU) Sustainability Institute have developed an innovative approach to upgrade housing and improve living conditions in informal settlements.
The iShack, or improved shack concept, offers a potential solution to South Africa’s housing delivery backlog, increasing urbanisation and the growing number of informal settlements in the country.
According to the UN Habitat State of the World's Cities 2012/2013 report, 62% of the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in slums. Such dwellings are characterised by poor living conditions and inadequate access to infrastructure such as basic energy, sanitation and water services.
"Shacks are becoming the new norm – so what can we do today to improve the living conditions of people through energy intervention, lighting, cell phones, communication, upping security?" says Andreas Keller, one of the designers of the iShack.
The sustainable housing concept allows people who don’t have brick and mortar houses to upgrade their existing shacks, or install new shacks, by incorporating solar power panels to meet basic energy needs and ecological design principles to make daily living a little bit more comfortable.
Solutions for South Africa’s housing challenges
In 2011, the National Research Foundation awarded a grant to SU to find ways to upgrade informal settlements, focussing on priority areas such as water, sanitation, food security, waste management, energy and general structural upgrades to shelters.
The first iShack was built in October 2011. It drew the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was so impressed with the idea that it provided grant funding for a pilot project to determine if the improved shack system can be applied at a large scale.
Up to 100 shacks will either be newly built or refurbished, and two lucky families are already testing the first prototypes – one new, one refurbished – in the Enkanini Township just outside Stellenbosch.
For one of these residents, Nosanjo Plaatjie, a single mother who works as a domestic worker once a week, and her three young children, the brand new iShack has changed their lives.
Keller explains that it is important to test how well the iShack design works in new structures, as well as those that are already standing.
If you take a quick look at the newly built eco-friendly shelter it doesn't look that much different from any of the other makeshift wooden or corrugated houses in the area. But on closer inspection, the improvements are significant.
Keller says the structural modifications using ecological design principles make the dwelling much more comfortable to live in.
The large windows are positioned in such a way to achieve better air circulation and sunlight heating during the day. The sloped roof and overhang shades the structure on hot days, but in the winter months residents can also harness this handy feature to harvest rainwater.
Access to power through solar panels
Keller says that for communities living without electricity, access to power through the solar panels is one of the biggest benefits.
Having electricity means that residents have more disposable income, as they don’t have to spend money on candles and paraffin for lighting and cooking.
The iShack prototype is equipped with a photovoltaic solar panel capable of producing enough electricity to power three lights, a mobile phone charger and an outdoor motion detector spotlight, which reduces the risk of crime and helps people feel safer in their homes.
Households can access these services on a pay-as-you-go basis, and upgrade the solar infrastructure to run more appliances such as a radio, television or fridge.
With electricity residents can also charge their mobile phones at home, a luxury for many people who have to walk long distances to charge their phones elsewhere.
Keller explains that a working mobile phone is a lifeline for many South Africans as it enables people to find jobs and earn a better income – as the resident of the second retrofitted iShack prototype discovered.
"The man, who relies on casual painting jobs for his weekly income, was able to keep his phone charged and switched on to find more work," he says.
"Mobile phone connectivity is perhaps the greatest example of how the iShack is helping people. We take for granted the ability to be connected all the time."
Using recycled materials
"One of the objectives of the project is to use existing materials," Keller says. This also reduces the overall cost of the iShack.
In the pilot houses, the developers have made use of recycled cardboard boxes and old Tetra Pak containers, such as long life milk boxes, for insulation between the exterior zinc surface and the interior.
Flame-retardant paint reduces the risk of fires, and inside there are rows of recycled bricks to create a durable floor that can also protect against temperature changes.
Keller says one of the most important aspects of the project is training, education and maintenance of solar power systems. Without this, technological interventions in community upgrades often fail.
To ensure the iShack concept is successful, local entrepreneurs will receive accredited training in business and engineering principles to help community members maintain the technology in their houses. Technicians will be paid from user fees.
"It is important to inform residents about the type of appliances they can use," he says. "Direct current appliances are more energy efficient and designed to run on solar energy."
"We also have to tell residents about the maintenance of solar panels, because if you don’t clean them often it will reduce their efficiency and the number of solar units you can get out of them."
Keller and his team are also looking to set up energy hubs in the communities where iShacks are built. These facilities will be the base from where trained technicians assist communities and where residents can buy suitable appliances and top up their energy accounts.