The Design Conference That Is Helping House The Poor

From this to this: Design Indaba’s 10×10 project will move 100 township families out of shacks (pic: Yasser Booley) and into well-designed houses like this
Design Indaba, the Cape Town-based creative conference, has brought together ten of the world’s top architects and designers to help tackle South Africa’s housing crisis. The likes of David Adjaye, Thomas Heatherwick, Tom Dixon and Shigeru Ban have each worked with a local partner to design a street of ten homes to be built in the Mitchell’s Plain township. CR was there to see the first house going up

From this to this: Design Indaba’s 10×10 project will move 100 township families out of shacks (pic: Yasser Booley) and into well-designed houses like this

Design Indaba, the Cape Town-based creative conference, has brought together ten of the world’s top architects and designers to help tackle South Africa’s housing crisis. The likes of David Adjaye, Thomas Heatherwick, Tom Dixon and Shigeru Ban have each worked with a local partner to design a street of ten homes to be built in the Mitchell’s Plain township. CR was there to see the first house going up

Mrs Jonkers has four children. For the past ten years, like thousands of others in South Africa, she and her four children have been living in a shack – in her case, in the Mitchell’s Plain township near Cape Town. But by the time you read this, the Jonkers will have moved into a new home designed by a leading architect.

Mrs Jonkers and two of her children outside their old home. Pic: Yasser Booley

Hers is the first house to be built by Design Indaba’s 10×10 project. The Cape Town-based design conference is using some of the revenue generated by its annual event, alongside money from sponsors, to build 100 houses in the Freedom Park area of Mitchell’s Plain. And not just any houses: having played host to many leading names in design and architecture over the years, the event’s founder and driving force, Ravi Naidoo, decided to draw on this distinguished alumni to address one of the biggest problems facing his country today – providing its poorest residents with a decent place to live.

Previous speakers at the event were asked to submit proposals for low cost housing that could offer an alternative to the basic concrete block homes currently being built under the SA government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme. The likes of David Adjaye, Shigeru Ban, Thomas Heatherwick and Mark Dytham have all submitted designs developed in conjunction with South African-based firms for the project. The brief was simple – design a home of at least 42 square metres that could be built for R50000 (about £3300), the amount allocated per house by the RDP. Originally the plan was for one house to be built by each architect, making ten in all but, following discussions with the architects themselves, each team will now be responsible for building a street of ten houses. (Another alteration: Indaba has had to increase the budget for each house to R65000 because building for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa has pushed construction costs up putting huge pressure on all the low cost housing projects in SA. Bear that in mind when you read FIFA’s next press release on the wonderful benefits of having the tournament in your country.)

Shacks in Freedom Park

Mitchell’s Plain is an ‘informal settlement’ on the Cape Flats, an expanse of desolate, scrubby wasteland to which black and “coloured” inhabitants of Cape Town were forcibly removed during apartheid and to which many more followed in search of work. The Cape Flats area is now home to several million people, some in basic housing but many more in the squatter camps that were the scene of so much confrontation and misery during the struggle for democracy.

On 27 April 1998, a group of Mitchell’s Plain residents occupied an area of government land known as ‘The Field’ and built themselves shacks to live in. The overgrown land had previously been earmarked as the site for a school but as no development had taken place for years, it had become a dangerous place, with rapes and robberies occurring regularly. By clearing the overgrown field, the neighbouring community felt that crime could be reduced.

The informal settlements have always been renowned for their high degree of political and social organisation: this was to be no simple land grab. Together, the neighbours and the squatters organised the occupation: only families which had been registered on the city’s housing waiting list would be allowed to settle on the field, giving them a better chance of being allowed to stay and ensuring the social stability of the neighbourhood. The squatters then measured up the field and divided it into six-metre-square plots with three-metre-wide streets, providing access for emergency vehicles (fire being the greatest danger to shack-dwellers). The informal settlement was named Freedom Park after Freedom Day, the South African public holiday on which occupation had occurred.

After three years of wrangling and attempts by the authorities to evict them, the residents were eventually provided with basic infrastructure – communal toilets, a rubbish collection and standpipes – in 2001. The whole area is now being redeveloped in cooperation with local and national government, with Freedom Park residents forming their own development association with help from the Development Action Group, a nationwide NGO that helps communities ensure that development plans meet their needs.

Around 500 homes are due to be built in Freedom Park. As part of this, the community agreed that it will trial a range of innovative house options, which is where Design Indaba comes in.

Government houses are typically built from breeze blocks with a metal or even asbestos roof. The breeze blocks offer virtually no insulation, making the houses cold in winter and stifling in summer. Furthermore, they must be built by hired contractors rather than by the people themselves. The Indaba project seeks to find alternative methods that will provide, for the same cost, more practical, dignified and sustainable solutions that, crucially, the community itself can help build.

Design Indaba speakers visit work in progress on the first 10×10 house

In the last week of February, I watched work beginning on the first 10×10 house. A group of us attending the Design Indaba were taken out to the site to meet Mrs Jonkers who, with the help of her family and various volunteers was busy building her home, the right to which she had won in a lottery of Freedom Park residents.

The house was designed by Luyanda Mpahlwa (assisted by Kirsty Ronné). In a uniquely South African story, Mpahla completed his National Architectural Diploma during five years as a political prisoner on Robben Island in the 80s. He completed his studies in exile in Berlin before returning to found the Cape Town-based practice MMA.

Architect Luyanda Mpahlwa explains the design of his 10×10 house with DI’s Ravin Naidoo in the foreground

Mpahlwa’s two-storey house uses a locally developed system called Ecobeams. Timber beams are linked by galvanized metal zig-zags, the space between which is in-filled with sand bags – a simple process that the house-owners themselves can carry out. The walls are then covered with mesh and plastered. These walls have much better thermal properties than breeze blocks, ensuring that occupants will be kept cool in summer and warm in winter. The system also has excellent sound absorbing properties which helps to provide a measure of privacy in close quarter living, while they are much heavier than brick and therefore wind resistant.


The sand bag construction resists water penetration due to the fact that the sand in the bags is a filter medium – any water penetrating the plaster will simply ‘filter’ down to the dampcourse and exit the wall to the outside. It’s also fire resistant and, pretty important in an area like Freedom Park, bullet-proof.

Furthermore, no electricity is required at the construction site and only minimal amounts of water and cement are required – just two bags for the whole house. This simple system relies mostly on unskilled labour – especially women in the community, who can be taught the basics in a few days. The whole house takes just over a week to build.


Mpahlwa talked us through the drawings for the finished building (above). With shaded space outside and well-proportioned, if small, open plan spaces within it’s a house that would not look out of place in the centre of London or New York but also one that fits the needs of its occupants. The recipients of the houses were fully consulted during the design process and shown the building method to allay any fears over its unconventional nature. Will all the enlisted starchitects be so responsive to their clients’ needs? Naidoo revealed that one UK-based architect had come back with a design costing five times the budget, so perhaps not all will be able to rein in their egos sufficiently but, so far, he has been the exception.

Mrs Jonkers will own her house outright, although she will be asked to stay in it for a certain period to prevent property speculation and to preserve the cohesion of the neighbourhood. Mpahlwa’s design, and those of the other architects from around the world, will be made available for free to anyone who wants them. Over the next three months, the rest of the new street will be built and then it will be on with the next one.

Design Indaba is by no means the only organisation attempting to tackle South Africa’s housing crisis: there are hundreds of schemes in operation all over he country. Few, however, have the architectural firepower and the imagination to go beyond the bare minimum and provide the long-suffering residents of the informal settlements with, at long last, a dignified place to call home.

Shigeru Ban’s solution

David Adjaye’s 10×10 design

Thomas Heatherwick’s 10×10 drawings

10×10 concept by Tom Dixon with Don Albert

Will Alsop’s concept: the idea is to pile up scrap wood, pour concrete around it and then, when the concrete is set, to set the wood alight leaving the concrete shell of the building: not perhaps the most cozy of homes…

Mark Dytham’s concept involves utilising plastic crates filled with soil to build walls

This article appears in the April issue of Creative Review, out now

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