1 – Khoi San Domes, Greenpoint (2010): Honoring indigenous forms of pre-colonial shelter
In January 2010 we were approached by the designers of the Greenpoint Urban Green Park. They were in the process of upgrading the Green Point Park in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup and they engaged us to design and build three traditional Khoi-San nomadic shelters.
After doing extensive research into the building methods and materials we built the bee-hive structures using a timber latte framework bound together using cow raw-hide riempi strips and traditional knots. A cow-hide covering was then stretched over the structure.
We harvested our own invasive Australian myrtle latte, which we debarked and bent into shape while it was still wet. The result was a lightweight but surprisingly rigid structure, stiffness being supplied by the tension in the curved latte.
The domes were originally designed to be easily dismantled and transported on the backs of cattle as the original nomadic inhabitants followed the seasonal migrations of animals.
The final installation consisted of two completed domes and one deconstructed ‘in progress’ dome. We found working with the traditional technology very inspiring and incorporated lessons learned into our design principles.
2 – Litre of Light Pavilion, 9th Shanghai Biennale, China (2012): Showcasing the transformative power of water and light
In early 2012 we were approached by the Philippines-based Litre of Light Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the roll-out of low tech solar bulbs in informal settlements. What followed was a three-way design collaboration between us, the Litre of Light Foundation and Qui Zhijie, the curator of the Shanghai Biennale.
Our primary aims were to showcase the effectiveness of the solar lights as well as to incorporate as much of our design philosophy into the structure. We settled on ‘The Transformative Power of Water and Light’ as a theme which would allow us to explore ideas of dignity and food security.
Localised traditional food security efforts, meaning farming locally, in densely populated areas and major cities on the horizontal plane, have become all but impossible. There is simply is no space. Indeed, if there is space, then the need for housing in and around cities dominates the need for the production of locally grown healthy food.
We wanted to make a design statement that showed this needn’t be the case. To do so, I wanted to showcase opportunities (even notionally) for the production of organic food by exploring the space available on the vertical plane (walls).
We chose corrugated iron as a primary material to reflect the building materials used in the informal settlements where the solar bulbs are deployed. It would also allow us to demonstrate that this humble material, associated with poverty, could be re-imagined to create a stylish, modern light filled structure.
Bamboo, a traditional building material in China, was chosen as a secondary material that would allow us to create a thematic link with the host country.
The pavilion was to be situated at the entrance to The Power Station of Art, a decommissioned power station that had been refurbished to create a massive exhibition space. In order to create a visual and architectural link with the austere structure, we settled on a simple cube with cantilevered cut-away entrances on two opposing corners.
As the Biennale is primarily focused on art, we also wanted the structure to function more as a conceptual installation rather than as a conventional pavilion.
By suspending the bamboo from the ceiling and filling it with an exotic array of mushrooms, we were able to allude to vertical food gardening and the utilisation of ‘the spaces in-between’.
The roof of the structure was fitted with 30 solar bulbs which together with the mister in the ceiling filled the structure with a dazzling, diffuse light creating a cool, inviting and elevating space.
One of the major challenges we faced was uncertainty about the resources and skills that would be available to us as well lack of clarity of the final dimensions. We also knew that language would be a hurdle. To overcome this, we designed an illustrated building manual which demonstrated the building methodology rather than rely on conventional plans. This turned out to be a very effective tool when it came to construction.
3 – The Green Shack, Cape Town Design Indaba (2013): Exploring low cost interventions for informal settlements
In 2013 we were invited by the Cape Town Design Indaba to showcase the simple design interventions that we had been exploring around making informal housing safer and more dignified.
The structure was built under the highway at the entrance to the design Indaba. We employed young residents from the Mshini Wam informal settlement where we were doing upgrades to act as guides.
The building featured enclosed vertical vegetable gardens on two of the walls, a raised floor to mitigate ground water flooding which occurs every winter in informal settlements on the Cape flats.
Cladding on the walls protected the shack against runaway shack fires and solar “Litre of Light” bulbs in the roof provided free light during daylight hours with solar powered batteries providing the power for light at night.
4 – Gege Crech, Langa (2013): Food security, fire-proofing and ground water flooding mitigation in centres of learning
In 2013 as part of the International Nelson Mandela Day celebrations, we were asked to design and re-build the Gege Creche in Langa. The crèche consisted of three inter-connected timber ‘ZoZo ‘ sheds and was in a bad state of disrepair. The interior was damp and unhealthy due to ground water seepage and the all- timber structure was a fire hazard.
It was clear that no part of the structure could be salvaged which allowed us the freedom to design the building from scratch. Working closely with the principal we came up with a design that satisfied all their needs.
In order to limit the amount of disruption to the school, the decision was made to pre-manufacture the building in modular form and assemble it on site in the shortest possible time.
The Handspring Puppet Company was kind enough to let us use their covered workshop as well as their craftspeople for the manufacturing and trial assembly of the panels, with the help of their team we were able to erect the main structure in a single day.
The new structure was well insulated, light filled, dry and safe.
The crèche serves daily meals to the learners and to ensure a supply of healthy vegetables we incorporated a food garden into the design. Growing vegetables on the Cape flats is notoriously difficult as the poor soil leaches nutrients and the salt laden south-easter burns the leaves of young plants. The solution was to build a vertical garden on the north wall enclosed with clear polycarbonate doors to create a windproof, lockable ‘pantry’. A worm farm to supply nutrients completed the picture.
5 – !Xoma Ayob’s Light House, Hangberg (2013: Decolonising the victim-saviour-persecutor housing paradigm)
In 2013 the City of Cape Town was in the process of moving residents from a small informal settlement in Hangberg to a Temporary Relocation Area (TRA) in order to clear space for an affordable housing project. The TRA consisted of uninsulated corrugated iron structures in a fenced compound and the residents were assured that they would have first priority when the housing project was completed. One resident, !Xoma Ayob, refused to move. He had a thriving garden and livestock all of which he would have to give up if he moved. The City asked us to meet with !Xoma and come up with a solution.
With an allocation of a plot on a steep slope and a budget equivalent to that used to build a TRA, we started to engage with !Xoma. After a lengthy consultative process we arrived at a design which he found acceptable, a 20m square structure built on stilts with a mezzanine level and veranda.
The plans were submitted to council and we were awarded formal building permission.
The building was constructed using pre-manufactured panels consisting of a corrugated iron outer skin and a Nu-Tec board inner skin with an environmentally friendly insulating layer sandwiched in- between.
The stilts and deck took a day to install and the rest of the house was assembled over the course of a weekend.
!Xoma has since added a room below the deck, a kitchen, stables, a dojo and a vertical food garden. Design students from The Cape Peninsula University of Technology held a practical design workshop at the house during which they designed and built internal furnishings as well as helping to construct the deck.
The Light house has since become an iconic structure in Hangberg and many other residents have taken to adopting design elements in the construction of their own homes.
After four years the other relocated residents are still living in the Temporary Relocation Area.
6 – Barry Louw’s Light House, Hangberg (2014) “Move up not out”: Re-imaging design alternatives to the creation of Temporary Relocation Areas and Apartheid-inspired forced removal of low-income communities, to sub-standard forms of state-funded shelter
In 2013/14 Hangberg was a hotbed of violent political protest and it was only through careful engagement with the local Khoi San activist group that we were able to construct !Xoma’s Light House without disruption. We had always been wary of the victim/saviour dynamic that often dominated community engagement and we were keen to explore, under the guidance of the Hangberg activists, ways of offering assistance without being patronising or making assumptions about the needs of the community.
The unrest in Hangberg was sparked by the city trying to forcibly evict shack dwellers and it was out of discussions around this subject that the idea of upgrading by building over a shack in order not to allow authorities the opportunity to displace residents was first proposed.
It was also during these discussions that attention was drawn to the fact that there were many experienced builders in the community and that all that was needed if we wanted to help was to provide materials and leave the rest to them.
Barry Louw was identified by the community as the person who would be the recipient of the first Light House to be built over an existing shack. This would not only be our first double story building but would also be the first building we would construct on contested land without formal permission from the City.
We engaged with Barry in a collaborative co-design process. Following our design principles and building on lessons learned in the construction of !Xoma Ayob’s Light House, we were able to re- imagine the corrugated iron house as a modern, double story, light filled structure. Final plans were submitted to an engineer for advice on structural requirements.
When it came to construction, it was agreed that we would limit our involvement to facilitating the supply of materials and offering technical advice. !Xam, a local Khoi San chief and community leader with extensive building experience led the construction. The build-over proceeded smoothly with the stilts raising the house above the surrounding bush so that when Barry was finally able to move from his shack into the completed first floor flat he was greeted with a sweeping view of Hout Bay harbour.
7 – Stellenbosch Fire Test (2014): Retrofitting shacks and prototyping fire-proof materials in informal settlements
An ongoing preoccupation for us had been exploring ways of retrofitting shacks to make them more liveable and fire resistant. Every year many lives are lost in wind driven runaway shack fires and in the aftermath shacks are rebuilt using the same flammable materials. We were determined to try and break this cycle. While we had little success when presenting our ideas to the City and Fire Department, Environmental Affairs was interested and invited us to design a fire test that would compare the rates of burn of shacks fitted various fire mitigating measures as well as to test a new material that they were looking at producing from invasive timber.
The test consisted of nine identical fire loaded shacks in three rows of three.
The three shacks in the first row were lit from the inside in order to compare their ability to prevent a fire escaping and igniting surrounding shacks. These consisted of a shack clad internally with a commercial fire resistant board, an unclad shack and a shack clad internally with the wood wool board that DEA was testing. Additionally the two retrofitted shacks were fitted with low tech fire activated shutters on the windows that would close and deprive the fires of oxygen.
Further back, a shack clad internally with the wood wool board and fitted with fire shutters would be used to test its’ ability to withstand external fires in neighbouring shacks. Industrial fans were used to recreate the conditions of runaway shack fires.
The test was a success and the fire proofed shacks sustained little damage while the other shacks burned to the ground in minutes, proving that simple, affordable low tech measures can be taken to prevent the annual death toll caused by shack fires.
8 – Newlands Light House (2015): Lobbying Government support and funding for the Light House model and co-design process
In the wake of the successful Stellenbosch fire, test the Department of Environmental affairs was keen to further explore the potential of the wood-wool board that we had trialled there. The department was looking to invest a substantial sum in a factory to manufacture the product locally using alien invasive timber generated by the Working for Water programme.
The department engaged us to design and build a structure to be erected at the Working on Fire base in Newlands forest.
We felt that it was of critical importance to demonstrate the ‘move up not out’ principle we had pioneered in Hangberg in order to strengthen our argument that communities should never be displaced in the process of upgrading informal settlements. By getting government on board it could be the first step towards it becoming an official policy.
We borrowed heavily on the work we did in Hangberg and the final design was a double story unit with a cantilevered overhang at the entrance. It was intended to be part of a cluster unit with shared walls.
We also started to explore the potential of bespoke ‘small living,’ multi-purpose furniture to be manufactured from alien invasive timber in one of the departments Value Added Industry factories.
The build followed exactly that of Barry Louw’s Hangberg house with stilts being erected and the first floor being completed before walling in the ground floor.
It was during this build that we realised that the wood-wool board might not be the ideal way to utilise alien invasive timber in the construction of houses. In all of our community engagement, people expressed a strong preference for brick and mortar dwellings and we knew that the light sandwich panels that we were manufacturing would be perceived as substandard and temporary.
9 – Mamelodi Fire Test (2016): Formal fire testing of the double story build-over house constructed using wood-wool board
In Mamelodi, East of Pretoria, the Department of Environmental Affairs gave us the task of demonstrating to the surrounding community that a building made from invasive timber could be solid, attractive and fire-proof.
The design was based on that of the Newlands Light House; a double story unit with a cantilevered overhang at the entrance with features which would allow it to slot into a cluster unit with shared walls.
We wanted to practically demonstrate the ‘move up not out’ principle and although it was not strictly necessary in this context, we completed the first floor before walling in the ground floor.
Once the building had been completed, it was surrounded with eight internally fire-loaded shacks, one of which was retrofitted with a cladding of wood-wool board and fire shutters. A fire engineer fitted Light House building with thermocouples to gather data during the burn.
The shacks were ignited and burned to the ground within eight minutes apart from the retrofitted shack which smothered the fire when the shutters were activated.
Inside the Light House, fire shutters dropped down and prevented any fire from entering the building and despite a measured temperature of 1200 degrees generated by the fire, the building was unscathed apart from cracks on the windows.
10 – Joanne’s House: Mamelodi (2016): Trial and evaluation of user acceptability of Light House model
While preparing for the Mamelodi fire-test, we started construction on a second unit to be erected above the shack of a local resident.
Joanne was identified by the community as the person most in need and was to become the first beneficiary of a formal Light House.
Joanne had recently been evicted and her house demolished to make way for a road. She arrived in Mamelodi with only a few window frames and other items she had managed so salvage before her home was destroyed. When we met her, an afternoon thunderstorm had left her shack ankle deep in water.
Construction went ahead with the only proviso being that for Health and Safety reasons Joanne could not be in her shack during the day while construction was taking place.
An idea we were keen to explore was that of recipient as quality control manager.
Too often builders cut corners and produce shoddy work in order to maximise profits. Managing quality during mass roll out is one of our major concerns. By educating beneficiaries in the building methodology and having them be present on site during the build could be and effective way of ensuring contractors toe the line. Joanne kept a close eye on us ensured that all finishes were to her satisfaction.
The house was build using solid 100mm thick wood-wool board rather than the thinner sandwiched panels used in Newlands. After being plastered the walls felt solid and met with community approval.
We, however, were not satisfied and felt that using the board let to an over technical building methodology which relied heavily on pre- assembly in a factory and the over-use of skilled labour on site. This was at odds with our principle of exploring low tech, labour intensive solutions that could employ local unskilled labour and lead to the establishment of local SMME’s. If we wanted to build fire proof houses using alien invasive timber, we would need to find another solution.
15 – Regenerative construction (2017)
The results of the Mamelodi Fire-test as well as subsequent testing and interrogation convinced us that Wood Wool Board production was not the solution we were looking for. Reasons for this include 1) A centralised factory would require the transport of invasive timber to the factory and the re-transport of the final product to sites around the country. 2) The factory would only be able to utilise a limited range of invasive timbers, gum and wattle, (the most problematic invaders,) without addressing the waste created in the large-scale stock-piling of ‘off-cuts’ and the fire-hazard this bio-mass creates 3) The building process was over-technical and was reliant on automated, imported, expensive machinery which effectively eliminated our job-creation objectives underpinning our design objectives 4) There were concerns about the durability and material acceptance of the product.
As a response to the above, we embarked on a low-tech labour intensive approach to a research and development programme aligned to our design principles.
During this time, and with the support of DEFF beneficiaries based at the Newlands Forestry Station, we trialed over 200 variations of Wood Chip-Cement, testing the suitability of a broad range of invasive species and fine tuning the composition of cement and other chemical additives.
After seven months of hand-on trials based at Newlands and the Engineer’s laboratory, we were able to suggest a simple and innovative response to problems that have historically plagued attempts to economically produce wood chip-cement composites.
The current wood-chip cement slurry, a material consisting of 70% alien-invasive timber, can be poured like concrete and has the following advantages over wood wool boards, traditional concrete and brick and mortar:
1) Onsite chipping of alien invasive timber reduces transport costs of stone, sand and bricks to site, as well as contributing to a lower carbon footprint 2) All invading exotic species tested so far have been suitable for use in the Wood- Chip Cement. We can therefore optimise the value of invasive biomass cleared, and chip ‘the whole tree’, thus eliminating the fire-hazards created in conventional invasive alien clearing operations country-wide 3) It creates the opportunity for a decentralised, low cost production process removes the need to invest in centralised, capital intensive factories. 4) There is a proven track-record of durability (reference is hereby made to the formal accelerated weathering testing conducted by the CSIR) 5) Contributes to water security by removing alien-invasive trees from water catchment areas (and thereby the creation of a “positive water-trail footprint”) 6) A low-tech building methodology which can maximise local employment opportunities and absorb unskilled labour. 7) The potential for the establishment of BEE SMME’s in the pre-manufacture of void-blocks, window frames and pre-cast furniture, all made from Wood-Chip Cement.
In addition we have subjected the material to further testing, most notably: 1) Thermal regulation – Demonstrated to have better insulating properties compared to concrete, cement block-brick and brick. 2) Acoustic testing demonstrated has superior sound dampening qualities compared to concrete cement block-brick and brick. 3) Fire resistance – Demonstrated to be superior to brick and mortar (180 min fire rating, as opposed to the current 60 min fire rating of conventional cement-block brick and clay-brick walls. Formally tested and certified by the CSIR FireLab) 4) Ballistic testing – Demonstrated to be effective against automatic rifle fire. 5) Accelerated weather testing – Equivalent to brick and mortar. 6) Termite testing – Conducted in Kruger national Park over a four year period, data reveals zero termite invasion.
Fire- Resistance and Accelerated Weathering tests were formally performed at the CSIR as part the Light House Agrement Certificate.
12 – Isiqalo Light House: Newlands Forest (2017): Re-engineering the conventional construction industry
Isiqalo is a modest 20 meter square building standing on the edge of the helicopter pad in Newlands forest, blending in with the surrounding vegetation. From the outside, nothing hints at the revolutionary nature of the structure, yet scratch the surface and its’ true identity of is revealed.
The result of over a years’ worth of intensive research and development into a new building material, Isiqalo is 70% alien biomass by volume yet has the solid feel of a brick and mortar house. Features of the house hint at its’ versatility, the ventilation tower provides passive cooling while the thick Wood Chip Cement roof and walls have excellent thermal and sound dampening properties. Designed to carry a second and third floor, the flat roof becomes the floor and the ventilation tower becomes the stairwell opening for upward expansion.
Isiqalo is designed to be, more than anything else, a laboratory. In it we are measuring the thermal properties of the Wood Chip Cement, testing the durability of the material, testing the effectiveness of the cooling tower and monitoring the building for any weakness which would need to be addressed in future designs. In the unit we are also testing the suitability of the WCC to be used for floor screed and experimenting with casting furniture, sinks and basins.