Empower Shack low-cost housing project nominated for UK design prize

An innovative, low-cost housing solution that could help to alleviate South Africa’s housing shortage has been long-listed for the Royal Institute of British Architects International Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious design awards.

The Empower Shack is an innovative housing solution in Khayelitsha.
Using affordable materials such as iron sheeting, plywood and hollow-core bricks, the Empower Shack is a modern and affordable multi-storey structure that is minimalist and focused on function, safety and affordability without losing its aesthetic appeal. (Image: Urban-Think Tank)

CD Anderson

Called Empower Shack, the project was launched in 2013 by a team of South African and international architects and designers under the name Urban-Think Tank (U-TT).

The result of the group’s main Empower Shack project, which takes a fresh approach to using affordable materials such as iron sheeting, plywood and hollow-core bricks, is a modern and affordable double-storey structure, complete with balcony, living area, kitchen and bedrooms. The structure is minimalist and focused on function, safety and affordability without losing its aesthetic appeal.

More than 20 prototype units have been built in Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

“Although alternative schemes have emerged since the official shift in housing provision in 2004, the challenge still lies in developing a scalable, transparent and replicable model that addresses real demand, market dynamics and municipal planning objectives,” say the designers on their website.

The Empower Shack design attempts to address these challenges. The housing units occupy a smaller portion of the usual slum dwelling footprint, leaving fire break spaces that give emergency services easy access.

The houses are arranged around a sanitation core, providing water and toilets on site. A second level or even a third can be added if needed, to accommodate different family sizes.

The denser accommodation means land is used more efficiently and guarantees residents can remain at the same site, keeping community ties intact. Community members who live in the units also become long-term stakeholders in the project.

The Empower Shack is an innovative housing solution in Khayelitsha.
Using affordable materials such as iron sheeting, plywood and hollow-core bricks, the Empower Shack is a modern and affordable multi-storey structure that is minimalist and focused on function, safety and affordability without losing its aesthetic appeal. (Image: Urban-Think Tank)

In addition, the project hopes to widen residents’ economic and social possibilities. Integrated livelihood programmes include community workshops and renewable energy and water management training.

Micro-financing schemes are built into the planning tools, allowing residents to take out small, ethical loans when building an Empower Shack or adding another storey.

“The building units are priced to meet meaningful financial contributions from recipients by designing generous but robust living spaces and service cores that meet building code obligations through fit-for-purpose bridge contracts,” say the designers.

The Empower Shack is an innovative housing solution in Khayelitsha.
Using affordable materials such as iron sheeting, plywood and hollow-core bricks, the Empower Shack is a modern and affordable multi-storey structure that is minimalist and focused on function, safety and affordability without losing its aesthetic appeal. (Image: Urban-Think Tank)

In the long term, Urban-Think Tank hopes to influence government housing policy and provide access to diverse housing for South Africa’s gap market.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) International Prize is awarded to a building that best exemplifies design excellence and architectural ambition.

“Most importantly, this significant selection of the 62 [global] projects illustrates the meaningful impact and transformative quality that well-designed buildings can have on communities, wherever they are in the world,” said Riba president Ben Derbyshire during the announcement of the nominees.

The winner of the prize will be announced later in the year.

For more information about Urban-Think Tank and the Empower Shack, visit the website here.

Source: Huffington Post, Dezeen Architecture website, Urban-Think Tank

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