Guest Voices: Tafline Laylin

Today’s guest post is from Tafline Laylin, Associate Editor for and Managing Editor of Green Prophet.

Earthy and Recycled African Architecture

Early Homo sapiens built Africa’s oldest homes with lightweight wood, a group of Polish archaeologists recently discovered. Our ancestors then continued to rely on local materials to build homes suited to their particular climate for the next 70,000 years or so. Designs varied depending on cultural values and available resources, of course, but ancient residential architecture was typically cheap, simple to build and accessible to just about anyone.

 Today, 62 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa seek out a life in slums, according to the 2012/2013 UN Habitat State of the World’s Cities report. Shacks in these so-called informal settlements are usually built with corrugated steel, cardboard, tarp and other cheap or free materials. They are dimly lit and poorly insulated, unbearably hot in summer, drafty in winter and frequently succumb to dangerous paraffin-related fires.

Far from simple, this dismal housing situation is becoming increasingly complicated as cities in particular burst at the seams. By 2050, the global population will swell to nine billion people and seven out of ten of them will live in cities, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Albeit belatedly, municipalities across Africa (and indeed the globe) recognize that they have a serious problem and are slowly beginning to explore alternative housing solutions.

One low-income brick and mortar home costs the South African government roughly $12,500 and 2.8 million of them were built between 1994 and 2012. Still, the University of Stellenbosch’s Sustainability Institute estimates that 500,000 people in the Western Cape alone are still without homes or waiting for one.

As is so often the case, these challenges have spurred fascinating innovations throughout the continent. Especially exciting is the recent push to recycle existing materials instead of using more raw resources, to design smart homes that work in sync with nature, and to exploit renewable energy in order to ease pressure on national grids powered by dirty fuel such as coal and diesel generators.   

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch (Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch
(Left to right: Ms Lauren Tavener-Smith, Mr Berry Wessels, Mr Andreas Keller)

Take the iShack designed by Andreas Keller and Professor Mark Swilling from the University of Stellenbosch. A short-term answer to South Africa’s housing crisis, its traditional zinc exterior belies a host of sustainable design interventions that make it almost revolutionary. In addition to incorporating waste cardboard and recycled tetra pack drinking cartons (painted with flame retardant) as insulation, the design team constructed the back wall out of straw and clay. These absorb the sun’s heat throughout the day and release it after dark.

A rainwater harvesting system allows residents to collect their own water, which is a simple but groundbreaking gift for people who don’t take it for granted. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Research Foundation have supported a plan to scale up distribution so that even more people can enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

As innovative as it is, however, the iShack doesn’t represent the most creative re-use of materials.

Critics sometimes question wheter using shipping containers for housing is humane. After all, these giant metal boxes once carried cargo across the seas and become blistering hot under the sun. But there are approximately seventeen million of them on the oceans at any given time, according to Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, and a great deal of them are disused. Instead of allowing them to languish as waste, modern designers have successfully repurposed them into comfortable homes, restaurants, hostels, and pop up retail stores.

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

Image credits: Visserhok Classroom, Tsai Design Studio

The trend is picking up in parts of Africa as well. Tsai Design Studio recently converted a shipping container into a small classroom for five to six-year-old students living in Du Noon Township, an impoverished farming community outside of Cape Town. Windows are cut out of the red-painted metal to promote natural light and ventilation and a huge overhanging roof provides shade. There’s a gap between the top of the container and the roof, which evacuates rising heat, and gardens planted outdoors, including a vertical garden, will also help to keep the site cool.

Plastic Bottle House, DARE iShack by Anna Lusty via University of Stellenbosch

Plastic Bottle House, DARE

There are dozens of projects that I could have chosen for this short survey of earth and recycled architecture in Africa, but few were as popular on Inhabitat, where I work, as “Africa’s First Plastic Bottle House.” The Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE), a Nigerian NGO based in Kaduna, built a two-bedroom bungalow out of hundreds of plastic bottles filled with sand, strung together at the neck, and then stacked into round walls said to be stronger than cinder blocks.  Not only is the prototypical home cheap and well insulated, it also addresses a burgeoning waste problem by putting plastic bottles to a constructive use.

But why so popular? With such a proliferation of ridiculously expensive homes, people with modest means look at it and they think, “hey, if all else fails, I can always build one of those.”

Tafline Laylin is an Associate Editor for, an internationally renowned blog that believes design can save the world, and Managing Editor of Green Prophet, a leading source of environmental news in the Middle East and North Africa.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s