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World’s best new buildings: Two-storey shack, Zeitz vie for prize

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A double-storey shack project in Khayelitsha is going head-to-head with the multi-million rand Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art at the Waterfront as one of the “the most inspirational and significant new buildings created across the globe”.

Both the Zeitz and the Empower Shack project have been included on a list of 62 of the world’s best new buildings drawn up by the Royal Institute of British Architects. 

Along with the other projects on the Riba International List 2018, these two local buildings have been described by Riba president Ben Derbyshire as the world’s best new buildings showing “most impressive architectural talent”.

“This significant selection of 62 projects illustrates the meaningful impact and transformative quality that well-designed buildings can have on communities, wherever they are in the world.”

The shack project is being developed by Ikhayalami, an NGO focusing on housing innovation in informal settlements, and the Urban Think Tank, based at the Swiss Institute of Technology, ETHZ, in Zurich.

So far 19 houses have been built in Khayelitsha’s BT Section, and phase two will see another 20 houses go up. A third phase will include 33 buildings. The original concept was simply to upgrade shacks into timber-framed double-storey structures clad in galvanised zinc sheeting, says Andy Bolnick, founder of Ikhayalami.
But after consultations with the City of Cape Town, the design was amended to include concrete-block walls to prevent fires spreading, and a concrete slab floor for the first floor, also a fire-prevention measure. Bolnick says the houses are arranged around a sanitation core which provides water and toilets on site. The houses come in different models, ranging in size between 40m² and 88m².

“We provide running water, toilets and bathroom, and the rest is left for the occupant. We don’t want to be prescriptive.  The project has essentially taken its lead from what shack dwellers were already doing.”
The Empower Shack project in Khayelitsha is under consideration for a prestigious international award. Picture: Liam Leonard/Ikhayalami

Bolnick says the project has had an enthusiastic response from members of the community. “I was talking to one resident who said he hadn’t moved in yet as he was still doing the plastering and the ceilings, and he wanted to tile. You’d be amazed to see what people are doing to enhance their homes.” 

The Urban Think Tank/ETHZ has raised funds for the first two phases of the project. Residents contribute to the building costs of their houses – on average 14% – through a micro financing model.

Bolnick says the community has trusted them. “They’ve gone the distance with us. We’ve had challenges from Eskom and the city, who you’d think would be bending over backwards to support this project. But the community has been supportive and has held everyone to account, including ourselves.

“Every step of the way there have been communication and discussions, and the community has been an integral part of the design process. We’ve had a lot of interest from surrounding communities requesting similar projects,”

A major focus of the project is to ensure no home displacements, and finding new models for tenure security and reducing urban sprawl. 

“Currently, through the housing subsidy programme, the smallest prescribed plot size is 90m². In some provinces it goes up to 150m². This leads to rows and rows of low-density, single-dwelling RDP-type houses. By going vertical and making the footprint of the house smaller, people can get the same square meterage as an RDP house or bigger. We’re trying to come up with interesting designs and create more dynamic neighbourhoods and environments. It’s early days, but I think it’s going to be a successful project. And there’s tremendous scope for replication.”

And how does she feel about the project making it on to the Riba list? “It’s very affirming. Most architecture centres on just 10% of society, whereas this acknowledgement highlights the efforts and critical importance of dealing with the challenges that face the global south.”

The Riba International List 2018 Royal prize will be awarded in December to a building which exemplifies design excellence and architectural ambition and delivers a meaningful social impact.

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