A new design for RDP housing in South Africa?

Based on the ‘less is more’ principle, Embracing Informality brings an ingenious perspective to the unsustainable problem of backyard shacks

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Less is more. A classic phrase that is so often overlooked or ignored by so many. Cue Cape Town-based architectural student, Lawden Holmes. Competitive by nature, Lawden − one of the Better Living Challenge’s 23 finalists − has adopted the ‘less is more’ approach with his new concept − Embracing Informality: a sustainable alternative to the RDP.

Lawden’s project seeks to embrace South Africa’s perpetual informality, learn from it and turn it into a usable solution. The idea is inspired enough, but it has evolved significantly from its humble beginnings. When those around him considered the informality of a situation as a problem, this pioneering student chose to embrace it by effectively engaging in the reality of informality and its associated complexities.

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Images: Architecture student Lawden Holmes takes inspiration from his time spent in Du Noon.

But it was on a visit to a settlement in Du Noon that Lawden’s idea really crystallised. “I was part of a group from the University of Cape Town [UCT] that did extensive research on the Du Noon settlement,” he says. “My architectural solution came directly from our research, which uncovered the need to address the living conditions the backyarders were living in.”

Experiencing the reality of so many South Africa lives first-hand made Lawden realise how urgent it was to house the country’s growing population adequately. And so his investigations began
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It was only later, when the Better Living Challenge was pitched to UCT architecture students, that Lawden was inspired to enter. “The current RDP model simply won’t do and is not the answer to South Africa’s housing needs,” he emphasises. As he paid more and more visits to Du Noon, he soon found himself changing the way in which he approached architecture.

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As Lawden’s knowledge grew, so his designs grew and ultimately enhanced the way he looked at an informal settlement’s space and environment.

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Image: Embracing Informality starter unit model.

Eventually, this rental income and bigger budgets allow the formal structure to be extended in place of the backyard rooms. “The housing unit turns the unsustainable problem of backyard shacks into a solution,” explains Lawden. “The aim is to create an asset that appreciates in value over time.”

This housing module was a small component of a larger context specific project that dealt with various types of housing typologies and commercial/retail opportunities for incrementally upgrading a piece of land for the illegal shack dwellers occupying the site, with the main goal in securing them security of tenure and access to urban opportunities.
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Aerial perspective of proposed project

The starter unit allows for a variation of bedroom and living spaces on two floors. The dimensions of the rooms are based on those of a double bed. The unit increases in size with the addition of informally constructed backyard rooms for rental. Ultimately as the income and budget allows, the formal structure to be extended in place of the backyard shacks.
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Plan Variations

Incremental Expansion with the ultimate goal a formal double story expansion.

Incremental Expansion with the ultimate goal a formal double story expansion.

Due to the current backyard room situations regarding the RDP houses, the new design allows for maximum freedom of the backyard tenants. Research has shown that an oppressive environment is created due to the lack of access to water, sanitation and electricity. The layout between the backyard rooms creates  a communal space for socializing, washing, vigilance as well as dealing with storm-water runoff.

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Populated Plan of possible backyard conditions.

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Exploded axonometric of the housing module

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Typical street section.

This article originally appeared at the Better Living Challenge website on 27 August 2014 and has been adapted.