The Plaatjie family - like more than a million households in South Africa - lives in an informal settlement. But unlike most such households, the Plaatjies' shack is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and it has an independent electricity supply as well as an alarm system.
It is the iShack - or improved shack - and it is envisaged as a stepping stone that will raise living standards in informal settlements while residents wait to move into brick-and-mortar government housing. A 2009 government report estimated about 2.3 million households lived in inadequate housing; of these, some 1.2 million were living in shacks in more than 2,500 informal settlements across the country.
About a year ago, Nosango Plaatjie, her husband Ntoya and their three children became the first family to occupy one of three prototype iShacks in Enkanini, an informal settlement near Stellenbosch, about 40km from Cape Town. While they still want to live in "a real house," they say their lives have improved significantly.
"My old shack was made from wood, and it was also very cold and flooded often. My children were constantly sick, but life is very different now. We have lights, and it is no longer cold at night. The children are feeling better, which makes me happy," Plaatjie told IRIN.
The three iShacks in Enkanini cost $870 each, and are equipped with a solar panel, distribution box and battery - which can power three lights, a cell phone charger and an outdoor motion detector spotlight, a consequence of technological advances in lower wattage lighting systems. Each also has a rainwater harvesting system.
Temperature control was a major consideration. The iShack is oriented in a north-northeast direction to take advantage of the morning sun during the southern hemisphere's winter.
Its back wall is constructed from straw and clay, which absorbs the sun's heat during the day, and at night, it radiates the heat for warmth. There is a roof overhang at the front of the shack to provide shade during the summer months. Windows can be opened and closed, or the curtains drawn, to help regulate temperature.
Because most shacks are constructed with combustible materials and many residents rely on flammable paraffin for cooking and candles for lighting, fires are one of the greatest hazards in informal settlements. The iShack addresses this; its interior is insulated with discarded drinks cartons and coated with a fire-retardant paint.
Filling a gap
The iShack was developed in a master's degree programme at the Sustainability Institute of Stellenbosch University; it was the brainchild of Andreas Keller and his professor Mark Swilling.
Berry Wessels of the iShack programme said that although the government is committed to upgrading informal settlements, communities generally wait at least eight years for basic services and even longer for low-cost housing.
Since'94, the government has delivered about 2.8 million subsidized houses, but residents can spend decades on the waiting list. The average cost of building and installing services for each low-cost house is about US$12,500.
The Western Cape Minister of Human Settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela said in his 2012 budget speech that there is a backlog about 500,000 housing units required to accommodate the number of people on the province's low-cost housing waiting lists.
"The iShack is the result of our research into how the lives of these people can be improved in a cost-effective way while they wait. We got together with shack dwellers and brainstormed about what they needed to make their lives more comfortable, and then set about designing solutions," Wessels told IRIN.
In January, the Sustainability Institute was asked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to apply for a grant to develop and broaden their ideas. They received an initial instalment of $250,000 to scale-up the project.
"We have 18 months from that date to prove a viable business model to the Gates Foundation," Wessels said. "New stakeholders have come on board, and we are looking at building another 100 iShacks in Enkanini by the middle of next year that will have new elements in its design."
Among the improvements under consideration are greater use of recycled products and ways to counter dampness within the structure.
Because construction costs remained prohibitive for most shack dwellers, the Sustainability Institute and its stakeholders are consulting banks to see if loans could be made available to potential owners.
The Sustainability Institute is also exploring whether the solar power units can be used as a basic infrastructure delivery system for informal settlements, given it is much cheaper to set up and operate than traditional energy infrastructure.
"People will not have to buy a solar power system as it will be infrastructure owned by the municipality. Instead, they will pay a service fee to use it that will cost about 80 rand ($9.27) per month," Wessels said.
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