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                       Image: milk.com

By Dr. Zoe Lees

I have been researching prefabricated modular housing as a personal interest for possibly ten years now. As an “eco-design” junkie, I’m always looking for smarter design solutions that not only look beautiful but also make saving energy and other resources (like money!) both simple and convenient. I am also interested in compact living, and while we are undeniably spoilt in Africa to be blessed with lots of space, I have never understood the Americanized “bigger is better” mentality when it comes to homes.

Interestingly, with the financial crisis of 2007–08, a global phenomenon called the “tiny house movement” (houses of less than 1,000sqft/93m2) came about, as the result of a trend to move to smaller, simpler homes. With many economies that were either in recession or on the edge of it, people realized that they could downsize and save money but did not have to compromise on comfort. Many people were forced into it, and found that they preferred it.

Small and tiny houses have received increasing media coverage, including a serial television show, Tiny House Nation, in 2014 and Tiny House Hunters. The possibility of building one’s own home has fuelled the movement, and it has inspired many creative results, but remains a bit of a novelty – bearing in mind that the concept of a “tiny house” differs from country to country! Combining the idea of a small house (30-50 m2) with prefabrication or modular production makes for an attractive option.

I believe passionately in giving as many people as possible the opportunity to own a home, and this is one way it can be done – affordably. Many people hear the word “prefab” and imagine those dreadful school classrooms hastily added on when school numbers swelled and learners had to be quickly accommodated, or run-down trailer park containers used for construction sites that are freezing in winter and like hot boxes in summer, and (frankly) are just plain ugly.

No, I’m talking about sleek, modern, beautiful modules that can be ordered according to a specific design formula, pre-made in a factory, arrives within 3 months and is erected in a week. A brand new home in 12-15 weeks with minimal building waste, no foundations (depending on the design/model), lower labor costs, efficient resource use (no cement or other energy intensive materials) and long-term savings on electricity. Beautiful dwellings that can be integrated with all the other environmental elements – like grey water recycling (where, for example, shower water is reused in the toilets, or water from dish washing goes to the garden), solar panels, rainwater capture, and a host of other facilities that can ensure that our footprint on the earth is smaller and we don’t have to sacrifice our lifestyle. Oh, and at a lower cost per square meter than brick and mortar.

This may sound too good to be true. And you are probably wondering ‘why doesn’t everyone do this?’ For some reason, this trend took a long time to come to SA. People here seem to be so infatuated with brick and mortar buildings, that nothing else will do. Perhaps it has to do with the perception that a prefab building is “temporary” and something made of brick with foundations is “immovable” and permanent. Maybe there is a perception that a brick house shows wealth and status. Perhaps you can help me out here….? Whatever the reason, it has been difficult to find traction in this country, and only when I wanted to build myself one, I came across one of the reasons: finance.

Over the years, I watched a number of architects on the South African scene try out some designs. These invariably go reviewed in magazines like Visi and appeared at the Design Indaba, but didn’t take off. Guys like Pietro Russo (www.Ecomohome.com) who has modules that represent “Eat, Home, Play” and which can fit together in any configuration, and Eric Bigot (www.Zenkaya.com), who produced a one bed home the size of a container – were pioneers here, and they were followed by others over time.

 

zoe1                                                                                                                                                           An Ecomo concept home

zoe2                                                                                                                                                                A Zenkaya home

 

Erwin van der Weerd later founded Perfect-Places (www.Perfect-places.co.za), who produce 18m2 – 28m2 “pods” that can also be combined as an integrated unit; Swissline (www.swisslinesesign.co.za) has home designs starting with 40m2 up to 260m2, while Going Green (www.123goinggreen.co.za) and National and Overseas Modular Construction (www.noversea.co.za) produce houses with specific floor plans. Light steel frame housing also took off, the likes of which have been show-cased at Monaghan Farm in Gauteng, although one could debate whether these are as eco-friendly or affordable as the others.

zoe3                                                                                                                                                          A home by Going Green

 

When I was ready to sell my 4-bed maintenance-heavy brick and mortar home, and downsize just over a year ago, I knew what I wanted. I had trawled through hundreds of websites, design magazines, read up on materials and looked at thousands of configurations. I phoned the vendors (above) and enquired about costs, production time, floor plans and certifications. I probably did more homework than most people.

I put in an offer for a piece of land, and hit the first challenge. Banks, for some reason, don’t like giving mortgages for land. Now we all know that most suburbs are built using established techniques, and if you don’t want to buy an existing dwelling or have a house built traditionally, then you have to find a suitable site. But in order to buy land, the banks want you to have 40% of the cost of the land as a deposit. The maximum they will fund is 60%. It struck me that the debate about land ownership is always going to be skewed in favor of the wealthy, if the wealthy are the only ones who will ever have 40% of the cost available as cash. The banks are actually perpetuating this. No wonder we don’t get young new homeowners buying land to build themselves a home!

The next challenge was the type of architecture. I decided I wanted to go with a supplier who do timber-frame homes from hardwood and whose designs fit my needs without much amendment. I will go into some of the merits of the various types of homes that are on offer later, but suffice to say that while these are homes with the following cost-effective and eco-friendly attributes, the banks all had policies and conditions that basically excluded them from mortgages :

  • Cheaper – on average 20 – 40 % less than conventional building methods, depending on the design.
  • No foundations (this does depend on the type of home) only piles (stilts) and therefore a light footprint
  • Little or no building rubble
  • 60% lower building waste as all panels are pre-made and delivered for assembly
  • Fast – ordering takes 6-12 weeks, assembly takes one week, no matter what the weather
  • Some designs are “factory ready” for installation of solar panels, grey water recycling systems etc and if you wish to add at the assembly stage or later
  • Highly energy efficient insulated walls (far higher than the new energy efficiency building regulations)
  • Low maintenance
  • Fire resistant (hard wood does not burn easily, while steel frames lose 75-80% of their tensile strength within 15 minutes of a fire)
  • Termite and pest resistant (hardwood is not vulnerable to wood borer or ants)
  • Easy to expand later by adding more modules.

The irony is that the banks consider this type of architecture as “unconventional” and unusual (which is absurd as most Scandinavian, US and many European homes are built this way), and they either stated outright that they do not fund such designs or made it clear that they do not apply the same value calculations to these houses (in other words, if you apply for R1m, they may only value it as half of that and then only offer a mortgage of 80% of their maximum calculated value), or they demanded so many certifications that it was unworkable. In so many words, they said “no”.

I still cannot understand this. I had to abandon my idea (for now), and am working to try and change banking policy on this. In my opinion, the banks are missing a huge opportunity. There are so many people who could afford houses, if they could get loans, and those same homeowners would also save in monthly maintenance, electricity and water) costs. Pods from Perfect-Places start at R150,000, while 54m2 houses from Noversea cost R236,000.

Containers are also becoming popular as modules for homes, offices as well as shopping spaces. The 27 Boxes development in Melville is one example, and with a price tag of roughly R25,000 per container, it is an option for a home office or even a small cottage, although this is for the container only with no retrofitting.

It costs the South African government around R130,000 to build a bare-minimum, two-bedroom RDP house. It comes with a bathroom, open plan kitchen, tiled floor, ceiling, electricity, water and sanitation, but lacks finishing touches and are usually un-plastered. For R120,000 a Cape Town-based company, Berman-Kalil Housing Concepts (www.berman-kalil.co.za), offers bachelor units with a bathroom, shower, kitchenette (sink and two cooking hotplates) and built-in cupboards. They are beautifully finished with windows, flooring, a sliding door, and a variety of different exterior cladding options. And on the high-end side, a two bedroom home – with a number of additional extras such as an oven with extractor fan – will cost around R220,000 (see below).zoe4                                                                                                                                                                       Container home

I think it’s worth pursuing. What do you think?

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