In South Africa it is becoming evident that shacks are not temporary – they will be here for many years to come. The iShack (improved shack) is a start in rethinking informal settlements. The Sustainability Institute (SI) in Stellenbosch and the Stellenbosch Municipality have been involved in a project that may serve as an example of innovative sustainable solutions for informal settlements.

The iShack is the brainchild of Prof. Mark Swilling, academic director of the SI, and Andreas Keller, a sustainable development student at Stellenbosch University who researched and incorporated it into his master’s thesis and focused on energy as the point of departure for providing tangible improvement in shacks.

Enkanini, translated from Xhosa “taken by force”, an informal settlement in Stellenbosch, currently has 8 000 residents and became the first area where the iShack concept was implemented.
Keller worked in a transdisciplinary team funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) as part of its community engagement in funding initiatives to find feasible, sustainable ways to upgrade informal settlements. The Informal Settlement Upgrading Group from Stellenbosch University’s TsamaHUB and their broader network included Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an NGO that has experience in upgrading informal settlements.

Keller focused among others on the sustainable utilisation of building materials from the immediate environment. “We wanted to develop a cost-effective building, which can provide dignified living and comfort in an environmentally-acceptable way.”

The cost of the iShack is higher than that for a standard shack, but the benefits and improved standard of living far outweighs that of traditional structures. Also, “the iShack shows how a shack dweller can incrementally improve his/her home using materials that are affordable and locally available, whilst simultaneously introducing ecological design principles.”

The social facilitation of the iShack was done by the students of the SI, with Stellenbosch municipality assisting in dealing with broader bureaucratic aspects relating to the project.

Mobilising communities was vital to Deputy Director: Integrated Human Settlements, David Carolissen, He soon realised that SDI could provide the capacity his department lacked. While building according to SDI principles, Carolissen adopted a number of non-negotiable criteria which include among others that they will work with – not for – poor communities.

The SI is in the final phase of receiving a grant application to the Gates Foundation, which will take the project to Ghana and Tanzania, where 1 500 units are to be built based on the iShack’s ecological design principles.

Through installing direct current (DC) photovoltaic (PV) solar microgrids for basic electricity needs (such as three lights and a cell phone charger), as part of the iShack’s technical application, the SI is creating a safe electricity supply. The aim is to build an institution that revolves around an energy spaza concept with a community operator to undertake the maintenance and repair of the units and sales of appliances such as DC fridges, TVs and radios.

In terms of design orientation, the use of waste materials, and installation of alternative sources of energy, the iShack pilot is a ground-breaking one, and establishes the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of sustainable shack building design.

Perhaps this project will generate the desired interest and partnerships to find innovative and alternative means to addressing South Africa’s housing shortage – among others through the sustainable and incremental upgrading of informal settlements.

Read the full feature in the April-May 2012 issue. Images: Danie Nel (