A remarkable construction project in the struggling Langbos informal settlement near Addo in the Eastern Cape has created a safe house for the community’s children and filled its adults with a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Construction of the Langbos Children’s Shelter has provided a much-needed haven for vulnerable children and carved a more promising future for this community, enriching its people with new skills to find alternate employment and build their own  low-cost housing.

View a gallery of the Langbos Children’s Shelter by clicking here

The domed “superadobe” structures appear gracious in form and function. Thanks to the elegant design adjustments of Port Elizabeth architect Jason Erlank, and the respectful approach of non-profit organisation Intsikelelo, the facility has grown beautifully from the ground up, providing enthusiastic parents, grandparents and future parents with good reason to get their hands dirty.

It was achieved with wheelbarrows, soil beneath the feet, sweat and toil, and a determined new light in the builders’ eyes.

The community of Langbos lives in poverty. The settlement took root when people drawn to citrus farming work in the area set up shacks on the site of a landfill. It lacks basic amenities, such as running water and electricity or paved roads. HIV, TB, alcoholism and abuse are common woes and, as the farm work is seasonal, most of the community is unemployed for most of the year.

Addo resident Muffy Miller initiated positive changes with a humble playschool in 1994, and the subsequent additions of a care centre and soup kitchen have done much to alleviate suffering. Now, with the gritty involvement of social entrepreneur Christopher Grava, the completed safe haven will provide shelter for abandoned children – and its construction could prove a turning point for the people of Langbos.

An Economics and Corporate Strategy graduate from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Grava and his brother Nick first came to South Africa to study in 2012.

“We became deeply involved in a foster home and made a video (GoPro: South African Orphanage) that went viral, helped crowdfund our first initiatives, and led to a sponsorship from GoPro.”

It was at this time that the brothers formed and registered the NGO Intsikelelo (meaning “blessing”), whose mission is “to improve the lives of orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa by developing and supporting community-driven initiatives”.

Intsikelelo’s most recent ambition, the newly completed shelter, will provide a safety net of temporary support for up to 12 children. The facility will employ a rotating staff of trained local caregivers to provide round-the-clock attention to the children.

Importantly, the construction project, with its balance of low-cost, environmentally-friendly, earth-based building methods and modern, sustainable design, is both simple and labour intensive, enabling the training and employment of 30 men and women from the Langbos community. Construction was strategically timed during the farming off-season, and builders were provided with a competitive wage, two meals every workday, transportation to the local clinic, and lessons in health and nutrition.

SUPERADOBE

A form of bagged earth architecture integrating ancient adobe building methods with contemporary safety and sustainability considerations, “superadobe” was developed by architect Nader Khalili, founder of the CalEarth research and teaching centre in California in 1991. One of the centre’s alumni, Quintin Christian, trained the Langbos builders.

Essentially, long sandbags (the Langbos shelter used locally manufactured fertiliser bags) are filled with moistened earth (scooped up just 10m from the shelter and transported there in wheelbarrows) and arranged in layers or long coils. The bags are tamped down and strands of barbed wire are placed between each layer of sandbag to act as both mortar and reinforcement. The design uses modern engineering concepts like base-isolation and post-tensioning. The long coils of sandbag provide compression (vertical) strength, and the barbed wire adds tensile (horizontal) strength. Superadobe uses structural principles of single and double curvature compression shells that have arches and domes, making it exceptionally strong.

Using geometry and a simple compass (checked rigorously by the newly skilled gogos, appointed to the task), the builders steadily rose up the shelter’s three-domed structures. Erlank claims the tallest, which is about 8m high, is arguably the highest superadobe structure in Africa. Because the bags are not UV-resistant, the structure was plastered over, and finally, painted.

CULTURALLY INFORMED DESIGN

Erlank and his team were struck by the organic development of the Langbos settlement and the simple beauty of informal local architecture, made of reeds and mud.

The structures are positioned to encourage the children to spill outside and play. The complex provides circulation and openness between the internal and external spaces during the day, while at night a critical level of security and supervision is easily achieved by locking all doors leading outside, allowing connectivity only via the carer’s room.

The domed structures accommodate separate bedrooms for six boys and six girls, a caregiver’s room, and a large central room for eating, homework and cooking facilities. A low-level, lightweight canopy is used to connect the sculptural forms. A superadobe boundary wall houses all services, including ablution facilities, and creates secondary circulation, while at the same time offering a decorative face to the existing settlement and creating areas that the community can access for shade and retrieving water.

The introduction of flat roof sections enables the harvesting of runoff rain water from the domes on to the roof. Rainwater is collected in tanks and greywater is harvested for the vegetable garden.

The layout of the domes includes sheltered courtyards that will be planted with deciduous trees, offering shade in summer and a sunny spot in winter. There is an existing vegetable garden that is currently being enhanced with geodesic domes – which work like mini hot houses – by Quintin Christian and the community.

CHANGING HEARTS AND MINDS

The impact of this project on residents has been astonishing. Intsikelelo collaborated with EcoDomes Africa, a superadobe-building non-profit, which trained and managed the building team of men and women ranging in age from teenagers to pensioners.

Workers fulfilled the various roles of earthbag building as well as various administrative roles.  Some of the builders are also candidates for roles as caregivers once the structure is up and running. Others saved enough of their income from this initial project to buy a vehicle and equipment to pursue new, client-paying superadobe projects. This collaboration has already started work on an outdoor classroom for a school in Motherwell outside Port Elizabeth.

The oldest builder, Thembikile Thompson, 62, worked on the project alongside his daughter and his grandson, while his great-grandson watched with intrigue from his play area in the Langbos crèche. “Everyone got experience to do this home, and I’m happy for that,” he exclaims. “The project is for the Langbos people and everybody worked hard.”

For Grava, too, this project has been a life-changing experience.

“If I had known just how much time, energy, and continual problem-solving it would require, I may never have started. But now I have a much greater sense of what is possible. The Langbos Children’s Home pushed boundaries, both in its cutting-edge superadobe design and its collaborative and community-driven execution.”

Written by Mary Jane Botha

See earthworks magazine issue 40 October-November 2017 for the full feature.