Empower Shack

by | 17. Apr 2016

Project | Renovation
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Informal settlement in Cape Town. Image courtesy of UTT

By Nina Tory-Henderson

Empower Shack is an ongoing research-based project heralded by Urban-Think Tank, seeking practical and enduring solutions to improve the living conditions of informal settlements in Cape Town.

Urban inequality is one of the most pressing human rights issues today, particularly in developing countries where the surging growth of cities is mostly unsupported by governments. In these areas, urban growth is taking the shape of informal, self-built communities that are being constructed globally at a rapid pace. The UN Habitat estimates that by 2030, two billion people will be living in these informal settlements, characterised by inadequate infrastructure (public transport and roads), lack of basic services (electricity, running water, sewerage), high density, crime and poor quality dwellings.

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Typical dwelling in Khayelitsha township, made from found materials. Image courtesy of UTT

The question of how to tackle the complex issue of informal settlements has been an ongoing line of inquiry in urban-political discourse for decades. Past solutions from governments have predominantly been inadequate: modernist mega-blocks located on the periphery of cities, removed from access to jobs, education, good transport and existing social networks. These places become sites of social isolation, exclusion and degradation. Following the failure of these top-down solutions, there has been a growing group of architects (predominantly in South America) who have reframed their perspective on the urban condition of the slum – not as a problem but as a solution.

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Interior living conditions, lacking adequate natural light and ventilation. Image courtesy of UTT

Amongst these firms is Urban Think-Tank (UTT), an interdisciplinary design practice who conduct research-based design, delivering innovative yet practical solutions through the combined skill-set of their team. In 2012, UTT travelled to South Africa’s second largest town-ship, Khayelitsha in Cape-Town, originally established as an apartheid ‘dumping-ground’ in the 80’s. The living conditions here are dire – shacks are built so closely together fire is a constant threat, toilets and water taps are shared with poor sanitation leading to rapid spread of disease and there are high levels of violence and crime.

With local NGO Ikhayalami Development Services and ETH Zurich students, UTT underwent a process of thorough site research, including interviews with local residents. Through this process they saw beyond the abhorrent living conditions of the local shack dwellings that most of the population inhabit, but found inspiration in these structures efficient use of material and ease of construction. These shacks became the basis for a prototype housing unit designed in collaboration with the local community.

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The first completed Empower Shack prototype takes from its local context, sitting comfortably in its surroundings. Image by Daniel Schwartz, UTT at ETH

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The simple timber frame under construction, built by local residents. Image by Daniel Schwartz, UTT at ETH

The shack is a two-storey basic timber frame with a sanitation core, clad in metal sheeting. In creating a two-storey dwelling, the footprint of the existing shacks could be halved, creating more room for public open space, improving pedestrian mobility and reducing the spread of fire. Internally, the shack can be configured to residents desires and needs, with the ability to choose from a series of prefabricated facades with varied opening configurations.

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Phumezo Tsibanto and families original home. Image by Daniel Schwartz, UTT at ETH

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Their new home, now with it’s own electricity and sanitation. Image by Daniel Schwartz, UTT at ETH

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Upstairs interior. Image by Daniel Schwartz, UTT at ETH

The prototype was received with such enthusiasm from the community and the City of Cape Town, they were asked to produce a second iteration using more permanent, durable materials. Empower Shack 2.0 has concrete block walls, a floating concrete slab and the addition of a kitchen unit. This was then presented to a community within Khayelitsha, BT-Section, where the first 4 houses were completed in December 2015, all of which were built by members of the community.

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Empower Shack 2.0. Image courtesy of UTT

The entire BT-Section is now undergoing a phased physical upgrading, due for completion at the end of 2017. This pilot project seeks to create considered settlement upgrading strategies through collaboration with residents, professionals and the government. This not only includes the physical upgrading of dwellings, but also spatial planning (addressing issues of fire, mobility and public space) ecological landscape management and financing programs for residents. Through training the local community in the construction of these dwellings and providing basic planning for the area, residents of the BT-section have the agency to self-build their community but to much higher living standards and amenity.

Following the completion of this pilot project, there is a planned year-long evaluation process in which outcomes will be assessed to put toward future plans in the region.

While we are absolutely trying to innovate upon the design and technology of low-cost housing, the Empower Shack project seeks to address larger challenges, and in doing so, hopefully changes not just the built landscape of places like Khayelitsha, but also the social, political and economic structures that shape residents’ lives.”
/Alfredo Brillembourg, UTT co-founder
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Existing BT-Section. Image courtesy of UTT

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Dwelling layout for BT-Section. Image courtesy of UTT

While the actions of architects cannot single-handedly solve the social, economic and political issues embedded in these informal settlements, they can strategically place themselves between governments and communities and become an effective mediator in these issues. Design can be used as a tool to trial solutions on the ground within communities, revealing to governments that opportunities for change are present and within their grasp.


CITYCape Town
COUNTRYSouth Africa
ARCHITECTDesign Space Africa