Home building

It is two years to the day that we broke ground in Sweet Home Farm on the raft foundation for the UBU Process House. In this time we have sought to build a house bit by bit, using the sandbag technology (including ecobeams), directly in partnership with the community. The builders came from a soccer club that we facilitated between 2010-2013, young boys who had crossed the threshold into manhood. No one had any prior experience of building with the technology, we just wanted to test and see what we could do.


Technology is important and the attributes of any technology are also important to know. We know that a sandbag wall does very well thermally, acoustically, cannot burn down, is bullet proof, can be built incrementally etc. But can WE build it? This is the most important question. Why is this the most important question?


This is important because as development practitioners we have to be dedicated to the idea of building home. This could be a safe place in a community to study, or the ability to receive effective and quick medical care, or any type of appropriate attention. Home is not the house, it’s the place of the rooted city, it’s the protest against the prevailing spirit of transience that many communities in this city (Cape Town) are unfortunately all too familiar with. The way this type of reality is going to come to pass is if communities are invited into the spaces of designing, building and developing the city in which they live. There is a wellspring of resources in an informal community that we have yet to activate, because people have not been invited in to the conversation of how to build the city. The ironic part of this however is that they are the ones who have already been busy building the city, bit by bit. John Turner (1976) puts it well:


Personal and local resources are imagination, initiative, commitment and responsibility, skill and muscle-power; the capability for using specific and often irregular areas of land or locally available materials and tools; the ability to organise enterprises and local institutions; constructive competitiveness and the capacity to co-operate. None of these resources can be used by exogenous or supra-local powers against the will of the people. (Turner)


Somsook Boonyabancha (ACHR) brings this same thinking into the now, certainly post Habitat III and the task facing us on a global scale as we seek to understand what city making means leading up to 2030:


‘If cities are to be the object of the new global development agenda, then people must be the subject. Citizens have to be seen as capable and sensible participants in their city’s development. For any urban development process to be sustainable, people must be more than just passive recipients or voters or numbers in a poll. They have to play an active role as participants and drivers of their city's management, bringing with them not only their ideas, abilities and economic force, but the richness of their history, culture, social systems and interconnectedness.’


The journey of the Process House started when we realised that when we look at informality, we are not looking at a housing problem, but the current housing solution. People have built their own homes, and have done so incrementally. They have saved and added over time, bit by bit. Social governance exists in a very real way, because decisions that affect the masses need to be made. Social cognitive capitol flourishes in such a community, in ways that it doesn’t in other parts of the established (and disconnected) city. The people have built the city.


We want to put a mirror to these incredible practices (that we have seen in Sweet Home Farm, Philippi) and go to other communities. We believe that the Process House idea is perfectly suited to informal communities that are looking to do ‘re-blocking’ – i.e. rationalizing and re-ordering shack dwellings, using new shack structures. We believe that with the sandbag technology we can undertake insitu manufacturing (making within the community) for insitu building, all done by the community. The big difference will be that the starting point of the shack will not be the end point, as we have seen with re-blocked projects in Cape Town. The first-phase framework can be filled in time, incrementally, at the pace of the homeowner. Walls will be filled, and a second floor added in time. The external zinc serves as a sacrificial skin that can be replaced with sand:cement plaster if this is the homeowners choice.


The people get to build. They get to choose. They build the rooted city. They build home.  

A single storey dwelling can become double storey. 

A single storey dwelling can become double storey. 

Leaders lead

SHF protest smaller.jpg

On March 5th 2012 a group of residents from Sweet Home Farm in Philippi took to the streets to object to the fact that yet again they had been bypassed in the local ward budget. From an outsiders perspective – or someone who’s route to work was severely compromised that day – it may have seemed like yet another toyi-toyi by an informal community demanding adequate service delivery.


But this was different. This particular demonstration represented the first time that the community acted together in unity, under the guise of a community leader who until the day before had not been considered the community leader. Preceding this time, the community was led by an individual who governed with a rod of fear, and who was rumored to be responsible for many reprehensible actions towards other community members who didn’t tow the line. Anyone could use the community hall, but only for a fee that would end up in his back pocket. It was a rather depressing example of power within poverty.


But March 5th 2012 was the day that Siyamboleka James had had enough. He wasn’t just fighting against the injustice of his community being neglected in the ward budget, he was also confronting the fact that nothing was going to change in his community unless he stood up and made himself count. Shepherd leadership.


This act was an assault on fear itself. Given what had come before he risked his life for the sake of seeing transformation in his community. Sacrificial leadership.


The day after the protest he found himself in the Mayor’s office who was able to confirm that the City of Cape Town had pushed through the sale of a piece of land in the community which they needed in order to start the upgrade process. By the end of 2013 the first project steering committee members were chosen by the community and by mid 2014 the project started in earnest.


In between this time and now, Siya James has repeatedly tried to step down from the leadership position in the community. Every time however his request has been unanimously rejected, because ‘since you’ve been leading, things have started to happen...’ Power for the sake of power is of no interest to him. Reticent leadership.

Today a group of people gathered in the community to undertake a simple ceremony. It was the day that the site (the physical entity of the community) was given to the contractor to start the major works of building roads and drainage under the guise of City of Cape Town funded UISP (Upgrade of Informal Settlement Program) project.  The Informal Markets team in the City is to be congratulated on the role they have played in this process (as is the rest of the team), but such monumental things in such short periods of time don’t happen without effective leadership on the ground.

Leaders lead. 


How do we enter communities? How do we deal with the fact that we arrive at community thresholds with agendas for doing good, and yet the confused mysticism of our arrival just gets interpreted as the outsider coming to steal something from the people living there, for our own benefit. We might be engaging in the most transformative piece of work/life any informal community has ever seen or been a part of. Irrespective, if people with whom we have been called to serve don’t understand why we are in their community and in fact what we are doing, then it will naturally be interpreted that you are there to cause harm.


I realized pretty early on that I needed to leave my ‘professional person’ at the threshold of the community. I needed to keep my cleverness at bay. Some people almost get offended by this, saying that you can’t forgo your training etc to the detriment of community transformation. The point is however, our power, the silent and dangerous power that we have little cognitive perception of and yet exists in ways we couldn’t even imagine, this power has the potential to crush any meaningful process of change. The power associated to education and upbringing, to ability and to professionalism will stifle.


The student of architect is basically taught two things. Conceive the most earth defying, transformative concept you can, and then fight for it until your last dying breath. I exaggerate. But it’s close. If on first viewing therefore you see a community of thousands of shacks, ravaged by the social ills associated with such a context, the superficial eye will conclude there needs to be a housing solution to this housing problem. So the architect conceives, schemes and designs and offers a solution. What happens next is pivotal to the process of change. Does the designer insist on his/her idea, as if God designed it? Or do they allow it to be subject to the will and choice of the people? The latter is a death of sorts; the design dies. In fact it has to die if we are going to start shifting the conversation from designing for the people to designing with the people.


In essence the idea gets rejected. But not everything gets rejected. The difference between the first idea and what has been rejected actually becomes the project.


So we decided to build a house in the community of Sweet Home Farm. Not to be the answer to the problem of housing in the city, but because it needed to be rejected. We believe that when we build with the community, and when the community realize that they have been given the power to accept, reject, love, improve or ignore…then we will end up creating a piece of the city better than anything anyone could have conceived by themselves. The Process House isn’t finished yet; the best is yet to come.


Learning from Brazil - Part 2

What do the Heliópolis community (a favela in São Paulo), David Satterthwaite (International Institute for Environment and Development - IIED) and a microbrewer have in common?


(This is not the start of a joke).


Earlier this week we had the privilege of being a part of the ‘Towards Habitat III’ discussions, which were being hosted by the Ministry of Cities here in São Paulo. It was a time of rich engagement and learning, certainly from the perspective of being immediately submerged into the Brazilian context of the urban agenda. UBU was invited to attend by Habitat for Humanity South Africa, for which we are supremely grateful.


Brazil, it seems, is heading the urbanization debate through the simple fact that they have no choice. The metropolitan area of São Paulo alone is home to some 22million people, with approximately 3 million people living in 1,600 favelas, dotted around the outskirts of the city.


As part of one of David Satterthwaite’s presentation he urged Brazil to start translating their revelatory findings of the cities so that the rest of the world can learn from them. It seems as if the mire of the challenge they face is clouding their collective understanding of what they are achieving, which is significant. One of the highlights of the week was a visit to the Heliópolis favela, a community of 200,000 on the edge of the city that was started some 40 years ago when people started building on football pitches.  We heard the leader of the community talk about the struggles of development, the length of time it has taken to see change happen, and about the community’s place in the city. To hear this story sounded depressing, but I was getting frustrated because from the second I got out of the bus all I could see was beauty, opportunity and wonder.


The community had built their own homes, the social leadership structure was incredible mature, and this platform had led to a number of victories in the community in relation to incremental upgrades including street lighting, sanitation, electrification; entrepreneurial activity that encompassed some 3,000 business activities; radio station etc etc. I wasn’t seeing a problem. I was seeing the solution. Yes the municipality had – at a late stage – come in to provide a degree of formality, but the drive and energy and raison d'être belonged exclusively to the community. Every time the community leader spoke about a challenge (and subsequent solution) I was hearing a new chapter in a book that had yet to be published. So naturally I urged her – twice – to write the book of the community. 


On our final evening in the city we decided to go and find some friends that we had made on the first day after we arrived in the city. Daniella and Danilo (Dani and Dani) had embraced us, and had gone out of their way to show us the best of São Paulo. It seemed natural therefore to go and find them and finish well. My own personal agenda entailed a desire to taste the fruit of Dani’s microbrewery initiative, something I am all too familiar with at home in Cape Town. Thankfully for us when we found them on Rua Frei Caneca the bar was closing and they were planning on taking the party to Dani’s flat just down the road. We got to breakthrough the horribly superficial tourist divide and got to taste Dani’s supremely excellent American Pale Ale. To my shock however none of his friends had really ever tasted what he was producing, a depressing reality in the context of a fledgling initiative that finds it hard to keep the price of the product affordable. I took it upon myself to share the fruit of Dani’s labour with the rest of his friends. And then it struck me.


David Satterthwaite was right that the story of the city must be written, translated and shared. But it needs to be done by a lens not part of the grounded reality – but by an external entity that finds it much easier to see and root around for the gold and beauty and wonder that is so prevalent. It needs to be someone who goes around with a mirror, gently putting it in front of a community leader, social entrepreneur or anyone else saying ‘this is who you are, this is what you have done, and you need to know how significant and inspiring your story is…’ The effect will be two fold: necessary stories will be told to inspire the wider global community, but more importantly the encouraging aspect of reminding people of what they have achieved in their own right will give COURAGE. There is simply nothing that they couldn’t do if they realised just how much they have already done.


The Heliópolis community is a place in the city full of wonder and opportunity and the APA produced by Danilo is something no less wonderful. Let’s be the mirrors.

Learning from Brazil - Part 1


This will be the first reflection of my (BL) time here in São Paulo, Brazil. We were invited to join with a Habitat for Humanity delegation from South Africa to join in the conversation hosted by the Brazilian Ministry of Cities to discuss the New Urban Agenda – towards Habitat lll, which will be hosted in Quito later in the year.   There is much to discuss in regards to the three days spent unpacking the Sustainable Development Goals and specifically SDG 11 – the Sustainable City. I will do this in greater detail in subsequent blogs.


Firstly, for my own sake, I want to reflect on what was learnt yesterday. I had the opportunity to venture out of São Paulo (which, incidentally is a glorious city) to the city of Santos, on the coast. A walk, metro, bus, walk blind faith adventure where I just had to continually assume I was going in the right direction. I went to go and listen and learn from the guys at the Elos Institute (http://institutoelos.org), an organization that specializes in community engagement, community building and in fact all good things community related. I had the privilege of listening to Rodrigo Alonso, a supremely impressive individual who has been leading this initiative and developing the philosophy for more than 20 years.


If you want to know more about it, then check out the site. I want to use this platform however to get down what stuck with me. The Filosofia Elos (Elos Philosophy) is a developed and mature response to community engagement born out of years of experience.  A decision was made a number of years ago that they would stop being combative in trying to solve problems; ‘we changed from fighting to inviting’. The emphasis became a focus on positive engagement. They have developed a 30 day program for anyone who wants to know more – Guerreiros Sem Armas (Warriors without weapons). This saying came from an indigenous people in Brazil who believed something very powerful:


‘When you stop creating the enemy, there’s no need for weapons’


This phrase, this ethos shook me. It’s supremely powerful because it speaks about shifting the language we use when we engage in community development. They use a methodology they apply to a 7 day program of community engagement which can be broken down into 7 principles: Gaze | Affection | Dream | Care | Miracle | Celebrate | Re-evolution.


Gaze: This is appreciative seeing. The ‘warriors’ are encouraged to go and spend 30 minutes walking around the community they are working in to find 10 things that are beautiful, or good, or a resource, anything with value. Invariably the collection of this ‘data’ forces a powerful question; ‘who is poor, who is rich?’


Affection: Building genuine relationships. Every human being wants to be appreciated. If you found something beautiful, go find the person behind the beauty. Talk with them, find the common values, and treat them like a human being.


Dream: Allow the best world to arise. The best world is different to the better world. When we dream the language of eradication, reduction, problem reflection is removed. When we dream we go straight to the place of wonder. We dream individually but then there also needs to be a collective dream, and the collation of dreams.


Care: Collective co-design. This is the stage of co-design where everyone comes together and designs the dream. If there are different groups then the best bits are collected from each group and a new plan is made which encompasses all.


Miracle: Moving together, giving our best. This is where everyone comes together and builds the dream, where people are encouraged to use only materials that they know are accessible in their community. Building community is more important than building something. They use the project to build community.


Celebration: Sharing happiness and nurturing life.

Re-evolution: A new cycle emerges expanding dreams and realizations. When community members go through this process – with others – of dreaming, building etc. it helps to remove the belief that says ‘it’s not possible’.


Powerful stuff. Wonderful principles. As I was in Santos it felt appropriate to use an image with its most famous son, Pelé. My reaction to hearing all of this richness was one of wonder, surprise and delight, a bit like David Bowie’s facial expression. 



How UBU started in Sweet Home Farm

Sweet Home Farm, in Phillip East on the outskirts of Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa, is approximately 16,5 ha in size it and home to approximately 17 000 people, most of whom are Xhosa speaking. Originally a rubbish dump, people began settling in the area around 1994, although a small number of the coloured community of Sweet Home Farm have been in the area for 25 years from the days when they worked on the original farm, Die Vlei. People settled in the area more formally from 1996 onwards, when there were just 12 homesteads.

The history of Sweet Home Farm and our relational journey goes back to around 2005 when Joy Klimbashe, a pastor from The Warehouse began chatting with the men waiting for work on Wetton Road. He discovered that many of the unemployed men were from Sweet Home Farm, and so began a friendship with a community that has grown, developed and morphed into its current enriched state.

Projects within the community have ranged from a Senior Citizen’s Club and teenage girl discipleship group, to soccer teams and HIV support groups, from soup kitchens to community service with Edith Stephens Wetland Park. Whilst projects and programmes have come and gone, the thread that runs through them all is the relationships that have been built over years with people from The Warehouse and their broader community, and the residents of Sweet Home Farm.

This has culminated in the current UBU project, which is focused on activating the potential of the quality men and women of Sweet Home Farm as they pursue housing solutions.

Hope in the Housing Crisis

South Africa has a housing crisis. There are officially 223 informal settlements in the Cape Town area, holding nearly 400,000 people ‘waiting to be housed’ by the City. Sweet Home Farm is one of these communities. Even if local government had the budget to build more than their estimated 8000 homes per annum, their strategy would never be able to deliver housing to the growing number of people settling on the outskirts of the city due to urbanisation.

There is the added complication of housing community members in temporary residential areas whilst local government build RDP homes on site, and the reality that the new housing cannot accommodate the current high density. This means that up to 40% of residents in Sweet Home Farm, for example, would have to move elsewhere permanently. Solving one problem will cause another one, possibly resulting in a new informal settlement springing up elsewhere.

UBU believes there to be a ‘third way’, a process that starts at the point where people are encouraged to learn about the context in which they live, and ends where they get to play a leading role in building their own homes. 

What does this ‘third way’ look like? We believe that communities hold the key and we seek to help activate communities through facilitated participatory planning and facilitated building. Historically the facilitation portion of the development cycle has been underestimated and consequently has failed to ensure communities understand, grow in knowledge, contribute and ultimately own a design process. There is good legislation out there that explicitly encourages communities to play an active role in the development process. Good facilitation will allow an effective dance between the key stakeholders in the process, where different entities get to learn that little bit more about each other.

UBU is an invitation to being listened to, and to play a leading role in the design and procuring of transformed communities. It will take a super amount of hard work; it might provide employment; we hope it will enhance expertise of local community members. Let's activate that which already exists.

I don’t believe that UBU is the answer to the problem of informal settlements in the city. However, I do suggest that development of people is of far greater significance than that of physical infrastructure. There is serious expertise already dwelling (sometimes dormant) in communities. We know this because when we look at informal settlements we are not looking at a housing problem, but the current housing solution. The journey of listening to each other, planning and designing with each other, and ultimately building with each other requires a considerable amount of time and effort. And this is what it will take to see communities transformed in the city, certainly in post-subsidy South Africa.

A ‘reasonable hope’ of something different will only be achieved through the partnership of all those with a vested interest in seeing sustainable, genuine, holistic change.

Facilitated Building

The ultimate dream, after all the talking, sharing and listening is finished, is to move into the realm of facilitated building. What we mean by this is that we believe that the experts in incremental upgrades (the community) should become activated builders. We don’t believe in setting someone up to fail, but if we start to formalise the informal journey of change then there is no reason why the community can't play a major role in the build phase of development, utilising an appropriate self-build technology. When community play a role in the physical formation of their own house they will grow in knowledge and understanding; this becomes extremely helpful over the passage of time when the time comes for the home to be maintained.

An additional facet to the idea of facilitated building is the possibility of communities becoming manufacturing hubs. If we are talking about simple, sustainable, self-build models of building then the natural progression would be to see the major components manufactured and erected on site. When units are largely manufactured in factories in far off lands, communities are kept at arm’s length when it comes to knowledge sharing and employment opportunities. This needn't be the case.

The essence of facilitated building is that the facilitation part of the process doesn’t stop. The journey of monitoring, evaluating, listening and learning continues, because the answer for today needs to keep developing before it becomes the stumbling block for tomorrow.