Innovations that are changing housing and neighborhood design

Many aspects of housing and neighbourhood design have not changed significantly in South Africa in the last 20 years and have lagged behind developments in other fields. During this time there have also been significant shifts in housing policy and legislation as well as a wide range of building technological developments.

The National Development Plan and housing and settlement policy advocate an integrated approach to housing and neighbourhood design which promotes sustainability and improves access to economic opportunities and services such as education and health (National Planning Commission, 2012; COGTA, 2016; Department of Human Settlements, 2004). Revised building regulations and standards provide for more stringent energy performance (SABS 2011a; SABS, 2011b).

New development models and organisational structures such as the sharing economy reduce barriers to entry and create diverse entrepreneurial opportunities (Economist, 2013; EU Environment, 2013). Technological advances now mean that renewable energy systems are highly competitive and that micro-grid and block chain technology enable local energy generation and trade, creating new energy enterprises (Creamer, 2016; MIT, 2017). Water technologies such as rainwater harvesting systems, greywater systems, sub-metering, and water efficient delivery devices mean that water neutrality in new housing and settlements can be achieved (Gibberd 2009, 2016a). Improving recycling technology, capacity and bylaws enable an increasing proportion of household waste to be recycled and provide for a range of local economic opportunities (Matete and Trois, 2008; Gibberd, 2016b).

These changes mean that it is important for stakeholders in the South African housing field such as national government, private housing developers, housing NGOs, building component manufacturers and suppliers, building contractors and local municipalities to re-evaluate housing and neighbourhood design and management models. In particular, it is important that the benefits of new approaches and technologies are understood and applied to improve sustainability performance and quality of life. A brief summary of some of the benefits from new developments is outlined below.

  • Climate change: Climate change impacts projected for South Africa include higher average temperatures, increased number of very hot days (days with a maximum temperature of over 35oC), erratic rainfall patterns and more extreme weather events. These changes have significant implications for housing and neighbourhoods. Measures such as sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), rainwater harvesting, additional structure and insulation in roofs, increased provision of shade and drinking water and local climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation plans can be used to build resilience in communities and infrastructure and reduce negative impacts of climate change (Gibberd, 2017a; Gibberd, 2017b) .
  • Water: Highly efficient water fittings can reduce water consumption in housing by 30%, compared to conventional fittings. Greywater systems have the potential to reduce water consumption in housing by a further 20%. Rainwater harvesting systems can provide for 80-90% of the water requirements in housing (100% if filtration is included) (Gibberd, 2009; Gibberd, 2016).
  • Energy: Solar water heaters in housing can reduce electricity consumption and associated carbon emissions by 30-40% compared to conventional electrical geysers. A further 20% reduction can be achieved through more efficient cooking equipment relative to conventional electrical cookers. Highly efficient light fittings, appliances, and controls reduce household electricity consumption by a further 10% compared to conventional systems (Gibberd, 2008). Household photovoltaic systems or micro-grid systems can supply most, or all, the energy requirements of energy efficient housing at a cost similar, or lower, than grid supply.
  • Recycling: In urban areas, municipal by-laws combined within increasing recycling provision is enabling an increased proportion of waste to be recycled. Recycling technologies enable small-scale local recycling and reuse of materials such as plastics and organic matter to create local recycling enterprises (Matete and Trois, 2008).
  • Building design and construction: New design and environmental modelling capability and tools, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), enable the development of designs that are optimized for energy and water efficiency, daylighting and thermal comfort. These techniques can also support ‘future-proofing’ of housing by drawing on climate change and other projections in modelling processes (Azhar, 2011).
  • Building materials and components: Advances in building technology are leading to a range of benefits including better thermal performance of the building envelope, improved indoor environmental quality, reduced environmental impacts and increased speed and quality of construction (Bribián, Capilla and Usón, 2011). Prefabrication of components can improve the quality of construction and reduce construction waste by over 50% (Jaillon, Poon, and Chiang, 2009).
  • Urban agriculture: Urban agriculture developments in fields such as hydroponics now allow small urban spaces to be farmed successfully with less water than conventional agriculture. This improves local food security and social cohesion and the availability of fresh produce improves health and  provides a basis for the development of local food enterprises (Olivier and Heinecken, 2017; Van Averbeke, 2007)
  • Sharing economy: The sharing economy can be used to reduce waste and ensure that facilities and equipment are used more intensively and efficiently. It can also provide a wide range of economic opportunities linked to areas such as accommodation, transportation, food and education for both established and emerging entrepreneurs (Dillahunt and Malone, 2015; EU Environment, 2013).
  • Construction technologies and materials: New hybrid construction techniques combine traditional materials, indigenous knowledge and advanced passive environment control systems to create high quality, comfortable, low energy buildings. Significant local economic impact is created through construction which is labor-intensive and draws on local manufacturing and skills. The approach can also be used to reduce construction costs and improve the affordability of housing by drawing on ‘sweat-equity’ and self-build techniques (Kariyawasam and Jayasinghe, 2016.)

Azhar, S., 2011. Building information modelling (BIM): Trends, benefits, risks, and challenges for the AEC industry. Leadership and management in engineering11(3), pp.241-252.

Bribián, I.Z., Capilla, A.V. and Usón, A.A., 2011. Life cycle assessment of building materials: Comparative analysis of energy and environmental impacts and evaluation of the eco-efficiency improvement potential. Building and Environment46(5), pp.1133-1140.

COGTA, 2016. The Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF). Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

Creamer, T., 2016. CSIR cost study shows new solar, wind to be 40% cheaper than new coal. Mining Weekly.

Department of Human Settlements, 2004. Breaking New Ground A comprehensive Plan for the development of sustainable human settlements. Pretoria. Department of Human Settlements.

Dillahunt, T.R. and Malone, A.R., 2015. The promise of the sharing economy among disadvantaged communities. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2285-2294).

Economist, 2013. The rise of the sharing economy. The Economist.

EU Environment, 2013. New research indicates Sharing Economy is gaining in importance. EU Environment Online Resource Efficiency Platform, May 2013, Retrieved from

Gibberd, J., 2008. Design Guidelines for Energy Efficient Buildings in Johannesburg, City of Johannesburg.

Gibberd, J.T., 2009. Water Conservation. Green Building Handbook. Alive2Green.

Gibberd, J.T., 2016a. Rainwater harvesting: Playing a valuable role in increasing the resilience and sustainability of water supply, Alive2Green.

Gibberd, J., 2016b, Sustainable Waste Streams, 52nd ISOCARP Congress, International Convention Centre, Durban, 12-16 September 2016.

Gibberd, J., 2017a. Pre-design considerations for urban climate change adaption and mitigation strategies, Smart Sustainable Cities & Transport Seminar, 12-14 July 2017, Pretoria.

Gibberd, J., 2017b, Climate Change: Implications for South African Building Systems and Products (Forthcoming).

Jaillon, L., Poon, C.S. and Chiang, Y.H., 2009. Quantifying the waste reduction potential of using prefabrication in building construction in Hong Kong. Waste management29(1), pp.309-320.

Kariyawasam, K.K.G.K.D. and Jayasinghe, C., 2016. Cement stabilized rammed earth as a sustainable construction material. Construction and Building Materials105, pp.519-527.

Matete, N. and Trois, C., 2008. Towards zero waste in emerging countries–A South African experience. Waste Management, 28(8), pp.1480-1492.

Olivier, D.W. and Heinecken, L., 2017. The personal and social benefits of urban agriculture experienced by cultivators on the Cape Flats. Development Southern Africa, 34(2), pp.168-181.

National Planning Commission, 2012. National Development Plan 2030: Our future–make it work. Pretoria: National Planning Commission.

SABS, 2011a. SANS 204 South African National Standard. Energy efficiency in buildings. Pretoria: SABS Standards Division.

SABS, 2011b. SANS 10400 South African National Standard. The application of National building regulations. Part X: Environmental Sustainability. Part XA: Energy usage in buildings. Pretoria: SABS Standards Division.

Van Averbeke, W., 2007. Urban farming in the informal settlements of Atteridgeville, Pretoria, South Africa. Water SA33(3).

Woyke, E, 2017. Blockchain Is Helping to Build a New Kind of Energy Grid. MIT Technology Review, April 19, 2017.

Photo credit: