Empower Shack


Daniel Schwartz, U–TT

Empower Shack is an ongoing research-based project by ETH’s Urban-Think Tank that seeks practical and enduring solutions to improving living conditions in Cape Town’s informal settlements.

Af Nina Tory-Henderson

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, characterized by inadequate infrastructure (public transport and roads), lack of basic services (electricity, running water, sewage), high density, crime, and poor quality dwellings.

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.

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

With local NGO Ikhayalami Development Services and ETH Zürich students, U–TT 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 lives in 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.

The shack is a two-story basic timber frame with a sanitation core, clad in metal sheeting. In creating a two-story 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.

The prototype was received with such enthusiasm by the community and the city of Cape Town that U–TT was 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 of Khayelitsha’s BT-Section, where the first four houses were completed in December 2015; all were built by members of the community.

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  BT-Section have the agency to self-build their community but with much higher-quality living standards and amenities.

Following the completion of this pilot project, there is a planned yearlong evaluation process, after which outcomes will be assessed to advance 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, co-founder of U–TT

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 try solutions out on the ground within communities, revealing to governments that opportunities for change are within their grasp.