Is this the house of the future? SA cities join green build projects

The layout is based on the central courtyard typology.
The layout is based on the central courtyard typology.
Image: Sharné Bloem

Communal spaces centred around producing your own food in an inside-out space with a water feature - reminiscent of a kraal. That’s how SA researchers reimagine housing post Covid-19.

A team from Stellenbosch University (SU), the University of Cape Town and the Sustainability Institute, known as “Team Mahali”, recently won first prize in the City of Cape Town and Green Building Council SA’s design competition.


The Mahali Hub that recently won the My Clean Green Home competition hosted by City of Cape Town and the Green Building Council SA will be on display in Greenpoint Park in Cape Town until March 14. Take a virtual tour here

The team also bagged second place in the architecture category at the Solar Decathlon Africa in Morocco just over a year ago. Twenty teams from universities around the world designed, constructed and operated net zero-energy houses powered purely by the sun. The 18 houses by teams from around the world are part of an urban living lab at the Iresen Green and Smart Building Park in Ben Guerir, Morocco.

Sharné Bloem, initiator and project leader of Team Mahali and a researcher in the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at SU, said their aim is for all new housing to function as net zero carbon: Housing that is distinctly energy efficient and powered by on-site or off-site renewable energy based generation. This concept could be shared in water and waste systems.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has put sharply into focus the need to rethink the very definition of housing, all the more so because our living spaces have become our ‘offices’ too.

“We were also made acutely aware of the benefits of living with others to combat isolation and depression and as a way of splitting costs and saving,” said Bloem.

Reimagining the kraal (under the tree)

At the Solar Decathlon Africa, the central water feature of Team Mahali’s entry also functioned as a rainwater storage facility.

“This central water feature was connected to a 2,000-litre ‘water bladder’ installed under the deck. The water was then used for the upcycled food garden and washing the solar PV panels,” Bloem said.

Many features of the house are topics of further study and research. These include the house being transportable, made pest-proof and, importantly, being affordable.

Architect, SU alumnus and Mahali team member Wimbayi Kadzere said the Covid-19 pandemic emphasised the importance and effectiveness of space, natural light and ventilation in buildings.

Ethekwini, Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town hope to reach net zero carbon for all new buildings by 2030.

“The configuration of spaces in the Mahali houses around a central courtyard regulates the air and light quality within those spaces and supports reduced energy consumption. Ultimately, it encourages the wellness of occupants without the added costs of mechanical ventilation and lighting.” 

Kadzere cited the “intimate connection” between housing, health and well-being.

The layout was based on a traditional courtyard typology.

“We might have to go back to this type of housing typically found in many African regions, from dwellings arranged around a central cattle enclosure or kraal and the traditional Ashanti dwelling and Moroccan ‘riad’.

“It is common for central courtyards to be oriented around a central water feature. This results in both bioclimatic control and aesthetic purposes,” said Kadzere.

The main design inspiration of both the houses in Ben Guerir and Cape Town was to design something that could represent a tree, which apt for the continent, said Bloem.

“We hide from the warm African sun under it, we transfer knowledge and stories under it. A tree not only provides shade, but also generates energy through the leaves and has a sophisticated water system inside and out to stay alive. The courtyard typology was complimentary to our tree concept and can also facilitate a passive cooling effect.”

Four South African cities - eThekwini, Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town - have recently joined the C40 cities net zero carbon by 2050 initiative.

The aim is to reach net zero carbon for all new buildings by 2030 and all buildings by 2050.

Current research topics for Bloem and her co-researchers include delving deeper into upcycling, the disruptive nature of net zero carbon and the place of technology.


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