A concerted strategy by the local banking sector and government to increase the financing of structures built using alternative building technologies (ABTs) in South Africa is not only driving the increased application of these techniques, but is also targeting sceptical end-user perceptions.
South African consumers have long preferred the brick-and-mortar construction approach and have been slow to react to ABTs, which have entered the market at an increasing rate over the past decade.
Overhauled banking policies and a renewed push by government are aiming to shift this perception, which stakeholders hope will enable the practice to gain momentum and develop into a standalone industry.
Several bankers have developed a model policy for the financing of properties constructed using alternative building systems, with local bank Absa appearing to lead the private-sector charge by focusing on the development of sustainable integrated projects in line with government’s housing policy.
Absa, in association with parastatal the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) and the National Housing Finance Corporation, launched the first housing innovation competition in 2005 in Shoshanguve, Tshwane, to draw innovative housing designs to the affordable market.
Absa head of retail markets Arrie Rautenbach explains that the Eric Molobi Housing Innovation Hub has provided a space in which private companies can permanently showcase building technologies and where the dura- bility of these techniques can be tested.
“The aim of this hub was to set a benchmark of good quality and cooperation between a set of stakeholders and role-players, as well as to show that low-cost housing construction can be fast-tracked with cooperation and innovative technology,” he explains.
In addition to the 17 low-cost alternative- technology houses built at the hub, this private-public partnership also hosts an on-site laboratory at which various alternative housing materials are tested and research into alternative technologies is conducted.
The laboratory reviews rational designs of ABTs that do not comply with deemed-to- satisfy rules as stipulated by the South African National Standard (SANS) 10400, and tests the materials used at building sites.
NHBRC engineer Paimaan Byron emphasises that the costs of such tests undertaken by the NHBRC are borne by the construction company, should such testing indicate noncompliance.
“Should the material comply with SANS 10400, the account is for the NHBRC,” he says.
Interestingly, Byron points out that a common misconception in the industry is that alternative technologies always include novel or engineered materials that have not previously been used in construction.
In reality, it is simply the way in which the materials are engineered into a design that brands them as innovative.
“Innovative housing techniques refer to any deviation from traditional construction methods that are not specified within the limitations of SANS 10400 – it does not neces- sarily have to be a material that has never been used before,” he notes.
The importance of the hub, Byron adds, is that it is the first time in South Africa that these engineering methods have been tested over the long term to determine their resilience to the harsh African climate.
Following seven years of exposure to the elements, a number of these ABT houses have experienced significant and often irreparable damage, while others have demonstrated a robust construction technique and remained in good condition.
While building innovations have proved attractive to the general housing market as a result of a trend towards a more sustainable, energy efficient way of living, it is its potential for wide-scale application in the low-cost or subsidised housing sector that is the driving force behind government and banking sector investment.
Despite the ability of alternative construction methods to accelerate the delivery of housing, Cement & Concrete Institute human settlements technical marketing consultant Adele de Lange warns that the social agenda of the country, specifically with regard to job creation and poverty alleviation, must not be discarded during this process.
Engineering News reported earlier this year that the human settlements market was not exclusively focused on providing houses and homes, but also satisfied a job creation function.
“From an alternative technologies perspective, when you are working in the human settlements market, you have to manage the issue of job creation. While new technologies must be sustainable, so too must the skills transfer, making labourers employable in a wider market,” she said.
De Lange also stresses that the correct implementation of building technology is imperative to avoid the negative impact of time constraints on quality.
“In the construction industry, everything is about quality – whether the product is factory-manufactured, precast or cast on site. The focus needs to be on the end product and how well it will last over time,” she says.
The National Department of Human Settlements (NDHS) says that while it is currently involved in policy development surrounding the use of ABTs in subsidised or low-cost housing, it is considering instigating procurement processes to upscale their use, with tenders open to accommodating alternative-technology providers.
While government asserts it is not in a position to support specific alternative materials or technologies, it has ensured that all housing projects have facilitated the application of alternative technologies and that, in such cases, tender processes are specifically designed to allow for alternatives.
“That said, we will only support housing technologies and systems that can be sustained in the South African context,” NDHS chief director of communications Xolani Xundu stresses.
Subsidy-financed housing projects are only approved if the project as well as houses are enrolled under the NHBRC warranty scheme, and only if the building methods and materials comply with national building regulations and are supported by Agrément Board accreditation.
Agrément, an internationally recognised body that provides assurance through technical approvals of nonstandardised or uncon- ventional products, reports an increase in the number of technical assessment appli- cations for ABTs and anticipates that ABTs will become the dominant mode of construction in South Africa in the near future.
The certification process requires applicants to participate in a quality-assurance scheme that demands a documented manual addressing key aspects of quality management for assessment.
This manual should cover quality management during the manufacturing of com- ponents, transportation logistics and the erection or construction of the building system.
“Most ABTs offer superior life-cycle costing return on investment when compared with conventional construction systems and the continued support by government reflects their significant environmental sustainability potential,” says Agrément CEO Joe Odhiambo.
Despite the State’s vocal support of ABTs, the widespread application of innovation in subsidised housing developments has been limited.
A review by the NDHS research directorate in 2010 reported that, while the policy space does not prohibit the use of ABTs in government housing projects, most ABTs have limited production capacity as a result of beneficiary perceptions and institutional or developmental issues.
Results revealed that housing beneficiaries tended to feel devalued by the State, and felt that they had been provided with an inferior product when ABT methods were used.
Of the 2.9-million housing units delivered for low-income earners between 1994 and 2010, only 17 000 were constructed using innovative systems.
“The major impediment to large-scale roll-out is the inability of alternative technology providers to build at scale, a lack of understanding regarding the necessary certification and end-user perception,” asserts Xundu.
He adds that the industry should be willing to operate within government constraints in the low-cost housing environment, be transparent about product strengths as well as weaknesses, and ensure the availability of system inform-ation to foster positive user perception.
“We will embark on a consumer education drive to dispel negative perceptions and we expect innovators to do the same,” he says.
Housing technologies company Imision CEO Stephen de Blanche acknowledges government’s attempts to promote ABTs.
“Government has made firm commitments to increase its own use of ABTs to speed up the delivery of housing and has contributed to the development of ABTs through the recent gazetting of a standard that legislates minimum insulation levels in new structures,” he says.
Imison has been appointed by government to build six schools using its innovative insulation system and is aware of several other government-commissioned alternative building projects.
He believes the greatest challenge remains public perception.
“ABTs are often assumed to be faster and inferior in quality, but the reality is that many are actually superior to conventional methods. Structures built using ABTs are almost always completed in less time than their traditional counterparts and, depending on individual application, are usually cheaper,” he says.
Moreover, while he recognises the contribution by the banking sector, he asserts that not all institutions have amended their drawdown processes to accommodate the anomalies associated with ABTs – particularly the speed of delivery and the extent to which some components are premanufactured.