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Sustainable and informal: A case study in the shadows of housing policy in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa

Adam F Perry


The article reflects on how South African housing policy explores alternatives in lowincome housing  through a pilot project carried out at Site Five or  Masiphumelele, Cape Town. The potential of the project to speak of ‘sustainable’ solutions in housing may have been undermined in its goal to showcase an  alternative in low-income housing because it pushed the envelope by building beyond building codes. By tracing the building process and the ethnographic fieldwork of the author, building practices reveal that in South Africa there are distinct categories between formal and informal ways to construct houses. During  construction, the use of earth, a locally sourced material and typically a rural methodology, challenged regional building codes, but was viewed as acceptable by local residents, architects, engineers, and foreign volunteers who participated to build a more sustainable alternative in low-income housing. The article therefore traces the process of building an urban (township) house with more or less indigenous materials. The interest of the project is reflected by the manner in which local residents accepted an alternative housing product once it matched a ‘modern’ aesthetic. The case study therefore reflects on debates attempting to  conceptualize what formal versus informal means, in terms of constructing houses but also as it relates to debates meant to refine South African housing policy. The success of the project was defined when innovation met local response and new knowledge was generated through discussions defining appropriate technology. Notions of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ and the synergy between these ideas are also explored because of the heightened ramifications, challenges and lessons learned when building outside of prescribed rules. Ultimately, the building process challenged local residents, and others interested in the project, to confront and redefine their ideas about vernacular architecture, in turn, stimulating debate about what constitutes low-income and appropriate housing in South Africa.

Keywords: Vernacular architecture, building, anthropology, sustainability, South Africa, praxis, community, Xhosa, indigenous knowledge, nostalgia, modernity, synergy, hybridism, informal human settlements, townships, housing policy, urban and rural dynamics.