South Africa’s low-cost housing: constraints and opportunities

SEED alternative low carbon housing design

Housing is an often contentious and aggressively debated topic as it carries the weight of a huge number of socio-economic factors. Even more so in South Africa where citizens have the right to adequate housing mandated at a constitutional level, with the state required to provide reasonable support and resources. Through this interplay between the public and the state, housing has come to represent the discussion around the rights to economic opportunities, safety, services, mobility and a host of other issues.

Yet at its core it is still a discussion about a designed object, form and function coming together to provide adequate shelter in a manner that offers a dignified day-to-day lived experience for people.

Beyond the larger discussion of the socio-economic implications of housing provision, we have made very little progress in the delivery of new approaches in housing construction and typologies. Our urban strategies around densification mean that focus is placed on developing higher density social housing, which offer the greatest return on investment with improved economies of scale in terms of construction and management.

Yet for a vast number of people in South Africa, displacement and land economics mean that the form of housing constructed by the state is that of the single dwelling home. Low cost housing traditionally takes the form of simple brick structures in monoculture swathes. This has been provided in large quantities over the last 20 years and is seen as an ineffective housing model. With the likelihood that this is going to continue as a prominent model going forward, the opportunities for housing innovation are very real. Improvements in speed, cost and quality are all needed.

Many different housing models and systems have been proposed as solutions to the low cost and informal housing market around the world. Every engineer has an idea for a quick way to build houses, and the chance of seeing an architectural competition that doesn’t propose a new form of modular (and almost always shipping container based) low cost housing is rather slim these days. So rather than a new proposal, it is useful to filter those options by examining the constraints and opportunities around low cost and informal housing in South Africa.

Norms and standards

In terms of housing, there are actually very few set requirements in South Africa. National standards are set by the National Housing Act and the National Building Regulations but they can often be sidestepped with the application for an Agreement or MANTAG certificate. These allow the designs produced by a ‘competent person’ to be deemed appropriate for a location in terms of health and safety standards. As many of the standards are voluntary, below is compiled a list combining present norms and standards as well as the suggested guidelines for efficient and sustainable housing design by government bodies, many of which are a requirement for access to housing subsidies. These constraints and opportunities make up a framework for thinking about positive and innovative housing solutions that offer a step forward in terms of resource use, economic cost, environmental sustainability, socio-economic responsibility as well as liveability.


Summary table of regulations and guidelines

FormMinimum 40 m2 floor area. Two bedroomsMaterials very loosely defined
Separate bathroom (toilet, shower and hand basin)Form not defined
Combined living area and kitchen (wash basin and electricity supply)Construction by certified builders who have warranties for roof leakage (one year), major structural defects (five years) and non-compliance (three months.)
Built on favourable soil conditions
Maximum of 10 metres from a municipal water and sewage connection
Safe foundation for load and damp resistance
Water and weather resistant facade. Minimum window footage and controllable ventilation at 5% of floor area. One at least 0.1 m2
Wall height of 2,4m minimum and ceiling height of 2.1m minimum
EnergyEfficient and safe is the aim.Installation of 110-150 Wh/Day of solar in much of SA at R2500-R4000.
Free basic provision to applicable houses on grid or off (50kWh per month).Combined board and meter as Electricity Control Unit.
230V preferable within 207V-253V flexible range at point of supply. Efficient lighting, heating and cooking designs.
Single or three phase system.Bulk supply of LNG, cheaper and safer than most sources.
Grid extension cost at R20,000-R55,000 per km.
Renewable source (Wind, solar, biofuels).
50% of water heating should be supplied by means other than electrical resistance.Solar water heating (40% of average household energy consumption), subsidized with 4-5 year payback time.
WaterSingle stand pipe per stand.Rainwater collection with filters.
Minimum 25 litres p/per day (realistically 80-145).Wind water pumps optimal balance between cost and maintenance.
Contamination protection.
Aesthetic water acceptability (Class 0-1).
Water at 200 kPa or greater, and >43 degrees.
DrainageMinimize downstream impact, don’t damage natural flows.Promote permeability, maintain vegetation.
Runoff conveyed >1.5m from structure.Store and control runoff.
Prevent pollution.
SanitationHuman right. Should be reliable, acceptable, appropriate, affordable and sustainable in the eyes of the user.Non conveyance toilet options (ventilated double toilet, vault toilet, urine diversion toilet).
Toilet facility for each household.Low-flow conveyance toilets.
Low tech and low maintenance solutions with future upgradability.
Minimal environmental impact.Possibilities for greywater ponding, permeability, soakaways, and gardening (for produce not eaten raw).
Adequate disposal of waste water.
Shared sewage connections.
4-10 year emptying and maintenance cycle.
Separate greywater conveyance. Generated at 20-60 litres p/per day.
SustainabilityAppropriate orientation. Long axis East/West.Encourage long term investment in house with improved efficiency. tBetter material usage reduces economic load on inhabitants.
Energy efficiency through windows, skylights and low wattage lightbulbs.Environmental quality and sustainability.
Thermal efficiency: Appropriate overhangs (Northern side), fenestration (R2.2 or masonry at R0.35 >140mm thick. Roofing >R3.7. Floors >R1.0 at 300mm thick.)Improves health and safety of building.
Passive housing design.
SafetyProtection and evacuation of occupants in case of fire. Limit the spread.Building materials that are more resistant to fire and therefore protect neighbouring properties.
Safe air quality through ventilation. For damp and smoke.Health improvement and disease reduction through improved air flow.
Humidity compensation.Visibility and connectivity.
Street lighting or communal high mast lighting.
FundingMultiple funding options with constraints.
Multiple subsidy options available around community and self construction as well as social housing buy in.
Family earning less than R3,500 per month can qualify for a subsidy of up to R160,573.In-situ options available for informal areas.
Subsidies linked with down payments (FLISP) can amount to between R20,000 and R87.000.

In our thinking about low cost and informal housing, the regulations and guidelines are often deemed inappropriate for the context. Yet by acknowledging them there suddenly exists a clearer structure to work within. By attempting to think in terms of practical constraints there is an increased likelihood of access to housing subsidies, as well as the creation of housing stock with a more viable and permanent future. The production of cheaper, more efficient and liveable houses means people and families are more likely to be carrying an asset rather than a financial drain going forward. With continuing technological and logistical improvements in construction, the challenge becomes determining what is both appropriate and meets people’s needs.


Table references:

CSIR Building and Construction Technology. 2005. Human Settlement Planning and Design Volume 1 & 2.

Department of Human Settlements. 2009. National Housing Code: Technical and General Guidelines.

National Home Builders Registration Council. 2014. A Guide to the Home Building Manual.

National Building Regulations and Building Standards Act No. 103 of 1977.

Peter Henshall-Howard. National Building Regulations Part XA: Energy Efficiency presentation.

SABS. 2011. SANS 204:2011 – Energy efficiency in buildings.

Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa. 2011. A Resource Guide to Housing in South Africa 1994-2010: Legislation, Policy, Programmes and Practice.


Mark Jackson is an editorial intern at UrbanAfrica.Net with a background in environmental sciences as well as city and regional planning. He is presently studying at UCT in the engineering and built environment department, doing research into the project management success factors behind large scale urban developments.



Photo credit: Inhabitat

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2 Responses to “South Africa’s low-cost housing: constraints and opportunities”

  1. lesego

    I’m a 29 year old single parent ,working with an income of R3500 basic salary, need to own my own property than renting ,please help with information

  2. Charl Daniels

    Thank you for the article. Even though it was published in 2015 it is still very relevant to the situation we are faced with in the Western Cape and South Africa with regard to the provision of affordable housing.
    @ lesego, are you still looking to purchase a home rather than rent?


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