Harnessing innovation in the service of sustainable human settlements: continued explorations into the 4th dimension in design and technical decision-making in the South African residential sector.



Would “time” as a key factor in design and technical decision-making allow for more success in housing product with regards to concepts of accessibility, affordability, participation, choice, variety and change in the South African housing sector?

This key research question will be handled by answering the following sub-questions:

  • What are the design tools that allow for “time” to be factored into the design process?
  • What are the finance mechanisms that allow for focussing on the walk(able) neighbourhood?
  • What are the delivery and procurement systems that may support such an approach to the built environment?
  • In what way would the current subsidy system need to be reformulated to support this alternative way of conceiving of the built environment?
  • Is this approach financially viable?
  • Does this approach better address issues of sustainability?
  • In what ways could this approach be presented to different stakeholders to make it more accessible and implementable?


The key deliverable will be a unique model for conceptualising, financing and delivering housing at a neighbourhood, block and unit scale.



Housing reveals the social, cultural and political intentions of a people; in South Africa this is particularly evident. Housing policy is reflected in the built product and in the form of neighbourhoods. While the current government intends to remedy inherited fragmentation, preoccupation has tended to focus on meeting quotas rather than developing quality environments. It is believed that changed housing delivery mechanisms will ultimately influence the spatial and physical characteristics of the resultant environment.

Arguably, there is no other topic today that is as highly debated and as controversial as the perpetuation of the inequitable Apartheid city so many years into democracy. We are being bombarded by images of anger, protest, burning tires, and sometimes xenophobia. All of these have been in one way or another attributed to service delivery and housing. Images of Apartheid linger – bus and train-loads of blacks being brought in to service the elite city early in the morning and shipped out again just before dark. There is immense apprehension that this socio-economic inequity will continue to affect the whole country through increased violence and crime.

As the intensity of the debate is increased, it is noticed that:

  • the outcomes of the debates are almost always the same (corruption, red tape, lack of capacity, the need for medium and high density solutions to combat sprawl or a focus on technical solutions and materials at a very local scale or at building level – including passive solar design etc. – as well as asking for increased participation)
  • while the call is for the creation of sustainable human settlements, the discussion always reverts back to “houses”– solutions for individual units
  • while everyone has some or other opinion on housing (professionals or laypeople), very few opinions are truly innovative in the sense that the opinions are rarely translated into “do-able” solutions and tools for implementation at a scale that would have real impact on the structure of South African cities and the inclusion of the poor in the city
  • having said that there appears to be a genuine will from all parties involved in these debates (professionals, government, community representatives etc.) to address this growing challenge and many people, through their organisations and professional bodies, are actively engaging with the topic

South African cities remain highly segregated. According to some authors, the rate of integration has even declined and new divides are emerging. The current apparent support of sub-urban, peripheral growth is resulting in spatial and social fragmentation creating a geography of exclusion and contributing to environmental degradation, none of which is conducive to the creation of sustainable human settlements. Re-directing policy to combat this trend would require a shift in the way we think about the morphology of human settlements as well as the processes by which they are created.

The proposed research and experimental development is aimed at introducing “time” as the 4th dimension in the design of the built environment. By conceiving of developments from the outset as having two distinct levels where one level is permanent, robust, high-quality and shared by groups of people and communities, while the second (lower) level is more transient, transformable, and less permanent (also implying that it can be upgraded once more funds are sourced without disrupting the existing fabric of the built environment), means that different qualities (at different costs) of infill could be achieved within a permanent support system. Changing market demands would thus be catered for so that housing is usable and profitable over a long period of time.

By distributing the levels of decision making in the environment and separating them, there will be reduced conflict and the organic processes of human intervention are allowed to occur, in other words, allowing for the unexpected. The differentiation between a primary and secondary level of the built environment will accommodate informal processes, the involvement of small scale builders and small local industries at a level of the environment which accommodates full on-going participation by residents and users. The final built product (including the primary and secondary levels implemented by various stakeholders) would be able to adapt to user/owner/tenant needs and market demand without major disruptions at the neighbourhood or city scale.  Housing projects become catalysts for environmental transformation and structure and define public space; they may trigger off positive activity in the vicinity and surroundings, allowing for continued interpretation, change, adaptation, and involvement.


By integrating the dimension of “time” in the design of the built environment, technical and design tools for neighbourhood design and city restructuring adaptable housing systems may be conceived within a stable and robust support structure; this urban support structure gives an environment its character. The aim is to allow for flexibility while not subtracting from an effectual urban identity.

It is suggested that a 2-level approach to settlement planning be adopted. This process guarantees 2 things:

  • the “delivered” product (individual family house+multi‑family housing) is complete ‑ i.e. this process is not asking for an empty shell to be delivered (a process that has been problematic in the past)
  • the decision‑making process is split into 2 levels, allowing different people to intervene and make decisions at the relevant levels with everyone being offered the opportunity to make decisions about their immediate environment


Adapting this approach also allows for the re-shaping and re-structuring of South African cities. It is proposed to address the one hour wide walk(able) neighbourhood as the primary element of a city – with regards to:

  • New greenfields developments
  • Existing neighbourhoods and suburbs
  • Informal areas


The approach will also thus fill gaps in knowledge with regards to the following challenges:

  • allowing for the differently-skilled (as opposed to unskilled) to participate
  • allowing the inclusion of different types of technology and materials – thus ensuring that innovation serves a larger vision of spatial transformation and city restructuring and does not become self-serving
  • allowing for better economic models that will ensure more efficient use of limited funds and subsidies
  • allowing for hybrid systems with regards to finance and construction processes



The Breaking New Ground (BNG), a comprehensive plan for the development of sustainable human settlements, 2004, as approved by Cabinet and presented to MINMEC on 2 September 2004 is still very influential on current thinking on housing in South Africa and has thus been consulted to align the aims of this proposal with its intended results. The proposal has also been aligned with thinking imbedded in high level plans such as the National Spatial Development Perspective 2006 and Outcome 8 of the Outcome Based Approach approved by Cabinet.

This research project is in line with current aims as it envisions a mechanism for achieving city restructuring and introduces a new paradigm which may entail reformulating the housing construction sector. This approach may not only to be applied at the building level, but also at neighbourhood and city levels – it is therefore in line with the current shift in focus from the scale of the individual house to that of the sustainable neighbourhood. This allows for innovation which may have true and felt impact in terms of inclusionary housing, participation and providing the poor access to the city in legitimate ways. While social de-segregation is less visible than physical de-segregation, physical de-segregation, however, must still be achieved, through city restructuring, as it might offer more opportunities for social de-segregation.

A dynamic housing programme is in full swing in South Africa, yet the housing backlog is not decreasing. Informality, emergence and the so-called “second economy” are aspects of the South African social/economic scene that will probably remain for many years to come – a unique challenge facing some countries is that designed and informal/emergent systems are equally important. Current debates regarding development, in general, and housing, in particular, attempt to position the issues in the broader perspective of the ‘south’, the African continent and new policy directions in South Africa.

The approach aims to strategically use limited funding to produce a better product, creatively re-think the built environment professions and their engagement with other professions to guarantee more success and impact and in the process achieve residential environments that are as diverse as the range of people that inhabit them. Management and design tools, as well as technical, financial and delivery mechanisms that promote diversity, participation and integration are envisioned. A system of involving government, the private sector and communities in the development and management of a new type of rental and ownership stock is envisioned. Approaches to technology have to be aligned with this thinking and solutions have to be unique to context and varied in response.

There are negative consequences of uniformly grouping low-income people in the same housing developments. Income mix, race mix and tenure mix would probably better help meet the restructuring goals of government as represented by the Breaking New Ground plan (2004). The objective of achieving an income mix should also be accompanied with a corresponding grading of quality levels as it is argued that all people, irrespective of income level or payment capability, should benefit from a robust, permanent and high quality support level. This support, primary structure or base level of the environment then becomes the structuring framework for neighbourhoods (and perhaps cities?). The spaces between buildings and adjacent to housing projects as have the potential to be an important component of level 1 of the neighbourhood environment. Thus, the public realm acts as one component of the primary structure, support or base level.

Current housing stock does not allow for extended families and is very eurocentric in its design. Most housing caters for the typical nuclear family, which is in reality only one form of household, while demand calls for a wider product range. By describing the built environment as live configurations operating on different levels, it is thus envisioned being a dynamic form controlled by people – that is, the built environment is a product of people acting. Thus re-interpretation of living environments to suit changing demographics, family configurations and lifestyles needs to be accommodated.

The concept of participation is thus, not only confined to “once-off” consultation in initial stages of design where in some cases communities participate in decision-making processes, but also as an on-going process where the built environment allows for future adaptations.