Building up

Adaptable modular homes present a solution to South Africa’s housing crisis.

‘No one can challenge the admirable intentions behind RDP housing,’ said Delana Finlayson, managing director of Urban Think Tank Empower (UTTE). ‘However, the programme’s focus on quantity over quality has produced houses that do not always meet the needs of the people living in them.’

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was a South African socioeconomic policy framework, one sector of which was the creation of government-subsidised housing for the 1,9 million households living in informal settlements. However, many RDP houses fell short in terms of quality, safety and practicality. 

UTTE is a non-profit organisation that forms part of the Urban-Think Tank Design Group, an international collective that uses the power of architecture and design to uplift the lives of marginalised communities worldwide. In 2013, the local UTTE team launched the Empower Khayelitsha project, an initiative dedicated to developing and implementing a new public-housing model with the potential to end South Africa’s chronic public-housing crisis. This pilot project involved scaling upwards on existing informal settlement sites, allowing for more space without the forced removals of any residents.

A key feature of the project was that the homes were designed in line with the needs, aspirations and cultural values of the communities – each of the 72 colourful modular homes, housing a total of 350 people, was designed to enable the owner to adapt the layout to suit their specific needs, and they can be set up to accommodate a larger family, several smaller families, or even a ground-floor shop, with the living quarters on the first floor. As noted on UTTE's website, 'From day one, we worked closely with community representatives to ensure that the model we were developing responded directly to what community members actually wanted. With their input and support, the pilot project is now bringing life-changing social and economic benefits to 72 households.' 

The second phase of the Empower Khayelitsha project is under way, with UTTE set to replicate and scale up the existing model for another few hundred residents. 

For more information about the project visit


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Photographs: Urban-Think Tank Empower.