The answer to Africa’s chronic housing shortage could be an innovative new design system, discovers Eric Jackson
Uganda's population is predominately rural, and its population density is highest in the southern regions. Is experiencing a chronic housing shortage. In South Africa this is being address by local firms such as Urban Dynamics who have overseen ambitious housing schemes, including Palm Ridge.
But with the South African government putting out to tender the building of thousands of 45 square metre units, the opportunities are open for scores of other companies.
Many of them will be local, but there’s one as far away from Africa as Chelmsford in Essex that’s hoping to get in on the action. Not that the company sees distance as a disadvantage – because all of its houses are assembled, from pre-machined parts, on site. Known as Instant Housing Solution, it’s flatpack, but unlike any flatpack that’s been created before, and moreover, it’s claimed to form the strongest structures ever – capable of withstanding earthquakes and hurricanes – and with a life expectancy of over 60 years. AcerMetric has already used its ground-breaking technology to build a 135 square metre block in Ghana for oilfield provider Oceaneering. That included six offices, a reception area, toilets and kitchen – and all for a fraction of the price of a normal building, with AcerMetric charging just £57,000.
That’s because, as a purely intellectual property and design company, AcerMetric issue licences for the actual manufacturing process. The block in Ghana, for instance, went to a company in Italy. The whole Buildings from AcerMetric range from small work cabins to three-storey houses and offices concept is the brainchild of engineering designer and AcerMetric CEO David Appleford, who was told at school that the golden trio of sectors to work in was food, energy and shelter.
“I started out in the food industry and then went into energy, designing oil and gas platforms with contracts worth millions of pounds,” he said.
“And it was that mentality – of producing systems away from the site where they would eventually be used – that I took into AcerMetrics.
“I thought I’d done food and energy, so the only thing left was shelter, and I feel with this that it will change the way people live.”
The system – self-supporting, interlocking geometric elements are put together, using one simple hand tool, to create the floors, walls and ceilings – can be used to build permanent or temporary structures in a range of sizes, shapes and styles.
“The beauty of the system is that it is simple, but durable,” says David. “Because the panels are affordable to produce, we are able to include sophisticated engineering in the design at a competitive price.
“Units are also easy to assemble. In a disaster-struck area, we can set up a temporary hospital in a matter of days and provide solid housing units for an entire village in weeks.
“They can later be upgraded to permanent structures, and individualised to accommodate specific requirements or preferences.”
David is perplexed than no one has thought of it before, believing current thinking on house construction is stuck in the dark ages.
“If anything, we’ve regressed since the Romans. Houses today are bitzas – bits of this and bits of that, all with different components. The walls are different from the ceiling which is different from the floors.
“They’re gravity based systems, which means that only gravity keeps them stable. Tip them up or apply too much stress and they fall apart.
“With our houses you can rotate them, tip them and batter them and they’ll still stay rigid,” he says.
structures – which are made from timber and magnesium oxide panels for smaller structures but with the addition of steel for multi-storey buildings – are good for the communities that have them, believes David.
“We take corporate responsibility seriously. One of the main attractions of the company’s housing system is that the units can be both produced and installed locally by non-trades people, therefore creating local jobs as well as affordable, quality housing.
“We always seek to appoint an in-country licensee for marketing and a separate licensee for production, reducing the carbon footprint both in terms of logistics and sustainable materials used.
“We take a very hands-on approach to delivering on-site training with our licensees, partners and clients, teaching them the skills that are required,” says David.
An AcerMetric house being put together “All companies in our supply chain will be approved under the Buildoffsite Registration Scheme operated by Lloyd’s Register, so we know that they meet UK and international quality standards.”
The only downside, admits David, is that the houses are so light that they need to be clamped to the ground.
As well as looking to go into Africa, David sees countries in earthquake zones as being particularly interested in the homes.
“We’ve built a house in Barbados, which we believe would be ideal for Haiti. If the island had had our houses, there wouldn’t have been any of that devastation. All our houses would still be standing,” he says.
Another possible market is India, and one even closer to home. “We’ve built a three-bedroom five-person home at our current offices, but it’s being disassembled and moved to a new location and that is going to be our base until we build more offices, again using our special system, close by.
“In the gardens at the back there are also some greenhouses, and we’re going to put some demonstration student accommodation in them.”
For Africa, David anticipates supplying basic square houses, but he enthuses about the future possibilities.
“Our houses comes in all shapes and sizes, and the beauty of them is that should someone want to add another storey or two at a later date, thanks to the interlocking system, they can, and in just a matter of days.”
The system is based on a variety of geometric elements that interlock and engage in all three planes to create a strong tetrahedral superstructure.
The foundation, floor, wall, ceiling, joists, columns, upper floors, walls and ceilings to roof structure are completely pre-tensioned to create a unique, versatile, integrated building that is resistant to earthquake, wind, water and fire.