Key Considerations for Building Affordable Housing

Reader Contribution by Staff

Building housing projects in developing regions is extremely rewarding, but also quite challenging. It’s prudent to draw ideas from as many resources as possible to improve the process. The following guidelines have proven effective.

1. Community Organizing

  • Encourage solutions that are based on local needs and resources: Emphasize local control, community building, collaboration, self-empowerment and sustainable grassroots solutions.
  • Involve the whole community in the design and building process: Men, women, children, young and old can work together in a way that is reminiscent of traditional barn raisings. Construction sites can be joyous places filled with singing, ceremonies, picnics and other festivities.
  • Encourage vernacular architecture and traditional building methods: Discover what is important to the local community, and then design and build houses that people really like.
  • People-centered building: Houses should be designed for the way people really live within their culture. Include input from women who speak from experience about what makes a good home.
  • Collaborate with other groups: Work with volunteer architects and engineers for technical assistance, NGOs and local universities for educational materials, training and other resources, youth groups, etc.
  • Team approach: The construction process can be broken down into major steps (foundation, walls, roof, plastering, etc.). Hire local craftsmen whenever possible. Or train workers so each crew learns one skill for maximum efficiency. The most competent leaders help jump-start other housing projects.
  • Hands-on learning: Utilize experiential learning, service learning and real-world experience instead of abstract, theoretical approaches.
  • Self-build housing: Owner-builders build much of their own houses instead of being totally reliant on contractors.
  • Utilize existing skills as much as possible: Some new skills may be required, but avoid unnecessary and sudden changes.
  • Workshops: Once the local population is trained and experienced, they can host future workshops. This includes training those who wish to learn natural building and community groups looking for service learning and cultural exchange projects. This creates an ongoing source of funding and labor, and helps spread sustainable building concepts.
  • Cottage industries: Create local jobs with sustainable logging, milling, truss manufacturing, making CEBs, contracting, supplying materials (clay, stone, straw, thatch), etc.
  • Create a local economy through building houses for each other: The tendency is to look for ‘real’ jobs somewhere else. Work together to build community.
  • Build more than just houses: Create peaceful, thriving communities built with love and care that meet all basic human needs for everyone who lives there.

 2. Building Technologies

  • Utilize locally available, low-cost natural materials: Use straw, earth, stone, sustainable wood supplies, recycled materials, etc., instead of highly processed, energy-intensive manufactured materials that are shipped long distances.
  • Keep the design small and simple so everyone can afford a home: The simplest homes are usually one-story structures that avoid complex rooflines, skylights, dormers, and complex shapes and angles.
  • Energy-efficient design: Straw-bale construction, for example, provides super-insulation that greatly reduces long-term energy costs and almost eliminates the need for supplementary heating and cooling. In certain climates, earthbag building that utilizes soil at or near the building site may be the best choice.
  • Permaculture principles: This can include roofwater catchment, composting, composting toilets, sheet mulching, organic gardening, xeriscaping, forest gardening and more.
  • Appropriate technology: This can include solar ovens, mass heaters, solar water heaters and distillers. Consider all human needs such as cooking, water supply and waste disposal.  (This topic will be addressed in more detail below.)
  • Passive solar design: Orient buildings along an east-west axis and use proper placement of windows (additional windows on the south, fewer on the west, north and east walls). Use correctly sized roof overhangs that allow penetration of the winter sun, but block the hot summer sun. Design for natural daylighting to minimize the need for artificial lighting.
  • Utilize low tech solutions: This includes rubble trench foundations, earthbag or stone foundations, straw-bale construction, cob furniture, straw-clay, bamboo instead of rebar, pumice instead of rigid foam insulation, cellulose or rice hulls or cotton instead of fiberglass insulation, earthen floors instead of concrete, lime or earthen plaster instead of cement stucco, and minimally processed local wood instead of imported lumber.
  • Incorporate the latest advancements in natural building methods and techniques such as roundwood or pallet trusses, external pinning with bamboo, etc.
  • Use a ‘good hat and good shoes’: All buildings should have a good foundation and a good roof that protects the rest of the structure.
  •  Create safe construction sites: Minimize use of power tools and limit their use to those who are qualified. Use sturdy ladders and include basic safety training for everyone who participates.