Delivering Decent Low-cost Housing – The DNA Option

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By Engr Fidel Ogar

After food, shelter is the next vital physical need of man and woman too. So this places a huge concern on all concerned more so government.  I wish to clarify that at this point I will be using the terms housing and shelter interchangeably in the course of this write up.

A Calculated Pause (to ponder)

I am not trying to reinvent the wheel here but to highlight some little unique facts – some special angle to construction.  To enable us step into this new desired mental environment, I humbly wish to suggest that we must have to discard some technical/mental baggage at this threshold so as to free ourselves from the tyranny of the familiar construction tradition we inherited and even created.

In fact, to effectively learn anything from this session or environment, we must unlearn lots of things (technical mindset renewal).  We must challenge and even smash some norms and stereotypes to free ourselves.  This unlearning will definitely throw up a lot of disruption (mentally/physically) and will present an unfamiliar learning curve to especially the field/site personnel.

The mindset renewal effort will include (a) A willingness to set aside certain entrenched ideas about construction of buildings especially low-cost housing (b) A readiness to adapt to new ideas that will surely create disruptions (of unlearning) in order to imbibe (learn) the other approaches (c) Synergy is key but synergy is not group-thinking just as group-thinking is not synergizing.  We must have to place fewer premiums on group-thinking – which is when everybody in a group (team) cluster around a single thought (approach or option) without a variety of views or energies.   It is very much like pouring water through the narrow end of a funnel as against the wider end.

This last item (c) is particularly vital in peculiar environments.

In continuation, let me itemize this discussion as follows:

THE PROBLEM – Residential shelter deficit:- at this point, it is expedient to define our specific concern in the course of this discussion.  This is because we have shelter needs for various purposes namely:-

Shelter for human habitation – residential purposes for families etc

Shelter for human activities – teaching, offices, halls etc

Shelter for storage – warehouse/stores/hangers etc

THE SOLUTION(s) – Decent low-cost/quick-build/mass housing etc

A Decent low-cost- in the sense that it must provide and satisfy above minimum commensurate creature comfort within the enclosure and the external works/features

  1. Quick-build- in the sense that the waiting time (agony time) for the recipients of the intervention is reduce significantly. Response is crucial.
  2. Mass housing – to the extent that it brings significant relief to more people per intervention while also considering the demands of shared facilities and space for human interaction etc.

STRATEGY – This means what should be done to get the practical solution in place.  Every situation or problems – like organisms – have their basic component that defines it and can be altered or modified to achieve a preferred result.  Let us call it DNA.  The problem under scrutiny indeed has a DNA and is the crux of the matter.

The ‘D’ stands for the DESIGN of the shelter.  A whole lot, in construction, rise and fall on design – be it cost, comfort, speed of construction, maintenance, aesthetics etc.  The need for synergy between the design personnel and the site/construction personnel at this cannot be over emphasized.  This gives birth to the concept of BUILDABILITY which makes or mars the final impact of the project.  It is huge.

The ‘N’ – stands for NATURALITY available construction materials which affect cost of transportation of preferred materials, importation and even the familiarity of the local/available labour with such materials. Imported materials, at times, require the sourcing of ‘specialist’ skills complete with camping facilities while the project lasts. Add to all these, the costly and time consuming double-handling of materials over difficult terrains and long distances.  What you are looking for in “sokoto” might just be in your “shokoto” (pocket) – the saying goes.

The ‘A’ stands for ALTERNATIVE construction approaches, this demand for large dose of technical /mental-renewal from the design and construction team

TACTICS – this means how to do it, taking into consideration all the aforementioned points among other details while still keeping an eye on the strategy.

A comprehensive knowledge and application of the requirements of alternative construction approach is the ultimate matrix in the whole enterprise (of low-cost housing delivery) At this point (of tactics), some other accompanying factors are already considered as “given”

Namely:- Finance and Land (site).  We must then be guided by the natural sequences of activities in the course of initiating a housing project, be it high-brow or low-cost.  They are:

Design (concept) of the project – call it Model.

Method of Construction – call it Mode.

Cost implication(s) – call it BOQ

Land/finance etc (considered to be a “given” component in this discussion). The quantity and Quality of the housing effort (project) will be affected largely by items (A) and (B) above.

So, interplay, even a balancing between Model and Mode is the whole essence of this challenge considering the fact construction/method alone accounts for approximately 50 to 60 per cent of the available funds.  Land which is considered a given in this discussion accounts for approximately 25 to 30 per cent in the open market depending on location.

I must clarify that the terms “construction/method above stands for – construction materials with each item approximately sharing the fund (50-60%) equally (50% of 50-60%).  Note also that the percentage stated above are not sacrosanct but in real project situation deviate slightly around the figure stated above.

The cost and construction time involved in the principal elements of roof-walls and foundation is significant and therein lies the gains of a well-honed tactics and when these gains are aggregated, the result is a significant cost benefit.  These benefits can be ploughed back into the project/budget to deliver extra units of housing.  Speed of construction (quick-build) is a collateral bonus because some of the time consuming construction operational/elements on site are bye-passed as a result of applying the alternative construction approaches (tactics).

Practically, building construction is about design, materials and construction method, so to cut meaningful overall cost, we must re-jig the heavy cost items such as construction mode, materials etc.  This discussion is, obviously, inherently technical, so a practical attention to the site actively is a must to enable us access the innovations therein. This definitely is an opportunity to explore for collateral benefits.  For the purpose of practical illustration, we will examine a handful of options viz:-

Cross wall or box frame (storey) building with open plan to be partitioned, enclosed as preferred based on future change of use among other considerations.

Differential foundation in substructure for stand-alone or terraced buildings

The examination (by sketch) of a couple of elements of existing construction details from the roof, walls and foundation should suffice for the purpose of practical/theory.

In conclusion, I would consider it a success if we can all take home the following maxim…”do not be overly conformed but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

….Ogar, a former Chief Building Engineer, Cross River State Ministry of Works, Lands and Housing writes from Abuja.

 

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