On Earth Day 2013, Sandily

Happy Earth Day 2013!

When we were little, Earth Day was a big deal. We did projects, and papers, and dioramas about Earth Day. Maybe I’m making that up, but I remember loving Earth Day. I looked forward to it. I think I imagined that my future self (which would equate to present me) would be this great planter of trees every year on Earth Day. To date, I have planted zero trees.

I did, however, rake my entire garden last weekend and plan on planting some things this year, so I feel like that’s a baby step in the right direction. Some day, we may be eating vegetables that I grew. I’m thinking tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, basil, mint, and so on. In reality, it will most likely be a sad plot that starts out magnificent but ends up overgrown with weeds. But everyone does that at least once, right?

I may have no idea what I’m doing, but I have friends who know how to do this, so I imagine I can call on them to help assist me with planning, planting, and harvesting.

In the meantime, let’s focus on current ecological issues (of which there about ten billion). I was reading this article about building structures out of plastic bottles. Plastic bottles are great (not really – they’re terrible for the environment, but they’re ubiquitous), and they’ve been used in a ton of very ingenious ways such as providing light to homes and being used to help grow gardens inside.

However, reading about building structures out of plastic, all I could think about were the drawbacks. What about weather? What about security? How is the building going to hold up and be a strong structure going forward?

When I was in South Africa, one of the biggest problems in the townships (informal settlements) was the fact that the houses were built out of essentially reclaimed materials. The houses (some more shack than house) were built out of wood, sheet metal, plastic, anything and everything. The floors were often dirt, or dirt covered in carpeting. It’s hard to keep a place like that clean, but more than that, it’s hard to protect that sort of structure from the elements.

When a fire breaks out in a township, it’s often inside one of the homes. However, it’s nearly impossible to contain the fire based on a number of factors, including the lack of accessibility to running water, proximity to the other homes, and the materials from which the houses are constructed. When one house burns, it’s likely that the others around it are going to burn too, causing unnecessary damage and threatening human life.

The building project I visited was creating a house out of sandbags. These sandbags are laid down in a concrete foundation and eventually plastered or covered in concrete, creating a structure that is nearly impermeable, providing a safer structure that can withstand the elements.

This sandbag house is such a wonderful idea because it makes use of the ubiquitous sand that’s found in and around the Cape Flats where many of these townships are located. It’s cheap to buy the concrete mix and the bags for the sand, and with some community involvement and a little planning, a building can be built relatively quickly and very cheaply. Even better? It’s not flammable like the other houses, offering protection in case of a rapidly spreading fire.

Below is the article that I wrote while I was there, that was published in the Cape Chameleon, the publication of the Projects Abroad journalism project. I think it’s important to highlight sustainable building because it can help draw attention to solutions for problems that badly need solving.

Houses of Sand

THE FUTURE OF ECO-BUILDING

Issue No.52010

Words: Katherine Barry

A pile of charred wood is all that’s left of the shacks. The sand where they sat is littered with burned belongings: a blackened Bible, an office chair, clothes no longer usable. The metal sheets that had once been walls have been salvaged, taken for use in new shacks, the obviously burnt edges blending in amongst the rust.

The first fire broke out three weeks before in the same shack that would be the ignition point of the second fire, which would tear through the informal settlement of Village Heights in Cape Town, depriving 15 families of their homes.

Fires in informal settlements – like Village Heights – represent one of the biggest dangers of living in such a community. Even with attempts to build with space on all sides, fires such as the one that destroyed those 15 shacks can spread quickly since the materials used to construct the homes are highly flammable and unregulated.

‘It was better under apartheid,’ says Bernadine, the community leader who has created and maintained the Village Heights library, and who is the recipient of the first Projects Abroad sandbag house in South Africa. ‘At least then we all had our own homes and jobs. Now we have nothing.’

Government response

According to residents, after the first fire the government offered four wooden posts, five pieces of metal and some grounding plastic as a replacement. However, the metal went to the construction of a roof and the residents were left to use plastic to create walls. During the second fire, a woman was badly burned when the plastic melted onto her skin.

Proper housing is something that many people living in South Africa lack, for a multitude of reasons, including long waiting times after application for government housing. ‘I’ve been on a waiting list for twenty-one years,’ says one woman who lost her home in the fire. ‘My daughter is 20 now.’ She went on to detail her experience, saying that she makes regular visits to go check on the status of her application, only to be told that she is indeed still on the list, but that no further information can be released about the status of the application.

While debates rage about governmental involvement and personal contribution for houses, the issue remains that people lack proper living quarters. Residents of the informal settlements around Cape Town and throughout South Africa are forced to create homes using materials that they can find, salvage, or buy, resulting in homes that often lack even basic features such as a floor. Security measures are an afterthought as well, allowing for criminal activity to flourish in the crowded neighbourhoods. Where to go from here?

Sand is nearly ubiquitous in Cape Town and the surrounding areas. It also might present a feasible solution to the problem of the shack homes in the ever-expanding informal settlements. Filling bags with sand and then stacking them within a frame can create a solid structure that is built both efficiently and quickly.

Beginning with materials, construction with sandbags can be a cheap alternative to traditional building methods. Since all that is needed to build a sandbag structure are bags, sand, cement and wooden and metal framing, the cost drops significantly due to the lack of construction equipment needed. No cranes, no stacks of bricks and no heavy vehicles entering or leaving the construction site.

20% of the materials need to be allocated for the construction of the frame of the sandbag building, but there is a certain amount of flexibility as to what those might be – including the use of wood or tin. Bricks can be used as well, but in order to maintain the eco-friendly atmosphere, they should only be implemented if they are within reach to avoid the entrance of trucks and other machinery in to the site.

Benefits of sand building

This cost-effective creation is incredibly ecofriendly. Since most of the building can be done with materials found on-site, the need for waste is nearly eliminated. This waste elimination plays a large factor in the ecofriendly nature of the sandbag buildings.

Builders who choose to use sandbag building as an alternative to conventional construction methods also stand to gain carbon credits for their choices. Carbon credit programmes offer financial incentives for companies to build in keeping with the ‘green’ trends and for waste elimination and recycling of materials.

This waste elimination and recycling process, presents an opportunity for those who are economically disadvantaged. By being able to build effectively and also save money, they can increase community bonds and safety.

Structural soundness

Besides being fireproof, the sand structures also present an element of soundproofing not found in the corrugated iron structures, which currently make up most of the homes in the townships and informal settlements in the Cape Town area.

They are also not easy to deconstruct or demolish, in essence creating a lasting home that won’t be victim to natural disasters such as flooding or tornadoes. The solidity of the sand as it is packed and stacked neatly to create walls allows for an element of indoor climate control that supersedes that provided by the corrugated structures as well. The sand essentially insulates the home, keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Spreading the word

The surmountable caveat to sand building is that it is not well known as a possible method for creating homes. The newly homeless fire victims had never heard of sandbag building when asked about it, yet were curious as to how it might work. They eagerly agreed that the community would want to be involved in such a building plan, given the right materials.

Based on the readily available materials and the community mentality that many of the neighbourhoods have, it seems that if sandbag structures could catch on, they might make a wonderful improvement for communities who are underfunded and under protected.

Projects Abroad began constructing their first sandbag house at the site of the Village Heights Library in August of 2010. While normally the construction of such a building (one room) would take less than a month, due to staggered volunteer arrivals, the project has continued for more than three months. Nevertheless, the house is beginning to take shape.

Bernadine hopes to show off the building project as a model of sustainable building. As of the beginning of December, the structure was complete and the roof had been added and finalisation of the exterior decoration was beginning. The hope is that the building will remain a long-standing testament to the possibility of creation from local materials and community involvement.

The project supervisor – Deen Singh – remains optimistic that the sandbag building will be used for the betterment of the community. He explained that everything must be done to help the children. The building has been designated for use in a crèche, or a childcare centre, one that will hopefully create a safe haven for children from all over Village Heights. Currently there are five volunteers working on the building. Rick, a German volunteer, feels that the building he is helping to construct will last, showing immediate change in the place that he came to volunteer. ‘It’s nice to leave something behind,’ he said.

Perhaps this sandbag building can be a model of change for a community that is desperate for change, but lacking the resources with which to create it.

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