The Herald

The Herald

Let’s consider low-cost housingZIMBABWE’S urban areas need well over 500 000 new houses and flats immediately just to cope with existing populations and will no doubt need tens of thousands more each year since the population of the towns and cities continues to rise rapidly.This year, celebrations in Harare to mark World Habitat Day were a far cry from the pious speeches that tend to be given on these special days.There was, for a start, the launch of the Zimbabwe Urban Housing Database that gives detailed breakdowns of just how many houses and flats of what kind already exist, average numbers in each home in each area, and the estimated number of new houses needed urgently.And the speakers, led by the Minister of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, Cde Ignatius Chombo, spoke of the need for urgent action, from amending outdated legislation that makes it difficult for the average person to build to the need to mobilise funds from the private sector.There are two aspects to any programme to build a lot more houses and flats.The first is servicing the land, providing the roads, water mains and sewers. It is these services that turn very cheap or even free farmland into quite expensive urban plots and there is not a lot that can be done to reduce the costs.One way would be to economise temporarily on roads, laying down decent gravel roads at the beginning while charging stand owners a levy after the first couple of years, when the first appalling payments have been made, to create the funds needed to upgrade and tar the roads.While Zinwa has suggested innovations in sewers, with suburbs or small towns using communal septic tanks or sand filters, the cost savings are unlikely to be significant when compared to trunk sewer connections unless the suburb is isolated.So somewhere along the line, large sums are needed for servicing land and until inflation is tamed, there will be no mortgages.But perhaps an innovative way would be for rent-to-buy plots, without houses, and the developer allowed to increase payments monthly so that the real return on the investment remains fairly constant over, say, 10 years, allowing the investor or developer to get their money back with a modest and laid-down profit.When it comes to actual housing, a lot more can be done to reduce costs and use the sort of materials that are available on-site or nearby and which do not need expensive capital or labour to use in building, so allowing families to either do a lot more work themselves or allow small business to enter the field of making building materials.The under-rated "farm" bricks are one possibility.People sneer at these, but there are quite a few buildings over 100 years old in Harare built of hand-moulded bricks that are not just standing, but will be a headache to knock down.The walls of State House itself, thought suitable for colonial governors as well as post-independence presidents, are asbestos cement sprayed onto chicken wire, with masonry pillars to hold up the roof.Most houses in the United States of America are wooden-framed with wooden panels for the walls, and that is one of the richest countries in the world.Adobe — which is made of extra-large bricks moulded from a clay, sand and organic fibre mix — and rammed earth properly stabilised with a modest admixture of lime or cement are both making a comeback as the rich people of the North seek low energy housing.Furthermore, there are plenty of buildings in Spain and North Africa built of adobe and rammed earth that are several centuries old, with some over 1 000 years old.Bulawayo kept many of the rammed earth houses built in the 1940s when European immigrants were pouring into the country, and these houses are still fine 60 years later.Zimbabwe has a reasonable amount of limestone and all it really needs is some innovative businessperson to start producing lime as a quite acceptable substitute for Portland cement in adobe and rammed earth stabilisers and in mortars for brick or adobe housing.The model building by-laws, not a lax set of rules by any standard, give directions for the mixtures in mortar.Zimbabwe does not want or need sub-standard housing, shacks or other temporary build- ings.Zimbabweans need decent permanent homes.But that does not mean that everything has to be built of machine-made bricks under cement-tile roofs. There are plenty of alternatives and some are probably better, especially when the climate, environment and other factors are taken into account.And many of these first-class alternatives are a lot cheaper than brick under tile, a useful bonus for a country that needs to double its urban housing stock right now.It could also be useful to see how the two major defeated powers in World War II, Germany and Japan, managed to rebuild their cities from incinerated rubble within a decade.We do not have to use the same technology, but we could learn how capital and labour were mobilised for what are probably the greatest rebuilding programmes in history.It needs to be remembered that housing is still considered one of the best ways of employing armies of able-bodied skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled people, creating significant economic growth in the country and slashing unemployment rolls using local raw materials, whose manufacture provides yet more jobs. As Cde Chombo noted, it just needs a large co-operative effort.

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