High cost of cheap housing

Most Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses are environmental disasters that are cheap to build but cost their occupants a fortune to maintain, say housing activists.

“In the effort to scale up housing delivery to meet political targets, energy and environmental issues associated with low-cost dwellings have been neglected,” says Marlett Wentzel, project director of Palmer Development Consulting (PDC), a development group that raises awareness about environmentally friendly housing.

“With very little effort and cost on the part of developers, these houses can be turned into energy-efficient dwellings that will not only increase the comfort levels of the occupants, but will bring South Africa closer in line with international climate-change protocols,” says Wentzel.

She says poor people are forced to use excessive amounts of coal and wood for cooking and heating, which create air pollution and harm their health.

“If we do not plan to address these issues timeously, the houses developers provide will continue to overheat in summer and become exceedingly cold in winter, requiring excessive energy consumption and household expenditure to maintain comfort.”

Simple principles would save homeowners maintenance costs. These include positioning houses to make optimum use of the sun during winter, painting them in colours that absorb heat, positioning windows to face north, ensuring an adequate roof overhang on the northern side, putting in a ceiling and using a concrete slab to absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

“RDP houses are very cheap to build, but their running costs are astronomical. They are built of such energy-inefficient materials that sometimes it is warmer outside the house than inside,” says Wentzel. “Heating can cost poor people up to 66% of their income.”

Affordability is uppermost in the minds of the government and developers, but consumer advocacy groups like PDC are as concerned about quality.

“Energy-efficient measures are a key component of sustainable development in that they emphasise prudent use of natural resources and effective protection of the environment, while ensuring a better quality of life for this generation and and those to come,” says Wentzel.

“The best time to make improvements to the basic RDP house is before it has been built. However, developers understandably cannot be relied on to implement recommendations about energy efficiency, because they are in the business of putting up the most cost-effective structures. Neither will consumers demand better quality, because they are just happy to get a house.”

In 1998 a government task team published a set of guidlines for environmentally sound low-cost housing under the national subsidy scheme that would improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor.

Energy consumption patterns among low-income households are one of the most important factors influencing the national electricity demand and the high levels of air pollution in urban areas, much of which is caused by coal fires used for heating.

Dieter Holm, an advocate for energy-efficient housing and president of the International Solar Energy Society, says the government can mandate energy-efficient housing practices by making them a condition for housing subsidies.

“There is a misconception that applying energy-efficient measures is expensive and that they cannot be implemented on a mass scale in new housing developments. Nothing could be further from the truth. Energy efficiency is simply good design, costing nothing.

“One of the many benefits of energy-efficient housing design is a massive cost saving in the long run. Not only can these initiatives save money, but they are healthier, more environmentally sound, more comfortable and more sustainable.

“So what is the real cost of our low-cost housing? The real cost of any item is the total of its procurement cost and its running cost over its useful lifetime — the lifecycle cost. Obviously, the most cost-efficient item is the one that has the lowest lifecycle cost.

“Low-cost houses contribute to South Africa’s poor energy performance. For every rand we earn we spend 15c on cheap energy. Switzerland spends only 6c on expensive energy, while the world average is 8c. This makes us internationally less competitive,” says Holm.

“Air pollution is a killer. For every child that dies as a result of air pollution in Europe, 279 children die in South Africa. Thus it should be clear that energy-efficient housing design is not a luxury and has benefits far beyond the most obvious ones.”

Research has shown that the poorest families spend the highest proportion of their income on meeting their basic energy needs. One study found that households earning less that R400 a month spend an average of 28% of their income on energy.

“The fact that poor people have to spend so much of their income on heating perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Improving the affordability of energy for cooking and heating should improve the rate of service repayment, while freeing up household income for use on other priorities such as education and small business development,” says Wentzel.

The government is committed to incorporating energy-efficient measures in building regulations, she says. But conservationists are disturbed that no progress has been made in putting these resolutions into practice.

Wentzel says energy-efficient design principles have not been adequately incorporated into housing. Only 8% of RDP houses face north — “and this is by chance”.

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