The High-Tech iShack That’s Smarter Than Most Homes

The iShack can provide solar-powered energy, safety and economic viability for sub-Saharan Africans.

An iShack resident in the Enkanini settlement in Stollenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Homeless and Poor People's Initiative/Facebook)

Jan 27, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

For the impoverished residents of developing countries, slum living is a fact of life. Shanty town dwellings are usually constructed out of salvaged scrap metal and other pieces of debris. Because these settlements aren't sanctioned by local governments, they lack access to centralized systems of energy and water, leaving inhabitants without warmth, light or safety.

In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, UN-Habitat reports that over 200 million people live in slums, and with their populations rapidly expanding, local governments can't erect city housing fast enough to meet the demand. But a group of South African researchers is hoping that a new, sustainably designed shack could answer the needs of the area’s poor.

According to its website, the iShack, which is short for “improved shack,” is a modern iteration of a shanty with amenities that directly respond to the needs of sub-Saharan Africans. The exterior is made from sheets of zinc, which are coated in flame-retardant paint and insulated with cardboard and recycled milk containers.

Topped by a solar panel, the iShack can power three interior lights, an outside motion-detecting light for safety, and an interior cellphone charger. The strategically placed windows maximize air flow and naturally moderate the interior temperature, while the iShack’s sloped roof gathers rainwater.

The idea was first conceived by Mark Swilling, a professor at The Sustainability Institute at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch. He explained to EarthWorks Magazine, “We wanted to develop a cost-effective building, which can provide dignified living and comfort in an environmentally-acceptable way.” That dignified living comes from Swilling's approach with local residents. He relies heavily on their input so they remain the deciding factor in what becomes designed.

The professor and his group of post-doctoral researchers erected a small series of prototype iShacks in Enkanini, an informal settlement located in Stollenbosch. According to CNN, Nosango Plaatjie and her family occupy one of them. She’s a domestic worker who tells the news agency that the shack’s internal lighting means her daughter can now do her homework in the evenings, and the cellphone charger means Plaatjie is able to earn a larger income. “Now I am available all the time and it is helping me to make more money.”

Each iShack costs about $660 to build, but The New York Times reports that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently pledged a $250,000 grant to build or retrofit up to 100 iShacks in the next year as a way to test the project on a larger scale.

In the meantime, residents in Enkanini and other settlements like it face a barrage of problems associated with slum dwelling that those of us in modest Western apartments and houses can’t fathom.

Electricity, for those who can pay for an illegal connection, is a racket run by “energy barons” who live on the borders in towns that are connected to the national grid. The illegal cable connections stretch hundreds of meters into the settlements. Thieves frequently descend upon the shanties at night to steal the wiring, while passing trucks often snap them in two, landing live wires onto roofs and walls, electrifying the houses they touch.

That’s why iShack’s solar energy panels are more than an ecologically sound energy choice; they’re also a means to free residents from a bottomless financial drain, while protecting them from physical harm.

According to their site, the iShack group is also working with settlement residents and outside consultants to devise ecological methods of water supply and sanitation, ones that will provide local jobs without locking communities into unsustainable or expensive habits of resource consumption.

The one with the most promise so far is an on-site system of biological wastewater filtration, which could provide filtered water for household cooking and liquid fertilizer for micro-agriculture.

Swilling and his group's approach to settlement living is a far cry from other attempts to provide safe housing for developing countries. One unfortunate example is the rescue housing erected in the aftermath of Haiti's earthquake. One-room transitional shelters, known as T-shelters, were built in Port-au-Prince in an attempt to provide temporary rescue housing for the thousands living in camps. That effort cost over $500 million.

Developers may have built 125,000 T-shelters, but they weren't designed to be weather-proof or to withstand more than a short-term stay. Because permanent housing for these residents never came through, thousands have been left stranded in those tenuous structures, which have since broken down with long-term use and repeated exposure to extreme weather.

The iShack, however, is a living example of what happens when a problem like housing is treated holistically; the environment, its people, and its potential economic viability are simultaneously attended to and each initiative's potential long-term impact is weighed before it's taken.

Would a more holistic approach to urban housing be a viable approach in the US? Let us know what you think in the Comments.