Luyanda Mpahlwa

Originally published in 

In Mitchell’s Plain township in Cape Town, South Africa, living conditions are harsh. The congested urban landscape pushes kids into the streets to play. Poverty forces reliance on found materials for cobbling together shacks. Summers are hot, winters are cold, and relentless winds whip about the plentiful sand.

In September 2007, Luyanda Mpahlwa, principal of MMA Architects, designed a two-story house with these factors in mind for Design Indaba’s 10x10 Low-Cost Housing Project. The program tasked ten building teams to create attractive, affordable housing schemes using innovative solutions. In the end, ten of Mpahlwa’s designs were built.

Mpahlwa took inspiration from the vernacular architecture of his youth in a rural part of the Eastern Cape, where people built homes from mud, water, and timber, to transform what is generally considered a nuisance—the abundance of sand—into an invaluable resource for holding down a house. Unskilled laborers packed bags full of sand and piled them between pieces of pine timber and galvanized metal
to create and fill the frames.

They plastered wire mesh on the exteriors, giving the buildings as solid and finished a look as those constructed of bricks or concrete. Though the design itself was a success, the lack of economies of scale made it a challenge to keep the construction costs low. About 1,000 homes would have needed to be built to keep the price tag at the original budget of $6,175 per house. Instead the costs came in at over $10,000.

Artist Hans Jonkers, who previously lived in a shack with his wife, Olga, and six children, was initially wary of calling a house built of sand home. But once he understood the new building system, he was more than happy to move in through the cherry-red front door. Concrete, which is often made using sand as an aggregate, isn’t about to lose its status in South Africa any time soon, but for these first-time homeowners, sand in any other form is just as sweet.

To see more images of Mpahlwa’s sand-built homes under construction, view our slideshow

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