Practical Home Designs To Improve Living Standards

Designing sustainable houses is a commendable effort to help all people live and work more efficiently, but green building is often perceived as a “first world problem” for wealthy people in industrialized nations. According to the most recent figures from the World Bank, there are still about 2.5 billion people on Earth living on less than $2 a day, most of whom are too concerned with finding food and clean water for their families each day to think about electricity generation and carbon footprints.

Some green building principles, however, don’t have to cost thousands of dollars and look like museum pieces. Many architects and nonprofits are creating back-to-basics designs that use ancient techniques to provide reliable, inexpensive shelter while also including sustainable 21st-century technology to help raise living standards. Here are three recent ideas that won’t come close to curing poverty, but may at least make daily life more bearable in the poorest neighborhoods of developing nations.

1. The iShack, South Africa

Prototype iShack constructed by researchers at the UNiversity of Stellenbosch. Image via Homeless and Poor People's Initiative.

Prototype iShack constructed by researchers at the UNiversity of Stellenbosch. Image via Homeless and Poor People’s Initiative.

With the help of a recent $250,000 grant from the the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a post-graduate research team at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University are working to scale up a concept that can help bring electricity and potable water to the large slums that are home to about one quarter of the country’s population.

Their concept, known as the “iShack,” which is short for “improved shack,” looks like a typical corrugated metal structure found in many of South Africa’s impoverished neighborhoods. However, many of the improvements are hidden behind the walls. The homes are insulated with extra thick layers of commonly found cardboard and tetra-pack material in three of the zinc-clad walls, with a fourth wall made of natural adobe materials.

The iShack, developed with a grant from the Gates Foundation, can help bring renewable electricity to the slums of South Africa. Image via iShack Living.

The iShack, developed with a grant from the Gates Foundation, can help bring renewable electricity to the slums of South Africa. Image via iShack Living.

By siting the iShack on a north-south axis and adding windows in strategic places, the structure can generate its own electricity with a rooftop solar panel to power lights, a cell-phone charger and some small appliances. The roof is also sloping to channel rainwater into a collection barrel for drinking water and irrigating for food gardens.

The total cost of the iShacks comes to about $650, according to iShack Living. Another version of the iShack which adds energy and water collection systems to existing homes costs as little as $50. With the funding from the Gates Foundation, the Stellenbosch team plans to build or retrofit 100 to 250 iShacks this year and perhaps create expanded models.

2. Hut-to-Hut, India

Hut-to-Hut concept for India's western Ghats region. Image by Pasi Aalto via Rintala Eggertsson Architects.

Hut-to-Hut concept for India’s Western Ghats region. Image by Pasi Aalto via Rintala Eggertsson Architects.

Designed by Rintala Eggertsson Architects and students from Norway’s University of Science and Technology, Hut-to-Hut is a concept to bring low-cost, sustainable housing to India’s Western Ghats region, using solar power and locally sourced materials.

Beginning with a sturdy brick foundation, the living areas are basically two-hut homes made in the traditional style from prefab eucalyptus-wood framing, which is readily available in the Kanataka area of India. The wood is treated with cardenol, a natural cashew-nut shell resin that creates reddish brown colors.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.

  • Ecoweenie

    If the Obama economy continues at its present rate of descent, we’ll be needing these in America by the end of his term in office.