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Perfect prefab?

Are kit homes the solution to South Africa’s housing crisis?

By Zeenat Moosa Hassan

, |

Perfect prefab?

Are kit homes the solution to South Africa’s housing crisis?

By Zeenat Moosa Hassan

, |

3 min read

South Africa needs to build 2.1 million homes in the next five years if the government is to meet its own target of providing affordable housing for 12.5 million citizens by 2030.  The monumental task has been made worse by the pandemic, which has plunged even more people into poverty and pushed up the cost of conventional building materials like bricks and cement exponentially.

Prefab, or modular housing, is a cost-effective way of producing quality, family homes in less than half the time it takes to standard bricks and mortar home and might just be South Africa’s saving grace.

‘In broad terms, modular construction involves producing standardised components of a structure in an offsite factory, then assembling them onsite, to achieve comfortable and sustainable living spaces,’ explains Christo Pretorius, sector and market intelligence manager at Saint-Gobain.

An added benefit is that they also tend to be highly energy efficient and is likely why they have been making waves in the developed world.

‘Prefabricated homes are more sustainable as they use modern construction products with a reduced carbon foot print. The homes are designed around passive design principles to achieve a higher energy efficiency environment that will reduce energy bills and in some cases are designed to be completely off the grid and self-sufficient,’ says Sathia Govender, technical solutions manager at Saint-Gobain.

On paper, it seems a no brainer but there are three main reasons why South African developers are hesitant.

Still a way to go financially

In places like the UK, prefab homes have been in existence since after the Second World War and, as a result, several mortgages already exist for the buying and even building a prefab home. There are added caveats though, like the requirement for a larger deposits, specialist building insurance and additional surveys.

However, as Pretorius explains, prefab housing is a relatively new building method in the South African market, and institutions are not set up for it. Until they are, the majority of South Africans are likely to be priced out from building or buying a prefab home.

‘South Africa’s housing crisis is one of affordability. I have not seen prefab housing gain any significant market share in new houses being built. If this happens it would typically occur in the affluent side of the housing market, with people wanting to create once-off bespoke container-type houses,’ says Mpho Letsholo, national sales manager for the public sector at Saint-Gobain.

Valuations of prefab homes can also be a problem. It took Japan almost 30 years to realise that their prefab housing was worthless and had to be rebuilt again – which is time and money South Africa doesn’t have.

More harm than good

Another key concern is the affects prefab housing will have on the domestic construction labour force. Building a prefab house requires a specialist skillset as well as the ability to use innovative technology.

‘Skills development programs, especially in communities that rely heavily on construction work will require increased efforts,’ says Govender. This not only costs more, but it also risks making a large part of the force redundant, which again is something the local economy could do with avoiding.

An unregulated market

Finally, without proper regulation, prefab housing in South African is at danger of being either unaffordable, or too cheap to actually be of any value.

‘The market will always be divided between the high end prefab homes and the entry level solutions, and due to limited regulations, this will ultimately be determined by the product/systems that are used in the construction of these homes as well as whether a reputable company was used to manufacture and construct the home,’ concludes Pretorius.

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