Eat-me shack

WORDS Claire Jowell PHOTOS Stephen Lamb

Lees in Afrikaans.

How do you turn a “shack” into a home with a self-replenishing pantry? We caught up with designer Stephen Lamb to talk about Touching the Earth Lightly’s array of projects and the “Green Shack” installation at the upcoming Design Indaba. It’s bring your own vegetables!

Stephen Lamb is a social, green freedom fighter with innovative, usable and intentional designs for the everyman South African on the ground. Yet completely down-to-earth! This accomplished and innovative designer’s mantra is that we need to reconnect design with function for society. Sitting in his Kalk Bay beach cottage, he told us about some of his fantastical-seeming, but utterly practical ideas. 

Green social change

Stephen insists that design is all too often centred on clean and shiny material objects, which have now become synonymous with beauty. He tries to bring meaning and relevance to his designs, and of course they must be simple and realistic. “Design needs to be more about function, and less about positioning”, says Stephen. 

As he sits cross-legged on the floor next to his surfboard, Stephen chats away about his aspirations for ecological design in South Africa and the need to connect creativity with the poor in a useful way. He hates the fact that South Africans’ disillusion with the government’s social efforts for transformation have resulted in a negative attitude towards social change. 

Growing good

Although a laidback Capetonian at heart, Stephen has been busy. You may remember his Climate Smart Cape Town stand at 2011’s COP17 conference in Durban, which won a Loerie award; and later his incredible vertical mushroom forest entrance pavilion featured in VISI 63. Closer to home, Stephen established Cape Town’s first pilot rooftop garden and job-creation project on Wale Street in Cape Town. Yet another great project was “the spaces in-between” free garden project at the Methodist Church in Greenmarket Square. Veggies, veggies, veggies! 

These projects are only a scratch on the surface of Touching the Earth Lightly’s awesome endeavours. After jumping some hurdles, Stephen now also got funding to exhibit at the Design Indaba Expo from 1 to 3 March and he’s super busy getting it ready in time. Here’s what he’s doing. 

Design Indaba 2013

Stephen has collaborated with Andrew Lord on a “Green Shack”, which celebrates the power of water and light in the shack. It stems from the design of the entrance pavilion for the Shanghai Conference, where they aimed to highlight that corrugated iron and timber need not represent poverty and oppression.

The project explores the “transformative power of light, water and plants” for South Africa’s shacks, which can otherwise seem like “temporary” spaces where waiting on hollow promises can leave the poor feeling desolate and hopeless. The idea was to face reality and develop a pragmatic plan to transform these waiting spaces into homes that families can use and be proud of. Killing a few birds with one stone!

Now picture this:

  • The Green Shack is your regular four-wall corrugated-iron structure, raised off the floor to prevent flooding.
  • Installed into the roof are Litre of Light “bulbs” – upturned two-litre Coca-cola bottles filled with water that act as skylights, flooding the shack with natural light. 
  • Two walls of the shack are wrapped with vertical vegetable gardens irrigated by a jerry can on the roof. These not only act as a living food wall and fire break, but also regulate the temperature inside the shack.
  • The remaining two walls are covered with sandbags and a traditional earth, lime and hemp mix, as well as a fire-resistant solution. The combination of the sandbagged wall and the “wet-walls” make the shack a less vulnerable and hostile space for its inhabitants.  
  • What’s on the menu? Tomatoes, spinach, coriander, lettuce, strawberries, celery, rocket, spearmint, spekboom, chives, basil, thyme, rhubarb. 

Citizen activism

So, the Green Shack is great, but what’s the plan? The Mshini Wam community are taking matters into their own hands and rebuilding their shacks with shared resources and Green Shack infrastructure. Not only does this reshaping create greater security for shack owners, but also reduces the risk of flooding and fires, and creates space for the council to pave emergency access roads and install amenities. 

“The Green Shack also reminds us of the ‘democracy of nature’. That plants want to grow, and do grow, in rich and poor areas,” enthuses Stephen. In this way the Green Shack provides shelter, security and a chance to enjoy the natural world. If that’s not a good idea, we don’t know what is!

Get involved

Impressed? We sure are! Have a look out for Stephen, Andrew and their team at the Design Indaba next weekend. Be guided through the Green Shack by residents of Mshini Wam. And, don’t forget to take a vegetable plant! 

Touching the Earth Lightly is asking the public to bring along a potted vegetable plant to add to the installation. All the plants will be given to the residents of Mshini Wam at the end of the Design Indaba.