This is the house that Xoma wanted

WORDS Jana Redelinghuys PHOTOS Giles Ridely, Stephen Lamb

In the Greenovation edition of VISI, we featured four low-cost housing solutions, including the Light House that impressed us so much we went around for a visit that resulted in a thought-provoking conversation about how co-design can help shift the traditional role of saviour and victim in the rollout of housing. 

Xoma Ayob has been living on a piece of land perched above the Hout Bay harbour in Hangberg for more than 30 years.

Here he not only built himself a house but also a livelihood: he tends a menagerie of livestock and birds, and grows both vegetables for the food and medicinal herbs that he sells. He also grows indigenous trees from seed and plants them in the area.

In 2013 the City of Cape Town approached him and his neighbours to move them to a Temporary Relocation Area (TRA) in order for a housing development to happen on the land that they were living on. Most of Xoma’s neighbours opted for the “dark tin boxes” as he calls them.

“I have been comfortable here,” says Xoma. “It was not easy for me to leave this area after everything that I have done. I am surrounded by stuff that I have been keeping myself busy with, that helps me to prosper. So I resisted.”

For Xoma a TRA house was simply not a viable option. He did not see the sense in giving up his home and the garden and livestock that sustained him, nor the view that he has relished for more than three decades to be relocated to a “camp” of generic boxes. He refused to move and became a stumbling block to the development and thorn in the side of the City of Cape Town.

His refusal to move from the land that he had been occupying for the past 30 years inadvertently set in motion a co-design process that resulted in a moving case study of what can happen when design becomes a dialogue between equals. 

In an attempt to sweeten the deal for Xoma a city representative contacted Stephen Lamb and Andrew Lord, who have been long-time advocates for fire- and flood-proofing temporary houses in informal settlements and creating food security through vertical gardening to create one of his signature green walls for Xoma’s TRA house. 

Instead of taking a brief from the city, Stephen and Andrew approached the situation more as an active listener than a service provider.  

“When I met Xoma for the first time I told him what I was being asked to do and I also told him that I did not have an agenda. I asked him to tell me his side of the story and we got to talking,” Stephen recalls.   

“When I first met Stephen he told me that he was here to listen to my needs and that made me feel like I could work with him. Because he wasn’t going to tell me that I should lay here, sit here and do this, this way or that, that way. He came to listen to me,” Xoma recalls. 

After a week of conversation they had an idea and went back to the city with the request that the city should give them a new site and the same amount of money that they would have spent on the TRA house and let Xoma design something that he did want to move into.

“This is where it becomes really interesting – how can design change our notion of poverty or how we interpret poverty and how can it help in our approach to breaking the cycles of poverty and misery?” ponders Stephen.

The city agreed and gave Xoma a new site and the TRA budget of R50 000. Xoma, assisted by Stephen and Andrew, designed a double storey house that incorporated the principles of flood and fireproofing as well as a green wall on the one side. The plan includes an open-plan living space, toilet and shower and mezzanine bedroom. The structure is built on gum pole stilts and pre-manufactured panels made up of corrugated iron, insulation and interior cladding were produced off-site and assembled onsite.   

When they presented the design to the city, the city insisted that it should also be compliant to the national building regulations and the design was put through a rigorous approvals progress that checked structural and public safety as well as lighting and ventilation, drainage and fire protection and energy efficiency.

“What actually happened was he gave the city something that blows them away – he was suppose to take a number and stand in line to get what he is given,” Stephen points out. “Instead now you have something that is co-designed, that is compliant to regulations, that looks beautiful, that is sensitive politically and socially, that is not just a product but a celebration of a process. This is what can happen when design is a dialogue of equals not a competition between privileged, professionals.”

Stephen wholeheartedly believes that human-centred design can actively subvert the stereotypical roles of victim and saviour by putting the role of saviour squarely in the hands of the victim. So instead of government, people are able to do it for themselves that could result in real broad change.  

The design is purposefully simple to assemble onsite. The foundation footings and columns are prepared on site while the wall and roof panels are built in a workshop. Once the foundation and panels are ready, it is assembled. The idea is that beneficiary communities can be employed by government to build their own structure.

“So it is not just about building houses it is about building people too,” says Stephen. 

With the help of a community of people that rallied behind the project, the house went up in just three days. 

Xoma decided to make the plans for his fully compliant “Light House” open source so that anyone could have access to them.

“I designed this so that anyone can have a copy. I want the government to take these cottages and build these for the ‘mense’. It is eco-friendly and it is flood and fire resistant. This design of ours is for everyone. When you live in a place like this, you feel like you can now help the next person,” Xoma concludes.  

Read our article about Stephen Lamb and Andrew Lord’s edible shack here.

Touching the Earth Lightly would like to give a specials thanks to all those who assisted in the project development and building of the Light House, in their various ways and capacities (in no specific order or preference) below: Lindsay Bush, Conrad Hicks, Helen Abrahams, Fiona Jonkers, Ian Upton, Belinda Taal, Bruce Snaddon, Katrin Hensel, Anja Letchle, Geraint Piercey, Craig Pickard, Francois De Flamingh, Wally Peterson, The Pole Yard, Andy Jones, Jonah De Lange, Giles Ridley, James Dee, Chief !Xam Korana, !Xoma Ayob, Jo-Jo tanks, Reliance Composting, Cape Town Partnership, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), City of Cape Town, Sculpt the Future Foundation, Kommetjie Environmental Action Group, Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC), Informal Settlement Network (ISN)