Sustainable Development

How innovative construction could ease Namibia's housing crisis 

Workers on a MCC construction site in Namibia

Could modern methods of construction, seen here on a site in Namibia, hold the key to affordable, sustainable housing in emerging economies?

Giles Crosse
Communications Consultant for United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), Project Etopia
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Sustainable Development

  • Houses built using Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) are quick to build, and offer economic, environmental and social benefits.
  • They could provide one solution to problems of housing and economic development in Namibia, and elsewhere in the developing world.
  • Their adoption is held back by the unsustainable legacy processes that govern global construction.

Namibia faces a housing crisis. It needs some half a million new homes but 90% of Namibian households would not qualify for a mortgage to buy them. The problem is chronically mismanaged housing market economics, debt, muted income growth and reliance on cash lending. For now, these exclude most Namibians from home ownership.

In turn, this undermines the country’s growing economy and fuels social tension; shanty towns and shacks fly up at four times the rate of brick houses. Namibia is the second most unequal country in the world on the World Bank GINI Index. The same index shows that Namibia’s CO2 emissions have doubled since 1991, underlining the need for more sustainable housing solutions.

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There are technological solutions to these problems, which could be implemented at competitive cost. Namibia offers a clear opportunity for housing development, particularly in the affordable market, where there is significant demand. Between 2009 and 2019, Namibia attracted N$59.4 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI), largely from China, Mauritius and South Africa. The challenge is to channel that money into socially and environmentally sustainable projects.

Modern methods of construction

Modern methods of construction (MMC) use off-site techniques like pre-built modular wall panels to create faster, more sustainable alternatives to brick-built structures. Comparatively, houses made using MMC are very cost competitive and adaptable. They offer environmental benefits, too. Their adoption is held back by the fact that most global construction, for now, relies upon legacy concepts and processes.

MMC work best when combined with sustainable technologies and intelligent town planning. Homes can go up speedily and affordably, packed with renewable energy kit and other emissions-saving tech to create futurist, tight-knit sustainable communities. Crucially, the dual advantages of short build time and low economic and environmental cost make the idea particularly attractive for Namibia and other developing countries.

The advantages of MMC housing in Namibia
Houses built using MMC are cost effective, quick to build, and offer environmental benefits Image: Project Etopia

MMC on the ground

At Project Etopia, a UK sustainable housing firm, we build economically, environmentally sustainable housing. Our MMC demonstration work in the capital Windhoek acts as an exemplar for potential transformation across Namibia. A 63-square-metre, two-bedroom home was built in less than three hours. It cost around £350 per square metre and is both hurricane proof and flood proof, with comfortable, light open spaces. Total materials costs were about £25,000, in contrast to the average local home costs of £102,000.

The pilot home was self-built by Namibian locals rapidly upskilled in the MMC building process. This approach creates long term labour opportunities and local socioeconomic capital. The building almost completely eliminates any energy bills by using smart lighting, a solar thermal hot water system and a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) unit. This clever box produces 20kwh of its own energy per day while only using up 3kwh.

“We built an environmentally and economically sustainable home, fast, that a Namibian family can afford,” explains our founder, Joseph Michael Daniels. “Local people can build both homes and their employment potential while tackling a housing crisis and cutting CO2 emissions."

Such new ways of thinking might transform housing across Africa, but this of course demands the necessary political and corporate desire to make it happen. Generally housing strategy is controlled by politicians and corporates together.

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What’s next for MMC and Namibia’s housing?

Etopia is by no means the only international MMC developer out there. Marriott International has been adopting modular construction in its hotels, while IKEA and Skanska’s Boklok builds with MMC in the domestic market.

The healthy state of the global MMC sector means scale isn’t limited when it comes to new builds in developing countries. Daniels, for his part, believes that transformational development only comes with truly collective change. “What does it take for us to enable poor people to have a sustainable, affordable home of their own? Through addressing these social and technological barriers, we can hopefully do something about the challenges we face as a collective of people.”

It is possible that MMC, combined with the best of modern renewable technology, could economically transform living standards and sustainability across Africa with long term societal, financial and environmental benefits. This hints at a bright new future of global economics. A world where new, radical solutions replace unsustainable legacy practices, providing better products and systems with social, economic and environmental value.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentCities and Urbanization
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