Social acceptance the biggest challenge for innovative building technologies

Education, community awareness and social acceptance are the biggest ongoing challenges for innovative building technologies (IBTs) – rather than the more obvious issues surrounding cost, quality, strength, durability, thermal and acoustic qualities, as well as resistance to fire, etc. South Africa probably has produced about 40 IBTs – essentially, building systems which are cheaper and better in many ways than bricks and mortar.
These systems have proliferated throughout South Africa partly because of the boom in mass housing erection which followed the end of apartheid and the institution of government-led house building programmes, including those of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).
Many of these IBTs would be suited – always depending on local conditions – for application in the rest of Africa.
But many of the systems have not been as commercially successful as expected simply because they have not been fully accepted by the public.
One observer of the IBT industry comments that concrete blocks are an example of generalised failure by communities to fully accept new building technologies. Concrete blocks have been in the building industry for many decades, but they still haven’t overtaken bricks – even though they are much cheaper and can be just as effective for building.
Likewise, among IBTs, polystyrene containing building systems have significant advantages and have proven strength and durability if they are well-designed and correctly applied. But they suffer from a poor image among many people in the market, including contractors.
For instance, there is a perception among many people that rats will eat polystyrene panels or bricks – even though in most polystyrene-based building systems, the polystyrene is fully enclosed.
Surprisingly, another hurdle for IBTs is that they may be too cheap. A long-time observer of the sector says that often low costs are viewed with suspicion. He says the solution may be for contractors to offer a larger house at the same price as a smaller brick house – rather than a cheaper house. In Africa, additional space is much-desired because of the need to accommodate extended families.
The observer says that all IBTs should generally, when compared with bricks and mortar, have greater speed of erection, at least equal quality, and at least equal cost. Developers of IBTs usually strive to use less skilled labour and more of local unskilled labour.
Generally, each different IBT will have particular advantages. For instance, polystyrene-based systems have huge advantages in insulation – the living spaces created are generally cool in summer and warm in winter. And their thermal qualities can be further improved by the addition of graphite to the concrete part of the construction. Graphite would also ward off any problem from rats.
Vermiculite is another additive which will greatly increase the thermal properties of concrete generally – although it is very expensive.Because end-user acceptance of IBT systems has been lower than hoped for, many South African IBT companies have not grown into medium or large concerns. Many have therefore not expanded from South Africa into the rest of Africa – even though their systems might be very applicable and have achieved regulatory and standards approvals regarding quality and strength in South Africa.
This challenge is however an opportunity. Rest-of-Africa entrepreneurs in this area might profit from visiting IBT providers in South Africa.
An important factor for any such entrepreneurs to consider, however, is whether there are manufacturers in their countries who could manufacture the panels, often a feature of IBTs. For instance, unexpanded polystyrene is generally imported from countries such as China and Malaysia, but to produce expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels and blocks, there must be a local extruder.
And the closer that extruder is to the construction site, the better, since transport costs are a considerable factor.
Below, we review a few of the prominent South African-origin IBT systems, starting with the most sophisticated (Imison and Group Five Advanced Building Technologies, both of which have been considerably applied in big contracts in many countries in Africa), and proceeding on to more ‘barefoot’ systems. The review does not include concrete block making machines, of which there are many suppliers in most African countries.
Imison
The Imison system is a composite walling system in which a combination of EPS, steel framing and sprayed-on concrete is used for the construction of buildings in record time, the company claims. The result is “the look and feel of brick/mortar construction, standard topping insulation, a fifth of the weight of normal brick walls and a host of other efficiencies”. Panels are cut from large EPS blocks, structural light-gauge steel inserted in the core of the panel and shipped to the site. The panels are fitted in a tongue and groove manner on the foundation. Mesh is fitted over the entire surface, and a 22pma concrete sprayed on.
Imison says it has become “a record setting supplier of mass housing and walling for high-rise commercial buildings”.
Group Five advanced building technologies
Group Five, a major South African construction and engineering group, says its advanced building technologies (ABT) provides a very fast and efficient alternative to traditional building practices. It involves the fabrication of modular lightweight steel frames clad with asbestos-free fibre cement cladding sheets.
It says that when compared to traditional building methods, its ABT system provides a fast-track solution for structures ranging from the ultra-basic to the ultra-high-end. It claims that building is at four times the pace of conventional building, at a lower price, with superior thermal and acoustic properties, suitable for remote locations, with much lower material costs, and at factory-prescribed quality levels.
The ABT range includes a panel system where structures are put together using factory-made standard modular wall panels with all fixtures pre-fitted; a lightweight steel frame system with all electrical and plumbing lines installed, with walls then being clad and insulated as required; and the licensed Australian FLATTS system, which is basically a complete building solution for three selfcontained buildings of 24m2 each, in a shipping container.
Robust
The basis of the Robust IBT system is a lightweight expanded metal panel in a W profile. It is erected vertically, with reinforcing on both sides, and a mortar-based product is thereafter mechanically applied, creating a very solid structure. Basically, it is a slab which is vertically applied.
The metal panel is generally transported without the mortar so that there are transport advantages for application in more remote areas.
The system has been used in the mining industry (often for ventilation walls) and for civil structures like farm dams swimming pools. But its main application has been in the construction of multiple houses. It is not a modular system and can therefore be adapted to meet any building form.
On materials alone, the system doesn’t save much cost compared to bricks and mortar, but has its advantages in speed and logistics, and the fact that 95% of the erection work can be done using unskilled local labour.
Training on the erection method takes about half a day.
Finnbuilder
This award-winning system incorporates slip form concrete shuttering and noslump concrete. Relatively dry concrete is placed into the shuttering (see picture),and manually rammed until the concrete is compacted and level. The shuttering is then immediately slid forward, extruding a concrete wall.
The Finnbuilder system is particularly suited for people who want to build quickly and inexpensively. If improved thermal properties are important, then additives for the concrete can be incorporated in the mixture.
Finnbuilder is approved in South Africa for up to four-storey structures, and is mainly used for infrastructure, housing and multi-storey projects.
Frank Finnemore, the originator of the system, says that since the company’s inception in 2001, it has had two major types of customers: large construction companies building a variety of projects, including major gold mines and a new mine in Tete, Mozambique, which have used it to build infrastructure and accommodation; and secondly, individuals wanting to self-build homes and smaller projects.
He says that customers find the cost advantage of building with Finnbuilder compelling.
He claims that materials cost R85 per square metre, compared with R 174 ($13) for bricks and mortar; labour R70 ($5.30) (against R135 ($10.30)), resulting in a total of R155 ($11.90) (against R309 ($23.75)). On a standard 300m2 with 900m2 of vertical walling, a cost savings of R130,000 ($10,000) can be realised, he says.
The system is currently only available in South Africa although the company is looking to license suitable contractors in other African countries.
Stumbelbloc
Stumbelbloc says its mould system results in the local production of hollowcore interlocking blocks using only manual labour and without external power being essential. It says this minimises transport costs, production costs and carbon footprint – and the building is 10 times faster than conventional methods.
The company itself sells only the moulds and the ‘glue’ for the concrete blocks produced locally (although the glue is produced by another company); besides the glue, local building materials are used.
The aim of the system is to allow people with little skill to build complete, high-standard houses. The system is approved in South Africa only for singlestorey dwellings; services are pushed through the cavities of the blocks.
André Esterhuizen, co-originator of the system, says there are two options: if there is a Stumbelbloc block factory in the immediate area, it is generally easier and as cheap to buy the blocks, at a cost of about $1 each. If there is not a factory, or transport costs are too great, then the builder needs to set up a factory (however large or small) and produce his/her own blocks.
The system also encourages the setting up of local block factories. In many cases, says Esterhuizen, after building a project, the builder continues producing the blocks to sell them locally – Stumbelbloc does not restrict this in any way. In fact, anyone is free to make the blocks, though the blocks should meet the specifications of Stumbelbloc and local building requirements. Thus, there are a number of block factories in Kenya and Thailand, for instance.
The concrete used to make the blocks requires conventional river sand and building sand, with 13mm stones. For improved thermal properties, inexpensive chipped up waste polystyrene (known as a regrind) can be used.
NOTE: The Eric Molobi Housing Innovation Hub in Soshanguve, near Pretoria in South Africa, is a standing exhibition of 21 of the best IBTs recognised in Africa. The exhibition can be viewed by arrangement with the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC)
Supplier list:
Imison: +27 12 666 0917; info@thewallgroup.co.za ; www.thewallgroup.co.za/imison.html
Group Five Advanced Building Technologies: Tel +27 11 439 4400; abt-sales@groupfive.co.za; www. groupfive.co.za
Finnbuilder: Tel +27 11 705-1897 or +27 82 800-6906; frank@finnbuilder.co.za ; www.finnbuilder.co.za
Robust: Tel + 27 11 420 1470; fax + 27 11 420 1463; willem@robuststructure.com; www.robuststructure.com
Stumbelbloc: Tel +27 83 228 8036; andre@stumbelbloc.com; www.stumbelbloc.com
NHBRC: Tel: +27 11 317 000