BillionBricks, a Singaporean-based social enterprise, is confronting the housing problem with its endeavours to provide a respectable home for everyone, including the poor. Photo: File
BillionBricks, a Singaporean-based social enterprise, is confronting the housing problem with its endeavours to provide a respectable home for everyone, including the poor. Photo: File

Tech News: Technology that helps houses pay for themselves welcome in SA

By Louis Fourie Time of article published Jul 9, 2021

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THE Covid-19 pandemic led to a revaluation of the place we call “home.”

During total lockdown and even now, with the alarming Delta driven third wave, our homes have become a sanctuary and a safe space in a world that appears to be unsafe and dangerous. For many of us, our homes evolved into places where we not only live, but also work.

But sadly, housing is a privilege that has become unaffordable for many people. In South Africa, homelessness has been estimated, by the Human Sciences Research Council, at about 200 000.

According to the General Household Survey of the Department of Statistics, about 7 897 776 people are living in informal dwellings in the 2 700 informal settlements across the country, mainly due to unaffordable housing, unemployment, poverty, low wages, and accelerating urbanisation. An alarming number of people in South Africa, thus, do not have decent accommodation.

A respectable home for everyone

However, it seems that BillionBricks, a Singaporean-based social enterprise, is confronting the housing problem with its endeavours to provide a respectable home for everyone, including the poor.

The company was founded in 2013 by architect Prasoon Kumar, and the venture capitalist and entrepreneur Anurag Srivastava. After designing around 10 000 homes for people who could afford or already owned a house, Kumar decided to rather address the mega-problem of homelessness in the world “one brick at a time.”

He strongly believes that life often begins with a roof over your head. Without a home – education, access to health care, safety, and security become problematic.

Systemic solutions

After designing the now famous WeatherHYDE triple-layer reversible family tent for displaced families all over the world, BillionBricks turned its attention to the PowerHYDE Home, a self-financing, carbon-negative solar home solution that combines housing communities with renewable energy into a financially viable business proposition.

BillionBricks realised that the core issue was people who did not have the financial capacity to buy a house.

Furthermore, there was the problem of increasing energy consumption and inadvertent global warming, with every house that is being built.

Although large-scale building of houses may address the crucial housing problem, a new energy and climate problem will be created.

They therefore decided to build a home that could produce its own energy, equipped with its own financial mechanism to make the house affordable to the poor.

The PowerHYDE Home

Each PowerHYDE Home is thus equipped with solar panels that would produce four times more energy than is consumed by the household.

Families could easily sell the unused energy to the grid and thus generate additional income, which could be used to pay off the building cost of the home.

Each self-sustainable house will also be able to collect 100 percent of its own rainwater, clean its own waste, and will have a front yard for growing food.

The homes will be managed by Internet of Things infrastructure, easily controlled through the owner’s mobile device.

In addition, each house will have an internet connection to allow for remote working and to increase employment opportunities.

The environmentally sustainable houses are developed with extreme scalability, affordability, and sustainable parameters. The modular units can, therefore, easily be expanded vertically or horizontally, in a phased approach. Each home is topped with photovoltaic panels.

The first prototypes of the PowerHYDE Home have been built in India and the Philippines.

According to BillionBricks, a cluster of 170 Power-HYDE homes forms a “mini-powerplant” capable of generating one MegaWatt of energy.

South Africa’s housing problem

Housing is considered by the UN to be a human right and is a crucial step from poverty.

But one of the biggest hurdles in realising the noble goal of housing for all people is the high cost involved.

And once the houses have been built, the additional challenge of water, electricity and refuse services arise.

This is the reason why most NGO and government-funded housing projects tend to focus on providing the maximum volume of units, at the absolute minimum cost.

Unfortunately, this approach often leads to poor quality housing.

President Nelson Mandela once claimed that housing for all is an “unbreakable promise.”

This led to an initial burst of activity to build new houses, under the government’s reconstruction and development plan (RDP) but, unfortunately, the construction of RDP houses has moved to the backburner, even though Covid-19 exacerbated the vulnerabilities of the urban homeless over the past 15 months.

Perhaps we need a new approach in South Africa.

One possible solution is to follow the BillionBricks philosophy of designing and building the houses for customers, and not beneficiaries.

Building quality technology enhanced houses, that pay for themselves, may be worth a try in South Africa.

It could even simultaneously solve the notorious Eskom inefficiency and the constant load shedding.

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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