Your Voices is an opportunity for readers of the Principal Voices site to explain their views on one of the key subjects at greater length.
This contribution is by Michael Hill, 69, a former insurance executive born in Britain who emigrated to the then-Rhodesia before moving to South Africa.
In 1991 he gave up his job to devote himself to finding ways to build affordable housing. His company, Readykit (www.readykit.co.za), uses a prefabricated cavity wall system for cheap, flexible construction.
Here, Hill explains his efforts to set up Readykit:
"Pioneers come in various disguises. I suppose that a 69-year-old, physically fit, still squash-playing loss adjuster, double bass-playing jazz and cellist chamber musician, and former insurance broker is as unlikely a candidate for being in the forefront of developing affordable environmentally friendly cavity wall structures that are independent of external services, as any.
In 1991 I resigned from my comfortable job as CEO of a Cape Town-based insurance broking company in order to devote the rest of my working life to finding a solution to the urgent need for affordable housing of a quality of which we can be proud.
I made the basic error of buying a large steel company that was already in trouble and within three years I had lost pretty well everything I possessed. But I persevered, founded a small housing company and took on some contracts.
I learned the 22 ways how not to make a cement brick, learned how to manage seven sub-contractors and maintain a working relationship with them as well as the principal local authority. The main contract for 80 houses in Ceres, a town in Western Cape province, involved cavity walls of cement brick. They worked well, but were slow and too expensive to meet the generally very low affordability of the target market.
I determined to design a panel that would be plastered on site and would allow as much as possible to be done in the factory, where costs are more easily controlled.
I hit upon the idea of a fibreglass mesh stapled to a timber frame. Tests were successful and I managed to build a show house in Cape Town plus four other houses and an office building in Cape Town Harbor. Twelve years later they are all doing well.
But South Africa is a conservative country with a healthy suspicion of new technology. I hardly ever see another one of South Africa's very few examples of the Toyota Prius -- a car that eminently demonstrates the common sense and reliability of the electrically assisted hybrid. So I did not immediately get the positive response to my invention that I believed it deserved.
Since 1994 I have chipped away, getting technical approval from local authorities and the banks, SA Bureau of Standards for strength, water proofing and fire rating, Agreement Board for condensation and energy use, and finally getting it accepted by the newly formed National Home Builders Registration Council, the government agency that polices all who venture along the precarious path of developing alternative building methods.
It was only in 2005 that I managed to interest a small number of investors to form New Homes for Africa, a company that holds the South African franchise for the next five years. The company is already embarking on its first major project -- 320 houses in Cape Town. Interest is mounting and success now seems assured.
Software has been developed to allow any franchisee to quickly adapt the client's plan to our system, cost the kit, and print the numbered labels that attach to each panel before being sent to site.
Potential franchisees will receive the customary technical and marketing support. We have also adapted the design to be flood resistant, standing on stub columns, and to be earthquake resistant with a steel band attached to the top of the panels.
The next step is to demonstate that by combining various energy and resource saving technologies, houses can be virtually independent of external services. This involves a combination of rain water tanks, solar water heating, grey water re-use, photovoltaic or wind generated electricity, internal composting toilets, and alternative energy efficient cooking methods.
These devices are locally available and Eskom is on the point of allowing net rating for those generating their own power."
If you would like to contact Readykit, please email email@example.com
What do you think?
Like yourself and many others, we recognize the need for affordable and environmentally sustainable dwellings. I applaud your efforts in that direction and hope to hear more from you regarding your panel's suitability for geodomes.
I am thinking of building an eco-friendly house on vacant land in Lady Grey. I am very interested in your product as I am with any method of living a sustainable and cost-effective life. What are the costs involved?
The design sounds high-tech, but I would be interested in knowing what the estimated cost for a house is.
Will it be possible for you to come to Nigeria, because I believe Nigerians need this type of program, because many people want to be house owners but they cannot afford the type of structures people are erecting in the country because of the economic situation of the country.
The design sounds high-tech, but I would be interested in knowing what the estimated cost for a house is.
Nigeria, in an effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, is investing so much into housing right now, but I am yet to see an effort in using alternative materials to make homes affordable.
Hi -- good work.
Low income housing -- or as we call it in Morocco, social housing -- is a fantastic initiative and comfort for those who are struggling to get a decent roof.
The possibility to replace the ghettos (too many in my country) with houses must be endorsed by the relevant authorities in our countries. I am very much interested in developing that in Morocco.
Yes! Everybody has this skeptical mind when it comes to new ideas and technology.
I am busy with a concept to increase the normal RDP houses to a double volume unit with a timber frame construction and clad the outside with the most cost-effective material available. Forward details regarding your concept and we might put some ideas together. Have a pleasant day ! Jannie.
Dear Mr Hill, how can I contact you or your company? It is great idea.
I think your weak spot is the generation of electricity. If the truth be known, the technology is not very good. I've been looking at it for my own house for some time. To add to the list though, heat pumps aren't a bad idea.
I lived for 40 years in Los Angeles, nine years in Orlando and now live in what could be referred to as "somewhat rural Western North Carolina" -- .where affordable housing is lacking.
There's very high end second homes and then there's trailers....and a sprinkling of mid-market homes.
After reading about ReadyKit homes, I wonder how this might be set up as a non-profit to team up with Habitat for Humanity and HUD to work locally.....hmmm......
Have you any partner in France? Would you be interested to get one?.Your project is very interesting -- congratulations for your great courage.
As a South African national living in Ireland, I appreciate the efforts of all those making a difference to the poor. Job well done Mike, everything of the best for the future! Nkosi sikelele!
Are you looking to expand? What are your company's plans for the future?
I think this project is exactly what Africa needs. In Tanzania the poor would definitely appreciate technology of this kind which helps them attain a roof over their head. How do I contact Michael Hill?
I think it's great that a successful CEO would leave his job to help others. Sounds like he has really persevered and I'm glad it's paying off -- not only for him but for those he intended to help.
Dear Mr. Hill: we need more faithful challengers like you.
The entire world needs self-sufficient low cost housing -- it just isn't apparent yet in places like the USA.
Two thoughts: open the opportunity globally for average folks like myself to support your efforts (Dutch IPO, bonds, foundation arm for donation, whatever - just start building more houses) and second, enlist the help of CEMEX of Mexico and Grameen Bank.
Your program sounds ideal for low income housing in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. How much per square foot/meter does it cost in US dollars?
And, would you need a representative in our area?
I was a licensed contractor and current president of a construction company. Let me know. Richard.
Dear Michael, I am very interested in your ideas and wish to congratulate you for taking on this very real problem. Cheers! Jenny Whittall.
This is a brilliant concept. I would imagine it could work quite well in places like Spain and the Canary Islands, also Morocco. I would like to find out more details.
That's really inspiring. People should notice what you've been through till your success.
Well done. You have put in quite an effort, patience and devotion to a cause -- affordable housing.
What is the probability of introducing and materializing your thoughts in the American affordable housing market? I am a computer person and not in building. But any idea on affordable housing will fit my bag. Good luck and God bless.
Better than pi**ing Guinness against the wall. As a 66 year old I say: 'You're so lucky'.
Great idea and I wish you all the success in the world. Have you ever thought of expanding into other countries with many different climates...like Canada?
Economic housing is a worldwide need, branch out and expand this idea and you'll be reaching a lot of people in need.
Having been to Cape Town several times myself I know that housing is an issue -- as soon as you come out of the airport there, you can see people living in boarded-up housing with metal as their roof and no flooring whatsoever.
Electricity is pirated in and heat is a fire lit in a can. This situation must change if South Africa is to truly be counted as modern nation state.
There are excellent people there in South Africa so I know that such a housing alternative will be very successful. More people like Mr. Hill would really be helpful to the situation there.
In such a wealthy country as South Africa and a wealthy area as the Cape there is no excuse for people living in substandard housing.
Great idea! Go forward and multiply. The world needs new ideas. Lots of sucess and please use all the new ideas out there.
Awesome idea! It's something that you might want to make available in New Orleans and maybe parts of Asia as well. Continue the uplifting work!
Living in the most expensive housing market in America, I applaud your efforts on the behalf of all who dream of decent housing. Thank you, Michael!
Congratulations on your persistence!
I've heard of other such efforts that were stymied by local regulations, the timber lobby or other interests. It's shameful!
With approximately 90,000 homeless in the downtown Los Angeles area, any thought of introducing this concept to Mayor Villagrosa?
Are there any plans to bring this to the USA?
This sounds like a great opportunity for people who are on the lowers rungs of our economy to become home owners/builders. What a great idea!
I am very delighted to hear about this. If I can be of any help, I am very interested to take part. Good luck to you.
You're a doer Michael Hill!! Continued success to you and South Africa. I am particularly intrigued by the self-sufficient aspect you are now focusing on.
From a back-crocked, oboe-playing, unfit, ex-squash playing youngster of 64, I say GO FOR IT.
This sounds like a fundamentally easy solution for affordable housing for the poor, and the idea of having sustainable energy and water for the homes is fantastic!
Have companies like Shell helped to expand this housing effort?
Mike, I am delighted to hear of your success and progress. I trust that you will go from strength to strength. Good Luck and lots of blessings. Love, Eunice.