Dick van Gameren

Science for the benefit of people. All people. Worldwide.

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Making space: affordable housing in emerging economies

Professor Dick van Gameren first got to know Ethiopia years ago, when he won the assignment to design the Dutch embassy in Addis Ababa. Fascinated by the country and its people, he kept returning. One of the things that strike him about Ethiopia today is that despite a recent building boom, 80 percent of citizens in the capital city still live in slums. “How can we design affordable homes for Ethiopia’s typical housing culture?”, he wonders. “That is a crucial question worldwide, but in Ethiopia it is an especially urgent one.”

“My first visit to the country was back in 1998”, says professor Dick van Gameren. “At the time, the country was recovering from a period of communist dictatorship. It is still one of poorest countries in the world, but it is fast developing.” Ethiopia is not only experiencing large population growth, but it is facing increasing urbanisation, like so many countries in the southern hemisphere. “You can see that much has changed over the past years. There is a lot of building going on, and new infrastructure is arising as well.” However, for many people the brand new residential areas are not bringing the hoped-for improvement in living standards.

As it turns out, the old slum areas rely on a strong form of self-organisation. “You see five or six families sharing a small plot and supporting each other, since they are all struggling. They have a communal piggy bank for emergencies, and help each other out at weddings or funerals.” These plots also generate income, for example from the making and selling of Injera, the traditional pancake-like bread. “In flats on new housing estates these people may be better off as far as the building is concerned – they will have sanitary facilities for the first time in their lives, for example – but the entire socio-economic structure is lost.” Often, these estates are also situated on the outskirts of town, meaning the inhabitants are cut off from their earlier means of existence.

Van Gameren is searching for design methods to improve existing slums with the same financial means, so social structures can be maintained. Local building capabilities should be taken into account, and the densification issue, i.e. the increasing urbanisation, should also be addressed. That is no sinecure. Hence, the ‘how’ question is still very much an open one. Meanwhile, Van Gameren has entered into a collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiBC). “I will be travelling to Ethiopia with TU Delft students to organise workshops for local students. Once back in Delft we will than work on the housing problem.” That is why Van Gameren appointed Ethiopian researcher Anteneh Tola for the Global Research Fellowship.

Two birds
By now, the government in this highly centralised country has also become convinced of the need for alternative housing concepts, and has asked the Addis Abeba University of Technology to look into this. “Model houses have been erect on campus”, says van Gameren. “Because no matter how nice your laser-cut multiply modular components are, often such high-tech solutions are not up to the local climate.” Van Gameren is aiming for a mixture of high and low-tech. “High-tech does have a role to play, for example in the development of quality light and sustainable building materials to replace existing ones.

You also need a sophisticated way of thinking to develop these new design techniques. However, the economy of building is especially suited to provide people with jobs and an income. So when you can build it with limited means and with the help of unskilled labourers, you can kill two birds with one stone.”

Or even more than two, since Van Gameren and his students take a broad view on the issue. “We are also working on similar problems in other parts of the world. Accessible cities is a key phrase here: people who migrate to the city should be able to improve their life, and those already living there should be able to lead a dignified existence.”

Co-workers: Nelson Amorim Mota, Anteneh Tesfaye Tola


Global Challenges
Sustainable cities and communities, affordable housing

High-tech Science
Tools, methods and strategies for improving affordable housing design in emerging economies

EiABC (Addis Ababa University), the Ministry of Construction and Urban Development and the City of Addis Ababa.

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