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Can Flexible Architecture Solve Housing Problems in Nigeria? (2)

This post is a continuation of the previous one on the adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings in Nigeria. In this article, I would be continuing the discourse on flexible architecture with a focus on movable architecture.

Movable architecture can be defined as buildings specifically designed to move from place to place so that they can fulfil their function better. There are different strategies/approaches to the design of movable architecture. They include portable or demountable buildings and modular buildings

Portable buildings can be transported in one piece, which allows the building to be available for use almost as soon as it arrives at its new location. Constructing modular buildings, on the other hand, involves creating a structure that can be transported in a limited number of parts. These parts can then be assembled on site. It allows many different architectural forms to be created and does not limit the size of the finished building or its geographical location. (Kronenburg, 2007)

Prefabricated houses fall under the category of modular buildings and can help reduce housing costs by up to 20%. In addition to this, they have a reduced carbon footprint and cheaper, safer construction. (Lennard, 2013) (Pinset Masons, 2017). The reduced housing costs are beneficial as the houses will be within the financial reach of low-income earners in Nigeria who are the worst hit by the housing challenges. Modular houses will, therefore, tackle the problem of affordability.

These advantages are seen in the S house Project by Vietnamese architecture studio- Vo Trong Nghia Architects. In the S house project, modular prefabricated houses were designed to serve low-income earners in Vietnam. The houses are stable but lightweight. The lightweight structure allows for ease of transport while the stability allows it to effectively withstand adverse weather conditions. The main structure of the house is constructed with precast concrete but the rest of the building is constructed using cheap locally sourced materials such as Nipa palm in the Vietnamese example. (Vo Trong Nghia Architects, 2016) Although in Nigeria, a range of materials such as raffia and timber could be exploited.

According to the architects, the average cost of an S house unit is $4,000 for 30 square meters which gives about N1,428,000 in the Nigerian Currency ($1=N357). This then gives a unit cost of construction of N47,600 per square meter, when compared with the average cost of construction of N160,000, this results in a 70% saving on housing construction costs. Given these calculations and observations above, it can be safely concluded that modular housing will indeed prove to be a cheaper method of housing construction and help to attack the problem of affordability.

Asides from affordability, these houses are incredibly advantageous as they are easy and quick to construct which means that more houses could be delivered within a shorter period when compared to typical construction methods prevalent in Lagos. Using the regular construction methods i.e. sand-crete block and mortar, it takes an average of six to nine months for a three-bedroom apartment to be constructed but with prefabricated units, this construction time could be reduced to as little as 3 weeks. This is a very important attribute because the housing deficit in Lagos put at about 5 million units with a need to deliver about 500,000 units per annum (Oshodi, 2010). By using modular housing, more housing units will be delivered within a shorter time.

Despite the advantages that these modular homes have, there are a number of disadvantages. Although modular homes are more affordable for the final recipients, they require large capital costs especially in the establishment of factories for production. In addition to this, they need a high level of specialism and for it to be properly implemented in Lagos, the government would need to make substantial investments in technological equipment as well as invest in training of personnel to run and manage the production plants. Asides from this, government policies would also need to be amended to accommodate this new method of construction. In addition to this, another criticism of modular houses is the similarity of all the houses. Modular housing methods have been noted to result in houses all looking very similar. This argument is however no longer valid as various methods of customisation are now available compared to what could be done during the production of post-war housing in the 1940s. In spite of the disadvantages outlined, modular housing is proving to be a viable solution for the provision of housing in various countries such as England. (Pinset Masons, 2017) 

Asides from the obvious arguments on technical know-how and required capital, another major barrier to the adoption of this is a reception to change i.e. will the people that these houses made for want it? Will we be able to get away from the mentality that these wood, clay or raffia houses are only for the poor or local village people? This I believe will probably be the greatest challenge.

What do you think will be the greatest challenge to adopting modular housing in Nigeria? I would really love to hear your thoughts as well as other ideas on low-cost housing in Nigeria in particular and the world as a whole.

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