Swimming against the current

Nadar contra la corrienteSwimming against the current requires initiative, strength and endurance … but it’s the right way to go according to a South African architect. A recently completed social housing project in Cape Town demonstrates that alternative implementation strategies can provide jobs and produce cost effective, quality results.

Peter Dunckley

When Nelson Mandela walked out of the prison gates to address a tearful and ecstatic multitude on the Grand Parade in Cape Town, the great majority of South Africans echoed the cry … ‘Free at last !’ … free from racist oppression, free from exploitation and hunger … free to be what we choose to be.

Of course our social world, the world that we as people create and reproduce by our actions every day, is less forgiving than Comrade Mandela. Ten years later, much as we celebrate great efforts in housing, water provision, electrification … our economy (the ‘system’ as we used to call it in the struggle years) is still unable to create paid jobs for 40% of our people.

This reality of ‘jobless growth’ is the biggest contradiction facing the world as we advance into the 21st century. In every social project that thinking people undertake, conscious strategic decisions need to be taken to reverse these systemic tendencies of concentration and marginalisation.

We need to recognize that ‘the system’ is not a natural phenomenon like a great river flowing to the sea. It is a social construct with negative tendencies that can and must be reversed for the collective wellbeing of everyone who shares existence on the planet. Swimming against the current requires initiative, strength and endurance … but it’s the right way to go.

A recently completed social housing project in Cape Town demonstrates that alternative implementation strategies can provide jobs and produce cost effective, quality results.


The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Cape Town, an NGO offering shelter, councelling and job referral services to abused and trafficked women and their children raised donor funding to build shelter housing and an EduCare Centre. Development oriented Architects, Peter Dunckley and Astrid Wicht were appointed to design and implement the Project.

A medium term physical plan was evolved in a consultative process with generative ideas, layouts and models of house type options workshopped with Centre staff and endusers. Planning themes revolved around security, identity, balancing private and shared space, the integration of residential, recreational and social space, human scale, natural environmental controls and simple ‘hand made’ construction systems. A first phase was identified.

ImageWith limited financial resources, an owner/builder approach to implementation was agreed on, with the Centre purchasing building materials from suppliers and the Architects supervising a direct labour construction program that mobilized voluntary and job creation labour.

The Architects quantified materials needed for each stage of construction and drew up a Construction Program that listed all the work activities required to build the buildings, identified appropriately skilled teams for each activity and how many days each activity should take to complete, using productivity gauges.

The Project team then networked with Correctional Services and an NGO job referral Agency in the depressed local Mannenberg Community where unemployment runs as high as 80% to set up social partnerships for implementation.

The Architects set out the first phase of buildings and Correctional Services bussed in teams of people sentenced to Community Service to dig and cast foundations in weekend workparties.


Unemployed artisans and labourers forwarded by the job referral Agency were then organized into teams and contracted in staged fixed value contracts based on the number of days required to complete each work activity at average industry daily rates for artisans and labourers.

Where artisans lacked hand tools, the project advanced loans against labour payments to purchase tools. Weekly Friday labour payments were made directly to each workteam member based on the Architects assessment of the percentage of each staged contract completed by the team.

To extend the period of participant’s employment and harvest the experience of repetition we avoided the multiplication of teams working simultaneously, and rather deployed teams sequentially from house to house with building teams followed by carpentry teams followed by plastering teams etc.

A group of 10 Architectural students gave a weeks Labour in an education with production exercise to put on the DayCare roof.

On completion of the Construction Program, Correctional Services deployed further Workteams to level and clear the site, followed by volunteers planting gardens and trees.

The process involved a high level of supervision and intense committed work from the Project team and Architects who played a range of roles outside of the standard Architect / client relationship … but succeeded in producing quality buildings at 60% of the standard square meter rates of conventional contractor delivered building work.


By eliminating contractor’s profits and overheads, exploitation was eliminated and labour money went directly into the pockets of the local community artisans and workers who most needed it in direct proportion to their work contribution.

The success of the Project demonstrates that with committed and effective facilitation, job creation processes that mobilize unemployed people to deliver development goals are both achievable and cost-effective.


You are here: Home Past editions Edition # 8, November 2004 Swimming against the current


Marcelino Castro
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