In a nutshell

Location South Africa

Project timeline 

"Project is 100% completed "

The Challenge

Despite having enshrined a right of access to adequate housing in its post-apartheid Constitution in 1994, South Africa faces a long-term housing crisis. In 2004 its housing department announced sweeping changes to state housing policy to help diversify housing solutions for poor populations. These include allowing existing informal settlements to be upgraded in situ – a faster, more community-friendly way to address the plight of South Africa’s urban poor. 

The Approach

In 2013 ETH Zurich teamed up with local NGO Ikhayalami to introduce an integrated approach to upgrading South Africa’s growing informal settlements. By creating an interface between community, leading professionals and the state, the resulting Empower Shack project developed a pilot scheme that responds to the social, ecological and market dynamics of South African cities.

Targeting BT-Section Site C, a demarcated neighbourhood of 68 houses in Cape Town, this Swiss Re Foundation-supported project involved refining the housing prototype and reconfiguring the urban plan developed in the pilot. Specifically, it:

  • Developed new housing prototype designs, informed by current occupancy feedback, community engagement and on-site analysis of the first four pilot units
  • Developed and implemented a range of prototypes based on local construction techniques and materials, residents’ spatial requirements and affordability
  • Developed a pilot legal framework with the City of Cape Town that allows for the approval of occupancy of the new units with clear pathways to formalisation and tenure security
  • Upgraded the houses in the BT-Section Site C within a new urban configuration based on participatory planning methodology
  • Designed and developed an income-generating urban agriculture scheme customised to the newly formed public spaces

Goals and Expected Impact

Empower Shack’s overall objective was to offer a scalable methodology to reshape the informal settlement of South Africa by offering a methodology for the fair distribution of public space, a safer urban environment, improved service delivery and an urbanisation pattern that combines housing upgrades with new economic and social opportunities.

The 286 residents of BT-Section Site C benefitted directly from the project. Furthermore, employment opportunities were created through the facilitation and construction of the units, which included certified training programmes for the building industry and NGO sector. The Community Development Committees have benefitted from structured engagement on all levels of the project and should be able to exercise these skills in the further community urban management of the upgrade.

The results of this pilot have the potential to catalyse a productive new direction for South Africa’s housing policy, potentially benefitting the millions of South Africans who presently live in informal settlements and are priced out of the formal housing market.

Empower Shack


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Our partner

The core team of the Empower Shack Research Program is comprised of researchers from the Brillembourg & Klumpner Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH Zurich, led by Professor Alfredo Brillembourg and Professor Hubert Klumpner. The chair specializes in social design and informal urban systems in a range of global contexts.