Updated: Feb 24
From Forest to Frame: Affordable Mass timber Housing:
There is an African proverb, “home is not where you live, home is where you belong.” It is through community that the individual achieves self-actualisation, and the collective coheres.
Housing is the anchor, the ‘self and collective,’ and Africa faces a critical shortage of affordable housing in well located, and equitably serviced areas. The Great Acceleration, (circa 1955 John Robert McNeil and Peter Engelke), has placed an extraordinary developmental pressure in cities and especially in Africa, most of which find their infrastructure capacities exceeded, or in various states of dysfunction or underinvestment. Increasingly unequal economies have produced dual or tiered socio-economic realities, the amplitude of which defies simplistic readings of class dynamics.
Coupling urban imaginaries to ecological, social and economic reality is as important as decoupling urban development from discredited “hydrocarbon/open system” logics. Cities will be the coalface of this change and affordable “green,” housing for the youth dividend will play a crucial role toward regenerative development and a net- zero future.
The population acceleration is predominated by informal sprawl in unregulated urban peripheries in response to housing demand. Much of this organic growth is taking place in small and medium-sized towns; and the impact of housing or the lack of; to respond to this demand can define the future of cities, and by extension macro-economic trajectories. Cities are the primary drivers of economic growth, and the quality and location of housing has long term consequences for inclusive growth. Migration to cities is driven by the prospect of economic opportunities and the density of diverse labour pools and resultant cultural complexity. With the productivity gain of economic agglomeration, and social serendipity; urbanization and per capita income growth tend to evolve in tandem. The urban and rural condition is a contested state of access to, and definition of resources, conservation and competing economic development needs.
As the world transitions from an extractive mindset, to one of ecological regeneration and renewal, the bio- economy and associated nature-based solutions will play a greater role in shaping resilient and sustainable livelihoods. Since the1830’s there has been a net reduction of forest cover on the planet by almost 30%, driven by extractive development and with it a substantial impact toward bio-diversity decline. Forests have been seen as inexhaustible resource, and the planet requires a new model of progressive stewardship, which balances the need to regenerate the planet and address the need for low carbon development and associated urbanization. Forests and their broader associated bio-economies may very well hold a solution to this developmental challenge.
Housing affordability has become a global concern and has particularly affected urban populations. The unprecedented rate of urbanization and population growth has tremendously stressed the affordable housing supply in cities that have not been able to cope with the surging demand. Scarcity of land, poor construction productivity and quality, lack of strategic city planning, weak markets for construction finance and credit access to homebuyers, all contribute to the market mismatch between those in need of housing and the supply of units. Cities can provide job opportunities both formally and informally bringing about an improvement to the lifestyles of residents. Residents also anticipate access to better living conditions within their means while they earn their livelihoods. Cities, therefore, come under pressure to ensure housing affordability.
In 2014, it was estimated that 330 million urban households were living in substandard housing or were financially stretched by housing costs. private sector and industry leaders have been exploring solutions that can help cities meet this extraordinary demand sustainably. For this, cities have to ensure safe, adequate, inclusive, resilient, and more importantly affordable housing for their residents. This will only be possible when markets become more transparent, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of the population. Economic diversity, environmental sustainability, and integrated urban planning are some of the key focus areas that need to be addressed collectively with the housing challenge.
With each passing year, affordability is becoming an elusive concept. It is estimated that nearly 440 million households (or 1.6 billion people) will be affected by substandard housing or would be financially constrained by housing costs by 2025. By 2050, this number would reach 2.5 billion people. Only 13% of the world’s cities have affordable housing. (UN HABITAT, 2016) Nearly a quarter of the population in India and China live in informal settlements. In Africa, over 50% of the population is living in substandard conditions (Florida, 2017). As a result, cities, globally, are increasingly focusing on making affordable, appealing homes a priority in their agenda.
For the first time in history, more than half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is found in urban areas. However, the stark reality of these towns is not all glamorous. Kakuru, household head of a family of 8, sheltered under ramshackle slums of a shantytown in Southern Africa, illustrates further this graphic narrative. As he moved from the rural to the urban area, Kakuru did not see himself and his family squeezed in one square mile radius area, with hundred thousand other slums. Kakuru’s house, made of rusted iron, plastic, and waste materials, lacks proper sanitary facilities and connection to water and sewer services. His family is in the poorest health conditions due to high soil and water contamination levels in the slums. Kakuru’s dream is to build a concrete and steel, or brick house; however, the affordable housing mortgage market does not understand his informal savings pattern.
Kakuru represents millions of other Africans left out of the housing solutions. Millions of populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are moving to the cities, making SSA’s annual urban population growth rate faster at 4.1% than the global rate that stands at 2%. This unrestrained urban growth is hardly matched by infrastructure delivery and critical services, including housing. Quality and adequate housing are associated with better health outcomes from the reduced risk of waterborne disease and better economic mobility. With the increasing density of the urban population, demand for housing is growing, making it necessary for urban planners, city councils, and policymakers to view housing critically. However, this is not the case, as the pace at which cities’ population is growing is far less than that of essential services. To make it worse, the population explosion is happening in the perilous climatic distress where Africa warms up 1.5 faster than the global average.
As a result, slums proliferation is the new normal as access to quality and affordable housing is still a challenge. There is a shortage of housing units to cater to the increasing urban populations, estimated at 56 million units; 45 of these are within the affordable housing bracket. Nigeria leads in a housing deficit, requiring more million than 22 million units, followed by Tanzania, DRC, Kenya, and South Africa, averaging around 3 million housing units. As a result of the shortages, slum populations are increasing in SSA while declining in other regions. Furthermore, housing finance systems have historically been undeveloped and inefficient, with high-cost developer finance to support the construction phase and limited consumer/mortgage finance to support the purchase. The challenges are even more acute for low/irregular income earners, as in most cases, only government-related and donor financing schemes offer to serve this segment.
Moreover, housing construction in SSA utilizes high-carbon materials, cement, and steel, which spur carbon emissions in the continent. Cement and steel are the most common building materials for houses in Sub-Saharan Africa; however, their production emits greenhouse gases highly; 0.93 pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every pound of cement produced. As emissions from buildings and construction are estimated to keep on growing at 2.4% towards 2030 due to urbanization, SSA should address housing challenges by focusing on low-carbon housing solutions for its populations.
The climate-smart forest economy construction sector has the potential to reverse several negative trends in the African housing sector; through affordable housing construction using mass timber. Mass timber products used for houses and building construction include cross-laminated timber (CLT), dowel-laminated timber (DLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam), to mention a few. Mass timber products are made by layering and pressing together large wood pieces to form panels as rigid and durable as steel. Mass timber is more robust, lighter, attractive, and comparable, and potentially more fire-resistant than concrete and steel structures under certain constraints.
Wood-based housing construction is more cost-and-time-effective and has positive environmental externalities compared to conventional housing construction. In terms of time, on-site wood-based construction takes a shorter duration than traditional housing construction. For example, an 18-story hybrid-wood student residence in Canada was completed in less than 70 days, four months faster than a conventional project of this magnitude. In terms of costs, wood-based construction house construction is more cost-competitive and about $14 cheaper per square foot than traditional concrete and steel houses. In terms of positive externalities, mass timber building materials reduce greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon dioxide that would have been released into the atmosphere, thus reducing the carbon footprint. It is estimated that a single five-story timber building could cut down emissions equivalent to withdrawing up to 600 cars from the road for a year.
Furthermore, wood-based housing construction presents an opportunity to tap into carbon market financing, solving housing affordability/financing. Carbon markets catalyze carbon omissions by monetizing initiatives that offset carbon from the atmosphere. An average single-family home can store about 9.3 metric tons of carbon, which equals 34 tons of carbon dioxide. In the carbon market, these tons can sell between US$1 and US$119 per ton of carbon dioxide. With the housing finance challenges, carbon market financing can provide additional revenue streams to cover the cost of construction and upkeep and act as a cross-subsidy that would increase the affordability of apartments and houses.
Other parts of the world are already implementing wood-based housing solutions that African countries can adopt. Wood-built housing is prevalent in northern Europe, some parts of Southeast Asia and countries like the USA, Canada, Japan, and Australia are seeing drastic growth. Over a million tonnes of carbon dioxide are captured annually in the UK as new homes incorporate timber in construction. Furthermore, the Chinese government promotes the use of wood as an alternative construction material for public buildings and affordable housing. In Africa, wood-based housing construction is still nascent and a relatively new concept; for example, in South Africa, only about 1% of houses are made of timber, while in Canada, the USA, and Australia, the percentage is as high as 90%. Increasing this percentage has massive livelihood and climatic benefits for South Africa and SSA in general.
For wood-based construction to work, comprehensive policies are required to ensure that timber is sourced sustainably to preserve existing forests and the climate. The biggest threats to sustainable forestry management come from individuals and communities looking to find and sustain livelihoods. This makes it mandatory to apply exemplary standards and specifications in forestry management and the end, building codes for mass timber houses. The climate-smart forest economy construction should adopt the 3S approach (sink, storage, and substitution), which further supports sustainable sourcing, incentivizes reforestation, facilitates private capital flow-through tax credits and subsidies, and implements forest safeguards.
In the end, it will require coordinated efforts from African governments, the private sector, development partners, and financial institutions. Governments can scale this movement by stimulating demand for wood-based construction, removing barriers to mass timber construction, and building a knowledge base for further development, and cooperating with other governments on trans-national safeguards and market harmonization. The private sector can mobilize its capacities to increase wood-based housing units and facilitate capital into the space through developers, investors, landowners, and other actors. Development partners will have to play a catalytic role in financing, institution building, and promoting the adoption of environmental standards.
Housing can serve as a psychological foothold in urban and rural realities, but it can also offer an economic lever and tradeable asset, a stake in local governance, and be a marker of dignity. As such housing has the potential to be a pressure point in the body politic, as well as markets. Affordable housing is often the primary asset or point of financial and cultural security for large swathes of the population. In some cases, migration from rural to urban areas has also been driven by “push” factors such as poor yields from agriculture (Barrios et al. 2006). Housing stocks, along with investment and employment in related construction and finance industries, constitute a major component of national economic wealth.
Mass timber in housing, in tandem with appropriate environmental safeguards, may point to several strategic opportunities, namely to: strengthen the bio-economy and provide a richer value proposition for forest communities, timber beneficiation, and conservation, create a new low-carbon branch in the construction toolkit of the continent to address the developmental demand of cities and housing, to form new psychosocial -relationships between humanity, nature, and culture.
The future of affordable housing potentially lies in the untapped role of climate-smart forest management. Scaling this initiative will ensure access and affordability of housing in Sub-Saharan Africa, increase forest product demand, and sustainable supply will help maintain forest cover and carbon stocks, decreasing environmental impacts. In the end, low-income communities, especially the slums, with millions of Kakurus, will have better health outcomes, improved mobility, and economic security.
Published by BusinessDay