Builders in South Africa have begun construction on a new type of housing for low-income families. The buildings look like conventional homes, but the walls are made with sandbags. Architects say their experimental design is quicker and easier to build. For VOA, Terry FitzPatrick reports from Cape Town.

South Africa builds about 250,000 houses for the poor, every year.  But 10 homes going up in Freedom Park are a radical departure from standard construction practices.

"This is a drawing plan which we use for construction," said Luyanda Mpahlwa of MMA Architects, who was commissioned by a Cape Town foundation, called the Design Indaba, to develop new ideas for low-cost homes.

"We had to be creative, in terms of finding a different way of building.  Because we're all comfortable to say this is how you build today and we don't challenge ourselves to find alternative methods," added Mpahlwa.

The design team's first innovation was to move beyond the standard floor plan of a single-story home.  The new layout has two floors.  A living room, kitchen and bath are downstairs. Upstairs, there are two bedrooms and a balcony. Mpahlwa says the 581 square feet of living space is bigger and better than the low-income homes South Africa has been building.

"We are trying to introduce the element of dignity in low-cost housing.  Now, as architects we've got the challenge to apply our trade to improve the lives of people.  But, at the same time, we should provide good quality for the people, so that they have a decent house," said Mpahlwa.

The building's most unusual innovation comes from a small factory, a few miles away.  Frameworks for the homes are pre-fabricated at a company called Eco Beam and then shipped to the construction site.  Mike Tremeer developed the wood-and metal framework design. 

"I think it makes it easy to build.  It's extremely fast.  It's ideal for situations where you have no infrastructure," said Tremeer.

Once the frame goes up on site, the walls are filled-in with 3,500 sandbags.  Tremeer says sandbags are strong and durable.  And, to keep costs down, community members fill the bags, themselves, at the building location.

"It adds so much value to someone's property, if they've actually had an input in actually being able to help to build that house.  And, this is an opportunity for people to actually do that.  We can use extremely unskilled labor," said Tremeer. "Once the framework is up, it's just a matter of filling in the gaps."

The 10 experimental sandbag homes will be occupied by families who have been living in shacks. Construction is being financed by private donors. The project recently won the prestigious Curry Stone architectural award from the University of Kentucky, in the United States.  But it is not clear if South African officials will adopt the sandbag concept for other housing developments.  The architects estimate each home will cost about $10,000 to build.  That is more than expected and is twice the price of a conventional low-income house in South Africa.