Better Living Challenge


About Our Finalists: Collis & Associates

Sep 11, 2014

Innovative process turns house building into a catalyst for community upliftment and environmental change


Double finalists combine a sustainable and holistic approach to home construction with plans to revitalise South Africa’s declining timber industry. 


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Based in Cape Town, Vernon Collis & Associates specialise in developing integrated and sustainable systems for the built environment. Earlier this year, the practice submitted two entries to the Better Living Challenge. The entries are closely linked – and both of them have made the finals.


The first entry is a ground-breaking approach to the process of designing and constructing decent, affordable and environmentally sustainable housing for South Africa’s low-income communities. Commenting on what distinguishes his practice’s solution from other approaches, Vernon Collis says: “The process we have developed and prototyped looks beyond the immediate need to deliver new houses to poor communities by taking other fundamentals into account, starting with the environment and the economy.


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“By analysing South Africa’s housing problems holistically, our process equips us to build a solid understanding of the systems and resources that are available. We use this understanding to assemble an appropriate set of construction materials and technologies before we even start the design stage. Importantly, the materials we identify include low-carbon or green materials like SAPine and quality materials that are usually destined for landfill sites. By repurposing and reusing these materials, we can reduce the environmental impact of building new homes.”


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The innovative process also takes into account a number of other fundamentals such as the socio-political landscape; the viability of working with local institutions; the community’s cultural values; opportunities to upskill local people; and how to make best use of free resources such as sun, sand, shade, rainfall, vertical spaces and so on. Taking all these factors into account will help to transform housing provision into a catalyst for social upliftment and environmental change.


Early experience demonstrates that the new process has considerable potential. Vernon and his colleagues have already prototyped their plans at Mbekweni, near Paarl, where they used the process to build 13 low-cost houses. During this project, the team worked closely with the community and local government and the lessons learned have helped to further refine and strengthen the new process. The development is such a resounding success that it has been labelled Xhosa Constantia.


Long-term, the success of the practice’s first entry will also help to ensure the success of its second entry, which involves ambitious plans to revitalise South Africa’s timber sector by rebranding the country’s best quality species of pine, Pinus Radiata, and re-launching it onto the global market as California Pine.


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As Vernon explains: “South Africa has a world-class forestry culture and knowledge that is in serious danger of being lost. Timber is the world’s only truly sustainable construction material and California Pine, which grows abundantly in the Western Cape, is recognised as a top quality pine in the world. But there is catch. Although California Pine is prized abroad, the South African government has identified it is as an alien species and has implemented measures to clear it. This will bring on the end of a valuable construction resource, a viable industry and precious jobs.”


To make matters worse, notes Vernon, there is a widespread misconception that there is only one species of pine in South Africa, SA Pine. As a result, California Pine’s unique qualities are consistently underplayed and a growing number of buyers are importing their timber products from abroad.


Vernon and his team intend to reverse this trend by restoring and reinforcing California Pine’s reputation as one of the world’s best pine products. In the process, they will help to revive South Africa’s declining timber industry and stimulate new growth and job opportunities. Significantly, Vernon’s practice is already walking its own talk by specifying California Pine as one of the principal materials in its pioneering house building process.