The housing strategy of the Second Republic which will see 220 000 houses and flats built by 2025 opens a great many opportunities for creative Zimbabwean architects, designers and planners that need to be seized to ensure that what we build now will be desirable in an upper middle-income economy.
On the implementation the goal is achievable. The Government of the Second Republic has now created a culture of setting realistic targets and implementing these. The target might be large, but so what. This was not a number derived from the book of empty promises, but a carefully calculated target and it is large because resources are being made available.
The engineering side is already progressing fast with innovative technologies being considered or adopted, technologies that give something better and bigger for the dollar. A lot of other practical issues are already solved or are being solved.
Local industry, already existing with cement works, brick makers and the like, can provide a lot of the materials and with the huge investment being made by steelmakers in Zimbabwe most of the rest of the materials will soon be local, from the steel needed for reinforcing and window and door frames all the way to the wide variety of modern roof sheets that add to a building’s looks while reducing its costs.
What needs now to be looked at is how liveable the new houses and flats will be and how they fit into the post 2030 environment and beyond, remembering that houses and blocks of flats can last for at least 100 years and quite often for several centuries.
No one actually sits down and plans a slum or a ghetto. Everyone plans for decent family housing. But unless the right decisions are made when new suburbs are laid out and when new buildings are built these can develop, as other countries have found to their cost and which Zimbabwe has seen arise from some well-intentioned work and planning.
We need to remember as we put everything together that 220 000 houses and flats is a lot of housing. Considering average household size in Zimbabwe we are looking at homes for more than 800 000 people and perhaps pushing one million. So the new housing, if in one place, would be a city larger than Bulawayo and about five times the size of Mutare. Even compared to Harare it would house more than half the population of what is easily our largest city.
Many people want detached houses, but if we are blunt even 200 square metres for stands for detached houses can be on the small side once building lines have been calculated and even 220 000 plots that size will come to at least 80 square kilometres once roads, schools, parks and the like are included, a huge area.
Flats can allow larger dwellings, but using less land, since several dwellings can be built on top of each other. They require careful thought, with no skimping on wall thickness for example, and while cutting costs and making a larger reduction in land needed present their own problems.
But with careful planning they can be desirable and can be more desirable that detached housing for many.
We should not ignore the housing that fits into the gap between detached housing and multi-storey blocks of flats: the terraced housing or garden flat as they tend to be called in Zimbabwe.
When plots are small the gaps between houses are trivial, just the building line each side. Terraced housing pushed houses together making far better use of land and even adds to privacy, since no one can look out of their side windows into your side window.
The fact that such housing, very often double storied with the living rooms downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs, dominates in lot of upper middle-income housing in say Avondale or Newlands means that it is acceptable. In fact it tends to form the basis of the expensive cluster estates now being built in the fancier suburbs.
One requirement that perhaps has not been pushed high on the agenda is to have in every new estate a mix of designs and a mix of types of housing.
Even when we are building detached homes in a giant block in a new suburb it makes a huge difference if there are a number of house plans and designs available, to make the new development varied.
The same applies to flat blocks, and again a decent set of architects told to design a suburban area of 50 blocks could at least have 10 or so design variations, that would even vary the number of floors as well the external look of the whole complex.
Ultimately, it should be possible to mix blocks of flats, terraced housing and detached housing in a new major development that creates an organic community that works.
There were attempts by a group of architects last century to create estates of high-rise flats in blocks of 10 plus floors to be set in a garden environment.
All that happened is that these were social disasters and many have been demolished. They forgot the people who live in them.
All this is why it is so important as new suburbs are created and the homes built that architects, designers and social planners work together with the engineers and finance groups to ensure that the several thousand new homes being erected will form a natural and workable community and not create an alienated population.
Where possible the opportunities for future upgrade need to be included. One example is the post-war German utility flats that by the 1980s were being upgraded with balconies added, new plumbing and the like. And the other post 2030 factor we need to remember, especially when looking at some of the Avenues blocks of flats, is enough parking, like at least one bay per flat. Quite a lot of people now paying high rent each month wish a 1960s designer had thought of that.
Besides our technical and engineering progress and skilled people, Zimbabwe also has a lot of creative people who need to be added to the design teams.
We can not just build the 220 000 new houses and flats, but we can build them better, and when people a century later see that this is a 2020s block or home, they will find it still desirable and want to move in.