Habitat aims to do something new, creative and innovative all for Namibia’s benefit.
At Habitat, you walk in past the iron gate made of old wheel barrows, spades, shovels and left over metal parts and you find yourself in this open garden-esque room with walls constructed in every possible medium: soda cans strung together like beads on metal sticks. Mud bricks, sand bricks, normal red bricks all stacked in the standard way but with different colours and different textures. Around the corner you can see bags of sand stacked on top of each other in a curved wall formation. Walls with wine bottles laid down on their sides and mortared just like bricks.
All of these methods are obviously an attempt to find new and unusual materials and techniques for building. The stairwell leads down over to the main office and you are met with retaining walls made of tires, both full and in pieces. There are burglar bars made out of leftover metal parts, arranged elegantly.
I went to Habitat to conduct an interview with one of its employees, to find out more about the project’s environmental, social and artistic concerns. This wasn’t my first time- I had come previously on a tour with a bunch of other international students. That first time they led us down the corridors of Habitat to see the library, the cooling towers, the prototypes they helped make for the “otjitoilet” (a dry sanitation toilet) and their power-generating solar panels. The gist of the first trip was to see how ordinary things around us could be used to improve and benefit people’s lives. We saw that all the materials we need to do this are already here.
Since my last visit things changed somewhat. Habitat is in the process of handing over its research centre to the Ministry of Regional and Local Governement, Housing and Rural Development (MRLGHRD) and the complex was not in a high functioning mode. I walked into the office and sat down with a member of the Habitat team, who has chosen to remain anonymous, to ask them about what Habitat has been up to recently.
Artwolfe: What kind of activities has Habitat been up to in the last year?
Habitat: Well, last year we did a lot of research on building materials – Calcrete Limestone – this was done all over the country. There are a lot of regions that have Calcrete and it is used because of its strength.
Artwolfe: In spite of the imminent government handover, what are Habitat’s long term goals?
Habitat: It would be to find alternative ways to build houses from the materials found around the community. This would take place in all regions. The alternative housing would be for more traditional houses, in the rural areas where housing is more permanent. People often resort to corrugated iron in urban settings because land is only temporary and people can be asked to move. Why would you build if you might be evicted the next day?
Artwolfe: This is a fascinating point considering that a lot of the country is living in these corrugated shacks, mostly in urban settings but also in rural ones. Okuriyangava is a hilly place covered in these shacks, they go on for kilometers – most informal settlements are just shacks.
Habitat: And these shacks aren’t the healthiest, they get hot in the summer and cold during the winter. And there is not a real demand for alternative building because lower-income people can copy and apply what they see other people doing and build their own shack.
Artwolfe: Can you tell us more about the MRLGHRD takeover of Habitat?
Habitat: The Ministry takeover has a large scope in terms of sanitation systems, demos, and solar energy and solar stoves. Their job is to bring knowledge and to educate the people in order for them to accept these alternative ways.
Artwolfe: Is there a resistance to these alternative ways?
Habitat: It is not a resistance but a comparison to higher-income people. Everybody wants the same standard but a higher standard comes with a higher price. Our goal is educating people and doing demos to show that there are different ways that work.
There is an argument in the “art world” about whether art can be functional or not. Is a painting on thw wall just decorative? Can art be more than that?
Habitat would say yes. Art to Habitat is using different mediums to construct and build houses, it is thinking deeply about what a house is, what a space is and how all of these different factors can be used to make a place for somebody to live in. Art to Habitat is about thinking differently about the energy that we use. To Habitat, a toilet can still be a toilet even when there is no water to flush it. Materials don’t have to be expensive either. The art of Habitat lies in finding cheap affordable alternative ways to build a house and finding these materials in the surrounding environment. Art to Habitat is looking at a Coke can and seeing the potential it can have as a wall if many are placed together.
Environmental Art is about making art in our surroundings and using our surroundings to make art. Art can be functional and it can be non-functional. Habitat is an artistic project and its medium affects each and every one of us living in Namibia; Habitat is a profound Environmental Art endeavour. I hope this government takeover only gives way to more solutions that are very much needed and are at the core of Habitat’s motives. This will be the only way that alternatives on such a mass scale can be seen in the near future.
Clearly alternative housing needs to be developed and that is what Habitat is attempting to create. A lot of social factors go into this challenge and many people’s lives can be positively affected if this very important matter is looked into. Hence the need for an institution like this one.