Dorelle Sapere

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow Since 1993
People`s Housing Partnership Trust-Dept. Housing
This description of Dorelle Sapere's work was prepared when Dorelle Sapere was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993 .


Dorelle Sapere is using her skills as an architect to help twenty million South Africans without viable housing build durable, safe, and comfortable shelter from locally available materials themselves.

The New Idea

Dorelle and the National Resource Center on Housing Structures she created start from the premise that, given adequate opportunity and support, each individual has the inherent ability to provide the most acceptable solution to their own housing needs and aspirations. The Center builds upon and strengthens existing community-based housing initiatives by helping them find and use affordable and acceptable building materials and by upgrading the local skills base. It seeks to mobilize human power and locally available resources on a massive scale to reduce South Africa's housing crisis.
The Center aims to build upon the existing skills base in local communities to transform existing natural resources -- such as earth -- into safe, efficient, and affordable construction materials. Through targeted assistance, the Center particularly seeks to strengthen women's historic role in shelter provision. It also seeks to open new employment possibilities for the unskilled by helping them learn improved construction techniques.
Dorelle's Center also is developing a user-friendly library of technological and resource data which monitors and assesses changing aesthetic needs and housing material preferences, while sensitizing communities to environmental issues affecting the building environment. It also facilitates the flow of information between communities, government agencies, and citizens' organizations, as well as develops mechanisms to engage financial institutions.

The Problem

South Africa's housing crisis presents an enormous challenge to government, planners, industry, and advocates for development. An immediate 1.3 million housing units are necessary simply to alleviate the health hazards posed by the current mushrooming of squatter settlements. Formal homes are generally far too expensive for the average household. Rental properties are scarce and the cheapest housing unit available sells for $1700 (a structure of fifteen to twenty-five square meters), yet housing loans under $4000 are difficult to obtain from formal financial institutions. This means that more than half the population in crowded areas can only have housing if they build it themselves.
In addition, as markets and governments replace family or community construction, the housing available to the poor deteriorates in quality and appropriateness of design. Most responses to the crisis have been inadequate, inappropriate, and culturally insensitive. Architects, engineers, and urban planners have developed rigid models of low-cost housing, but few address the problem of self-sufficiency or community empowerment. The problem is further compounded by the lack of building components that are modern, economical, and locally available. Too many planners persist in the use of imported technologies that are too sophisticated, expensive, and energy inefficient.
The lack of experience and skills at all levels of intervention in homeless communities limits attempts to find more just or viable solutions. Poverty and credit unavailability further limit the average person's options. The danger, both moral and technical, is the perpetuation of the economic dependency and despair of the poorer areas.

The Strategy

Dorelle's Center uses a five-pronged strategy to empower communities to take care of their own housing needs. It seeks to increase both their technical competence and skills base at all levels:
Networking. The Center has begun building a regional network through People's Dialogue (an organization supporting and linking informal settlements throughout southern Africa), and the IDT school development program, an endowed national initiative. The Center will ,e.g., stimulate architectural interest in and debate regarding housing to encourage the exploration of local building materials, not only as a Third World solution, but also as a fashionable First World aspiration.
Research and Development. The Center disseminates the various components of its research through a user-friendly database to communities in need, as well as to potential donors, government and non-governmental organizations, industrial and commercial interests, and support service providers. Research determines the existing resource bases within various communities with respect to available skills, materials, building components, etc. The database will also profile relevant donor organizations; service organizations working on issues such asappropriate sanitation, solar energy, and co-ops; and industrial and commercial entities that could be active in the housing process in various regions.
Policy. Based on international precedents and user norms, the program also develops performance standards which are more appropriate to developing communities, while remaining acceptable to regional authorities.
Finance. The Center has embarked on a joint process with other citizens' organizations, donors, and industry to create new mechanisms for financing housing. It also integrates funding for job creation into its skills upgrading program.
Training. The Center uses existing training materials and mechanisms where it can. When that is not the case, it develops its own training modules. For example, it is now developing training modules on the various aspects of the procurement process. Dorellle emphasizes training through exchange programs and education of trainers so that skills are transferred within and between communities. The Center also develops training materials in printed and electronic form to be distributed through existing networks and integrated into the Center's advocacy functions.

The Person

Dorelle's interest in this field was sparked by a field trip as a third year architectural student to Crossroads, a volatile settlement in Cape Town. There she was exposed to the realities of the urbanization process and was stunned by its magnitude and brutality. She also became concerned about its inevitable pressure on the natural environment. More importantly, the inherent beauty, hierarchical order and structuring of spontaneously-created shelters convinced her that the planning and building skills exhibited there, usually dismissed by professionals as non-existent, were indeed a very compelling answer to designing living environments for the urban poor.
The opportunity to formalize this conviction into reality came while Dorelle was studying for a certificate in conservation at ICCROM in Rome. There, she was introduced to an international center for scientific research on the use of local building materials and discovered a technological support network which strives to find a solution to the housing crisis on a global scale. She stayed for a two year training period.