Paul Cohen

Fellow Ashoka
South Africa
Fellow Since 1997
This description of Paul Cohen's work was prepared when Paul Cohen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997 .


Paul Cohen has developed a model of holistic community development in rural South Africa that supports land tenure, local economic development, the construction of sustainable housing, and restoration of links to the natural environment that promote a sustainable lifestyle. He had has introduced and demonstrated a model for a flexible, owner-built, low-cost, high-quality housing system for South Africa. Paul's model for a family home incorporates a passive solar energy source for hot water and cooking, natural waste management, household food security, and high quality, attractive construction.

La nuova idea

Paul Cohen is addressing South Africa's acute shortage of housing by creating family dwellings that contribute to sustainable rural villages. Most of the country's housing initiatives are urban, where political power is based, and require adherence to rigid standards. To date, those standards have precluded the inexpensive earth materials Paul uses, which are rooted in African building technology that has been discarded over the years. He is demonstrating, however, that his design can meet the government's technical requirements for access to construction subsidies. Moreover, his system addresses environmental and resource problems not usually considered in South African low cost housing, and it incorporates unusual amenities and owner preferences, all for a price of little more than half of what the government usually spends per subsidized unit. Although the system was conceived as a solution to the low end of the housing market it is in fact applicable to all sections of it. Paul's model for a family home incorporates a passive solar energy source for hot water and cooking, natural waste management, household food security, and high quality, attractive construction. It challenges the government, developers, and the community in general to become open to new housing construction techniques. It also challenges the assumptions that poor people are so desperate they will grasp at any solution, and that people in rural areas already know how to organize their physical environment.

Il problema

South Africa faces a housing shortage of five million homes (some estimates are as high as twelve million) and a scarcity of money to build. In response to this, the national government is offering a Rand (R)15,000 (US $2,500) subsidy for a low cost, first-time home to families with an income of less than R800 (US $133) per month. The houses produced for this amount, however, are usually very low in thermal, environmental, and aesthetic quality. A significant drawback to the standard design schemes is that they can lead to major lifetime costs for heating and cooling-both for the user and for the environment. There are often low levels of satisfaction with the houses (often as a result of the houses being too small) from end users, who are usually not consulted in the design process, let alone given alternatives. Nor is the flexibility for expansion planned for, so later additions can be difficult and expensive. Aside from the initial decision to provide a housing subsidy, there has been very little creativity coming from government around this issue. An unfortunate consequence has been that many rural residents have been unable to access this subsidy because eligibility is contingent upon meeting current housing standards. These standards are defined by the use of conventional materials such as bricks and mortar, whereas the traditional elements for rural housing are natural materials like earth. Because the cost of conventional low cost housing is far beyond the means of poor rural farmers, there is an urgent need to integrate new approaches and technologies into national housing standards. New approaches acknowledge that sweat equity (labor) can save the owner up to 50 percent of the building cost even using conventional materials, and that use of materials and techniques particularly suited to the owner builder can further reduce the cost.
There is also a problem of environmental estrangement on the part of many rural dwellers. Due to factors such as poverty and past government relocations of people into officially designated "homelands," many village communities enjoy little vegetation and/or food security, and the inhabitants may feel little connection to the land on which they live.

La strategia

In Paul's view, demonstration is the key to introducing new ideas in a way that rebuilds the fabric of society and re-establishes the link between people and their environment in South Africa. To that end, in 1991, he established the Tlholego Development Project to provide a rural settlement model based on ecological principles with the purpose of training people in the design and implementation of sustainable land use and village settlements. Tlholego is a Tswana word meaning "from natural origins." According to Paul, low cost housing systems and flexibility are usually seen to be mutually exclusive. Cost constraints typically dictate the mass production of standard designs with standard materials. This need not be the case. Limits can be set to the degree of flexibility, within a range of low cost alternatives for each element of the building (footings, walls, floors, roofs, window, doors). If the cost implications of the different alternatives are clearly spelled out, then the owner builder can make informed choices within the budget. The Tlholego system is designed to be expandable and thus allows for the addition of extra alternatives, as new materials, new building techniques, or new building standards are developed, and as resources become available.
The current Tlholego design is for an owner built 45-square-meter family home with four rooms, mud brick construction, shower, composting toilet, laundry, kitchen area, insulation, damp proofing, termite protection provided by a galvanized steel plate laid above the foundation, insect screening, high quality finishes in attractive colors, on-site waste treatment and electricity in each room. Two innovative features of the system are its passive solar heating system and articulated wall design, features which are not offered even in many expensive suburban homes in South Africa. Passive solar design involves the use of wall materials of high thermal mass in order to mediate the common extremes of temperature, and wall length windows to attract heat. The articulated wall design means that all door and window openings are designed as modular units which are the full height of the walls, a bit of technology that eliminates the problem of cracks forming in the earth-brick masonry.
Based on a one-off house, paying full retail prices for materials, Paul produced the house for R10,000 (approximately US $1,670). Group purchasing could reduce the house cost to below R8,000 (US $1,333). Removing the composting toilet would bring the house cost down by an additional R1,200 (US $200). The solar gain adds significant saving on lifetime operating expenses: solar hot water saves 50 to 60 percent of expected electricity costs, translating into family savings of R75-100 (US $13-17) per month. Conventional alternatives with the same design features would cost between R 30,000-40,000 (US $5,000-6,600). Paul is currently constructing two more models: a 65-square-meter, six bedroom house for about R25,000 (US $4,200) in material costs, and a 23-square-meter single room house for about R5,000 (US $833).
The Tlholego design integrates elements that contribute to food security through grey water treatment, composting toilets, and farm gardens. This system builds an integrated model for local self-reliance as well as a basic building block for village settlement. The design, therefore, appeals to a broad range of other interested parties, including housing developers. Some corporations have asked Paul to train some of their people to build this type of housing for their workers.
Paul is marketing his design in several ways that extend beyond his pilot demonstration. He is introducing his system to standard housing companies and builders and works with international and local networks of development specialists in housing, village settlements, and food security. The food security dimension to his housing model is based on permaculture, and Tlholego is a pioneer for permaculture training in South Africa. (The word "permaculture" was coined in the 1970s by Australian ecologist, Dr. Bill Mollison, as a contraction of permanent and agriculture. Permacultural land use employs the design of beneficial ecological associations that form living systems capable of regenerating and supporting themselves.) Also, together with Brian Woodward, an architect of world renown credited as a leader in low cost, owner built housing, Paul conducts training sessions in "experiential learning" by building. In earlier work in his native Australia, Woodward conceived the design of the housing system that Paul is expanding and adapting to situations posing different ecological challenges across South Africa.
Interest in the Tlholego design has been quite high. Paul has trained village leaders through his on-site learning institute. Organizations approaching him include the North West Department of Education (their interest is in re-designing their farm school environments), the Gauteng Department of Education, the Marshals Community Corps, and the mining houses in the region as well as a wide variety of community organizations: Paul offers training to representatives from these institutions. He is providing information to Eco-link, the Environmental Development Agency, the National Housing Forum, and the North West Government, as well as professional organizations, universities, the Urban Sector Network, and the Global Village Network. He is also working with top scientific research institutes like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on joint projects for rural settlement in the Northwest province.
With three models for unfired brick house design, Paul is demonstrating that this method of construction is more than satisfactory to meet standard technical requirements for government-subsidized housing and continuing his dialogue with the government, communities, and housing developers. As this dialogue continues, Paul's work will allow more of South Africa's citizens to qualify for government subsidies for their homes and will offer the added benefit of savings to the public purse.

La persona

Paul was born in 1959 and completed his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town. At University he became excited about the idea of community-based factories. In 1986 Paul went overseas to deepen his study of environmental design. When he returned to South Africa he searched for an opportunity to apply these concepts and discovered that the rural farm from which Tlholego Development Project now operates was available. He arranged to place it in a perpetual land trust and in 1991 began working on the farm, where he lives with his wife and son. Through his family upbringing, Paul recognizes that life is a precious present. He cherishes this gift and has a deep desire to ensure that life is sustained and built into the roots of the future. On a personal level, Paul realizes that, "in the long term, as a white minority living in South Africa, my survival and that of my children depends on the flourishing of the black majority, and I believe that ecological development is the foundation, or roots, to that flourishing."
Paul is very passionate about his work and is deeply concerned with his own lifestyle and rootedness. Ecological design is also very close to the way he chooses to live his own life-learning to live a balance on a emotional and intellectual level on a daily basis. He also loves the African land and the songs of its people, which according to Paul, "warms the heart and soul."