Lack of quality standards and inadequate skillsets are slowing down growth in the fledgling Alternative Building Technology [ABT] industry.
The deployment of the alternative technology to brick-and-mortar designs in housing sector is threatening to kill the dream of affordable social housing.
The realisation of the dream has been dogged with the ever-rising construction costs, which has locked many low-income earners out of decent houses.
Delivery of affordable housing is largely hinged on use of the technology that replaces the brick and mortar design – seen as more costly.
Manufacturing of Expanded Polystyrene [EPS] panels, Structural Insulated Panels [SIP] and High Performance Concrete [HPC] blocks from stone dusts has picked up in recent years.
This has renewed the hopes of millions of low- and middle-income earners keen on buying or renting descent, affordable houses.
Companies which have invested in these technologies however say they are struggling to gain acceptance in the booming market. The sector has been growing by double-digit figures, underscoring its lucrative returns.
State-owned National Housing Corporation has, perhaps, invested heaviest in the ABT designs.
NHC, established in 1967, commissioned its Sh700 million EPS factory on the outskirts of Nairobi at Mlolongo area, Machakos county, in April 2013.
The prefabricated building materials’ factory has a capacity of 126, 720 panels a year.
The panels are made by assembling of ready-made EPS foam sandwiched between galvanised steel wire mesh, plastered on both sides with concrete.
The brick and motor designs however still account for more than 90 per cent of construction materials in the country.
A feasibility study done prior to the setting up of the factory, estimated the panels would reduce the cost of building by a third and construction time by half – both compared with brick and motor technology.
Using the panels measuring 1.5 by three metres per unit priced at Sh5,000 translates to Sh700,000 for a two-bedroom house. This is more than half the prevailing construction cost before the finishes are applied.
The Inspectorate of State Corporations, under the office of the Deputy President, in a damning report in September, last year, however cast doubt on the viability of the EPS plant.
“A visit to the factory revealed a lot of the expanded polystyrene products were lying in the go-down and outside in the compounded in the open,” said the three-member audit team. It was led by Christopher Ombega, a senior assistant inspector-general of corporations.
“The factory’s profitability is based on the assumption of no significant change in the the competitive and regulatory position within the construction industry.”
NHC managing director Andrew Saisi said many developers are skeptic of the EPS technology, a development that has lowered acceptability levels.
This has hurt building of mass housing projects, Saisi said, adding the factory had targeted to facilitate construction of about 30,000 new units in a year.
The challenge is compounded by inadequate professional support, with most graduate and practicing engineers not conversant with new building technologies.
“A lot of them [construction professionals] are still analogue and this is an area we are trying to improve,” he said at a recent seminar on affordable housing.
NHC, he said, was partnering partnering with the National Youth Service in educating construction craftsmen from the NYS vocational training centres on the EPS technology.
The programme targets 800 trainees for the refresher courses, he said, without giving the time lines.
Another hurdle is lack of approved quality standards, the NHC chief said.
The technology for manufacturing the prefabricated EPS materials is quite new to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, Saisi said, calling for capacity building.
“We are pushing for standardisation of EPS to protect consumers because a lot of people are now doing it [manufacturing the panels] without necessarily putting in safety requirements,” he said.
Charles Kabubo, the acting director for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology Centre [SMARTEC] at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, agreed acceptance of new building technologies is low.
SMARTEC runs a factory that produces HPC blocks from stone dust, technically referred to as Eco-blocks.
Kabubo said builders using the Eco-blocks produced by the centre can save as much as 60 per cent of walling costs.
“There is no reason why Kenya cannot have the standard [for alternative building technology],” he said, singling out Cameroon which has the standard already.
The west African country adopted the Green Smart Standard 1014 in October, last year, providing quality safeguards for manufacturers of soil-stabilised blocks.
The production of Eco-blocks in Cameroon is overseen by MIPROMALO – a financially and judicially autonomous authority that promotes use of locally-manufactured materials to reduce the cost of building.