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Walmer Link Social Housing
Walmer, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), Eastern Cape


Type:Housing scheme


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33°59'17.19" S 25°34'39.05" E

Architect's Project Description

Walmer Link is Port Elizabeth's first Greenfields Social Housing Development and upon completion of the development's second component, the Houses for Sale, it will be the only housing initiative in South Africa to cater for Social (rental) Housing using Government Subsidies and affordable houses for sale using the new Finance Linked Individual Subsidy Programme (FLISP) in one area. This almost completely subsidised high-density integrated housing development aims at alleviating a shortage of housing within a lower-income category as well as achieving social and racial integration both through its tenant mix as well as the development integration within the city.

This gated development which makes up the Houses for Rental, consists of 29 rental apartment blocks totalling 347 units and is located in a primary position in the leafy suburb of Walmer which offers residents easy access to transportation arteries and amenities. Walmer Link offers its residents rich recreation space and facilities, 24-hour security and has on-site management.

The design approach sets to challenge the stigmas associated with low-income housing, and the much misunderstood "Social Housing" concept in that it seeks to deliver quality habitable spaces and promote an identity and individuality through a cost-effective and maintenance-friendly development.

The apartment blocks have been positioned to create a series of courtyards in which the 2,3 and 4-storey 'walk-up' blocks front. Careful attention was given to the height, scale and proportion of these courtyards and with the blocks having a fine-grained nature, lends themselves as "public urban rooms". The courtyards portray a balance of hard and soft surfacing with tree-lined boulevards and parking areas nestled between generous lawn areas.

The blocks comprise of a combination of 2-bed, 1-bed and studio apartments strategically configured to create varying typologies which in the broad scheme result in a playfully varied skyline with carefully articulated roofscapes, balconies as well as a varied use of colour and texture to reflect the inherent colourfulness of the context and offer the user a sense of individuality through both block and unit. The designs carry a distinct attention to detail through its articulately positioned staircases and the strategic grouping of its concealed services. The material used in this development aids in ensuring a long term maintenance friendly solution to the scheme. Whilst a varied apartment mix and typology was provided, this was done through modular means in order to ensure an ease in construction.

Internally the units provide a distinct spatial and finish quality which aim at enhancing the inherent lifestyles of this income group. Such finishes include tiled floors and compact kitchenettes with granite counter tops.

In conclusion, the development adds positively to the urban landscape of Walmer through its vibrant yet modest forms and expression and has become SHRA's physical benchmark for social housing in South Africa.

Award for Architecture Citation

This simple but carefully considered social housing cluster is reliant on the design, planning and scaling of the various blocks relative to the public and service interstitial spaces, all being well-scaled and user friendly and helping give character and identity within the uniformity of approach and aesthetic. These will only improve with time as the trees and shrubs reach maturity. The materials and forms are simple, direct, and well-articulated which should only require limited maintenance of the buildings. The project is well constructed and robustly detailed, but still retains its domestic scale. As one of the first such schemes in the Eastern Cape and one that has met the complex challenges associated with state supported houses the project is deemed as an exemplar where the profession might contribute to this scale of economy and conferred a regional Award for Architecture.

Award of Merit citation

Housing is a basic human requirement. In many countries, as in South Africa, it is a constitutionally enshrined basic human right. Housing, like food and education, ensures a stable and dignified human existence. In countries with certain patterns of population and economic growth, the demand for housing far outstrips the ability of the society to provide formal housing for those most in need of it. This inability is then expressed in the way that the informal processes, operative in society, provide housing. The speed of delivery of formal (social) housing, coupled with the often inhumane and exploitative conditions created in the informal housing sector, creates significant social tension. This social tension is often expressed in outbreaks of public violence.

South Africa expresses all of these characteristics. Furthermore, we do not have an exemplary track record concerning social or affordable housing provision. Architects, and their allied professions of Urban Planning and Urban Design, have largely been excluded, or have excluded themselves from this process. To see architects getting involved in housing provision, at this level, is gratifying; to see them excel, is highly inspirational.This is what Erik Voight Architects achieved with the Walmer Link Housing Project.

Walmer Link is a greenfields social housing development. To date, it is the only social (rental) housing project that has used government subsidies for this form of housing and, when the second component of affordable units for sale using the new Finance Linked Individual Subsidy is complete, it will be the only project in the country that has used these two forms of procurement in one area.

The rental component of the project has 347 units. These units are made up of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, mixed into different walk-up blocks. The great care with which the different units and blocks, and the overall layout has been designed, is highly impressive. Despite the obvious economy of means that has been applied, the architects have managed to create sensible gradations between privacy and publicness, variety, delight and ease of upkeep. Horizontal and vertical circulation has been positioned in such a way that it fosters surveillance and group formation, while at the same time allowing for privacy.

Interest and variation have been created by the judicious use of different materials, colours, differing block heights and shapes. Long-term maintenance will be kept to a minimum by the careful choice of materials, robust and straightforward detailing, and the sensible placing of services.

The overall layout makes use of the perimeter block principle and a public 'boulevard' as entrance gesture has been created. This design element creates a positive feeling of dignity and urbanity in the project. Adjoining the boulevard are two large courtyards, formed by the various housing blocks. In these courtyards, ample provision has been made for social and play spaces, while remaining under constant surveillance of the inhabitants in order to ensure safety. These spaces also allow for vehicle parking. In time, the new planting will mature to increase the amenity value of these spaces.

Apart from the architectural concerns and expressions, it was clear that the management systems that have been put in place would be crucial to the initial and ongoing success of the project. High levels of spatial, architectural and economic efficiency have also been achieved to underpin the success even more. It is evident that the architecture, and this specific architect's skill, talent, commitment and experience, has made a fundamental contribution to ensuring human dignity and to bringing hope to the fortunate inhabitants of this housing project. Furthermore the architect, Erik Voight, has proven, once again, that architects and architecture can make a priceless contribution to housing for those most in need of it.

(Paul Kotze - 2014)

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Herholdt, AD (Editor). 2013. Coastal Contemporary : Architecture of Nelson Mandela Bay : 2000 - 2013. Port Elizabeth: DOT Matrix Publications. pg 142-143
South African Institute of Architects. 2014. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2013/2014. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 34-35