New technology means that previously unpopular and short-term wooden housing can now be much warmer and last much longer than even the mud-walled houses common in most of rural Kenya.
Though brick, concrete houses and mud-walled houses are the norm in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya, Central Kenya is known for wooden and timber homes.
Long avoided in most areas because of their short life span, presence of termites and failure to keep out the cold weather, wooden homes are now becoming more common as new techniques mean they are warmer and last for longer.
Prefabricated houses, or prefabs, are manufactured in factories and easily transported to rural areas to be assembled on-site.
They are either made of steel structural insulated panels, cement board structural insulated panels, concrete panels and wooden panels. Wooden panels can be treated chemically to avoid the risk posed by termites.
In many countries in Europe, Asia and America, prefabs have become common.
The trend has now started to catch on in Kenya, particularly among NGOs operating in North Eastern Kenya.
The ability to mount and dismount these houses quickly makes them ideal for operations that shift from one region to another.
The price of cement, bricks, iron sheets, sand and general construction has risen at an astonishing rate. Coupled with the rising interest rates on loans, many people have shied away from building concrete houses.
Wooden houses and prefabs provide a cheaper and quicker option for those priced out of more standard homes, offering an opportunity to investors and financiers.
Francis Gichuhi, an architect and founder of 4architect Consultancy, notes that a prefab takes about 30 per cent of the time required to construct a concrete house.
“It is faster to erect a prefabricated house in projects where time is of essence, for instance in an emergency when housing structures are needed as soon as possible,” Gichuhi noted.
Prefabs have gained popularity over the years because of their flexible design. Makers offer a range of house designs and a number of options on how the house can be customised, or “souped”, to use the local lingo.
They are also cheaper to insure as a result and much safer in earthquake-prone areas.
Locally, there are few companies that manufacture the material needed to construct a prefab. The option many have been taking is to import from countries like China.
“There is a company in Naivasha that makes prefabricated materials. But steel SIP panels are cheap to buy in China. Materials for a 60 metre square, two bed-roomed house cost Sh600,000 to buy in China. To land in Mombasa, it will cost around Sh150,000 for freight charges,” Gichuhi says.
The construction of a prefab can cost an average of Sh20,000 to 25,000 per square metre. The average panelled house will cost around Sh1.4 million using imported steel SIP panels and slightly higher, around Sh1.7 million, using wood or cement fibre board panels.
But Gichuhi warns that the reduction of construction cost is effective only when done in a holistic approach.
“Prefabricated methods only deal with walling which is 10 per cent of the total cost of construction.
Other elements such as foundation, roof, windows, doors and finishes comprise of the rest of the 90 per cent of costs.
To reduce the construction costs, these elements need to be designed for efficiency. This is the holistic approach.”
This low cost can be achieved by using stabilised soil blocks on efficient design such as the Diamond House types, designed to offer maximum space in case the house owner decides to put more units in future.
Natural materials such as stabilised soil block walling and natural masonry stone flooring makes the design lower in cost, more aesthetically appealing and friendly to the environment.
According to the architect, to assemble the shell of a two-bedroomed house can take one month to build while a similar house can take two months to put up using conventional methods.
A steel structural insulated house has a lifespan of 10 years, depending on the thickness of the steel panel, while a normal type of house is given a life span of 50 years if it is well constructed.
Two years ago, a Swedish company, Jabo Wood said it had plans to start exporting wooden houses to Kenya targeting the slum-upgrading project and resettlement of the internally displaced persons.
“In Europe, wooden houses constructed in the eighteenth century are still existing and this is what we want to do in Kenya,” Jabo Wood export manager Thorbjorn Larsson said then.
“With proper skills, construction will take two days,” he noted. The company gave the cost of assembling a one bed-room house at Sh400,000.
Gichuhi says the main reason the houses have not caught the eyes of many Kenyans is because of the volatile security situation in many parts of the country.
“Potential customers felt psychologically unsafe in a house made of wooden panels. People want to live in stone houses with steel doors and windows. As long as the security situation remains the same, people will shun panel housing, unless of course it is situated in a gated community.”
The Kenya Bureau of Standards has already given the go-ahead for the use of prefabs indicating that they meet the set standards for house construction.
This approval will likely see an increase in the construction of prefabs in the country in the coming years.