5 min



Will Planet Earth soon be overpopulated? Without wishing to play Cassandra, it's a question that deserves some thought. Flashback: in the 1960s, the global population totaled around 3 billion. Today, that figure is approaching 8 billion! And according to the latest UN forecasts, there will be 9.7 billion of us by 2050... with 70% of that total living in urban communities! So how are we going to house all these people? 


Galloping demographics, an aging population, and accelerating urbanization mean the housing shortage rages on almost every continent. This surge can be explained partly by excessively high land prices, a lack of real estate, and limited housing stocks at a time of ever-increasing demand... However, a quick look in the rear-view mirror reveals the eye of the storm: in 2021, real estate prices rose by an average of 9.2% across 55 countries and regions, which has noticeable knock-on effects on housing supply. 


So how do we respond to this crisis in housing? How can we design homes that are appropriate for today's sustainability and comfort challenges and yet, at the same time, be affordable? And most importantly, how could increasing the supply of 'low-cost' housing help to solve the global housing crisis? 

Accessible everywhere and for everyone 

In its constant quest for 'controlled costs,' the construction industry is experimenting with new solutions for building better and more cheaply in response to this significant global crisis. The goal is to build affordable housing that is available everywhere and for everyone, homes that achieve "efficiency, comfort, and sustainability goals," in the words of Felipe Faria, CEO of the Brazil Green Building Council, in an interview with The Hidden Power of Materials Podcast. 


 On the other side of the globe in Africa, Saint-Gobain has developed 'all-in-one' solutions for the affordable housing market, including the Combi-pack combined ceiling and insulation kit for low-cost home construction. 

 Local and traditional materials 

The lightweight and modular solution offered by timber framing is another high-potential construction option. "In Argentina, for example, timber plantations have the potential to support the sector in building affordable and environmentally responsible housing since wood is a valuable material. However, the lack of investment and extremely high logistics costs are drawbacks that affect the competitiveness of products for domestic consumption," explains Timo Marquez Arreaza, Saint-Gobain's Sustainable Marketing Manager. "On the other hand, in other countries, for example, in Africa, the construction industry will favor other materials depending on local resources: straw, raw earth, hemp, etc." In Soweto (South Africa), the affordable, high-quality social housing units in Devland have been built using clay bricks. 


This use of traditional materials is beneficial in three ways: the lower costs involved in using an abundant local resource, an optimized carbon footprint (less transportation), and support for the local economy. "In today's world, affordable housing must address not only the financial equation but also energy and environmental imperatives," continues Timo Marquez Arreaza. 



Affordable Housing

Affordable and sustainable

This is the whole point of affordable housing, which must be viewed through the prism of sustainability. Sustainability's conception of passive and bioclimatic architecture uses more natural and eco-responsible materials. Sustainability in terms of durability, given the reality of climate change and increasingly frequent extreme weather events, will test building integrity and strength. Lastly, sustainability in terms of use, with high energy performance and low maintenance, reduces energy consumption and operating costs borne by populations for whom energy represents a significant item in the budget - all the more so in a world where energy is becoming increasingly expensive. 


From this perspective, affordable housing must enable people to live daily economic lives. The stakes are high, especially in rental housing for low-income households. From building insulation and glazing performance to energy-efficient systems (condensing boilers, for example), there are so many ways in which families can live more cheaply as a result of more effective pre-construction design. 


This same logic applies to the upgrading of energy-intensive buildings. The most important priorities include the insulation of roof spaces, walls, and windows, significantly improving thermal and acoustic comfort while cutting energy bills. 


If sustainability of use is a critical aspect of affordable housing, sustainability of location is another. What is the point of building a low-cost home far from essential services, such as schools, health care, food supplies, and employment? Can we still use the word 'affordable' if residents have to travel miles to go shopping or commute to and from work? 


"Thinking about affordable housing ultimately means thinking about all the issues we face today from a 360° perspective," continues Timo Marquez Arreaza. "To envision the future of affordable housing, Saint-Gobain has set up a dedicated Task Force from 2021 onwards, whose objective is to support the development of affordable housing as a strategic and commercial ambition (as opposed to what could be merely one-off philanthropic support). This Task Force comprises teams from Brazil, Argentina, India, and South Africa who exchange with local governments and stakeholders on different themes: lightweight structures, passive housing, resource conservation, localization..."