Savage + Dodd aimed to "set the preconditions for change" with South Africa housing project


A shopping centre outside Johannesburg was converted into 50 low-cost homes on a tight budget in our next Social Housing Revival project case study.

Located in the mining city of Boksburg, Slava Village uses a series of incisions and infills to revive the 1980s complex with modular residential units.

It was completed in 2023 by Johannesburg architecture studio Savage + Dodd, which has become a prominent player in social housing in the often politically charged context of post-apartheid South Africa over the past two decades.

“We have been at the forefront of trying to situate our practice in relation to policy and practice,” studio co-founder Heather Dodd told Dezeen.

“We always wanted to shift the narrative from the delivery of houses to housing – from individual homes to collective housing models, and to support the emerging social-housing sector.”

External view of original building at Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
Savage + Dodd updated a 1980s shopping complex in Boksburg into affordable housing

Slava Village embodies the studio’s strategic attitude to social housing, marked by applying the smallest design moves for the largest social impact.

“We don’t necessarily have the pizazz and slick looks of something that you’re going to see in Europe,” explained Dodd.

“We don’t have the money to make the building pretty on the outside, or to put in funky balconies or change windows for that matter. But it’s nice inside and it’s creating the fundamental change that will keep a building going for the next 20 years.”

Punctured courtyard in Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
The studio punctured the original roof structure to create communal courtyards

While the modern concept of social housing began to develop in South Africa following its first democratic elections in 1994, authorities continue to struggle against the deeply ingrained forms of spatialised discrimination that defined the country’s urban development throughout the 20th century.

Dodd characterises contemporary South African cities as “incremental, dense-edge cities” brimming with informal inhabitation, illegal densification and environmental decay as a result of the disruptive political shifts from colonialism to apartheid to democracy.

“There’s a huge housing challenge,” said Dodd. “We now know that in the inner city of Johannesburg, there are probably up to 1,000 buildings that are illegally occupied and squatted, occupying buildings that are no longer fit for their original purpose.”

“Buildings get hijacked and I think social housing companies learned the lesson very early on that the mistakes you make are the mistakes that you live with for the next 30 years.”

Open courtyard in Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
A bright yellow colour was painted over the brick walls in the courtyards

In August 2023, a horrific fire tore through an illegally occupied building in Johannesburg, killing more than 70 people due to the dangerous and inadequately maintained living conditions.

Since the early 2000s, a number of South African cities have been designated Urban Development Zones (UDZ), encouraging private developers to take on inner-city renewal and refurbishment projects through tax incentives.

The policy has increasingly seen low-cost housing delivered outside of traditional government grant programmes.

At Slava Village, Savage + Dodd was commissioned by property investor Leroy Slava and supported by TUHF, a banking institution that provides commercial financing for affordable housing in urbanised South Africa.

Patios and brick fins in Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
Savage + Dodd added brick fins between each unit to create subtly divided patios

The studio prioritised techniques that would maximise habitable space within the building without making major changes to the structure.

To break down the deep spaces of the original plan, it punctured the layout with two new walkways and courtyards and made rectangular cuts through the building’s gabled roofs to create skylit communal spaces.

“[Slava Village is about] maximising the envelope of the building through two ways: through insertion and by maximising the complete vertical envelope of the building, then asking what you need to take away to make sure that you can get to all of your units and create quality indoor or indoor-outdoor spaces,” said Dodd.

“We’ve actually created a different kind of housing that has a sense of publicness to it. It’s private, but you’re not locked in your units and I think that’s important.”

The residential units were conceived as uniform and equitable modules, with additional floorspace achieved through the insertion of upper-level mezzanine lofts.

These mezzanines are an example of Savage + Dodd’s attempts to find opportunities within the existing structure, which had a high roof but lower ceilings.

“When we walked into the building, there were ceilings inside but we didn’t know what was above the ceiling until we could break one out – that was a bit of a risk,” said Dodd.

Interior apartment lofts in Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
Mezzanine lofts were inserted into the apartment modules

According to Dodd, it is crucial for affordable housing developments to consider longevity by introducing an adaptable kit of parts into interiors.

At Slava Village, the limited fittings and fixtures were designed for personalisation and change, including a simple 1.8-metre-long “starter unit” kitchen that is intended to be easily replaced or extended.

The studio also placed brick fins between units externally in the hope that residents will use these small divisions to create their own patio spaces.

“These sort of skeletal spatial moves are really important,” said Dodd. “What we’re hoping is that we will set the preconditions for change – as people use it, it will change and grow.”

Interior and developer for Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
The studio hopes that residents will feel empowered to adapt the homes to their liking

While the adaptive reuse movement is currently gaining traction in Europe, it has been an integral part of Savage + Dodd’s approach since 1998, when the studio was established by Dodd and her partner, Colin Savage.

Looking to the current building stock is vital to the financial viability of social housing in South Africa, Dodd explained.

“Spatial transformation in post-apartheid South African cities is, for me, about changing the city itself,” she said.

“Projects like [Slava Village] are changing the city because it’s changing the makeup and spatial composition of the city.”

Stairs to loft in Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
Existing ceilings were removed for the loft insertions to infill

One of the biggest challenges at Slava Village, Dodd added, was finding ways of introducing “delight” within rigorous budget constraints and a limited material selection of bricks and mortar.

“In our social housing, we are really looking at pretty basic interventions,” she said. “We don’t have money to change the facade, but what we can really play with is colour to try and make things punchy in existing buildings.”

For example, the incised courtyard spaces have been painted a bright yellow colour.

“Our idea was that the courtyards are a place where you can go and sit outside your unit and chat with your friends,” she explained. “It’s just the beginning, but our hope is that will happen and that just by painting it, it really pops.”

Internal loft of Slava Village Boksburg Lofts by Savage + Dodd in South Africa
Savage + Dodd added simple fixtures that can be easily changed over time

In the multifaceted social context of contemporary South Africa, Dodd believes that giving buildings like Slava Village a new life and purpose through housing is vitally important.

“The post-apartheid city is very dynamic and the post-colonial debates are very strong here, yet there is also an amnesia amongst our public officials about the nature of buildings,” said Dodd. “I’m always very cognisant of the social history of buildings and the political legacy of buildings.”

“We are inserting housing into very intense neighbourhoods and always look for the elements that change the relationship of a building to the urban realm. At the heart of it, it is about creating places for ordinary people to live in and to connect a community in a neighbourhood.”

The photography is courtesy of Savage + Dodd.


Social Housing Revival artwork by Jack Bedford
Illustration by Jack Bedford

Social Housing Revival

This article is part of Dezeen’s Social Housing Revival series exploring the new wave of quality social housing being built around the world, and asking whether a return to social house-building at scale can help solve affordability issues and homelessness in our major cities.



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