Bringing beauty and function together in informal housing


Y Tsai doesn’t just build houses; he designs solutions for long-term positive change. He is the co-founder of Shoebox Homes, an NGO that attempts to improve informal housing in South Africa by building spaces that are small, but functional. The homes make use of nested bunk beds, a five-layer sleeping system that provides comfortable beds in cramped spaces. Tsai’s design won the title of the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at the Design Indaba Expo in 2008.

The Cape Town architect founded Tsai Design Studio in 2005 to generate solutions in interior design and architecture. The studio worked on Urban Mosaic, a project that researched ways to curb shack fires, a disastrous scourge in closely-built informal settlements. For this, Tsai worked with a local manufacturer to make non-toxic and inexpensive fire-retardant paint that reduces the speed at which individual shacks burn down. He has also enabled young minds to turn their creative ideas into reality. In 2012, a competition among high-school students called for solutions to recycling a shipping container. Tsai’s studio turned the winning idea by a Grade 10 learner into an actual 12-metre container classroom which accommodates 25 Grade R students in the township of Du Noon.

With Tsai at the helm, the studio has won an international Red Dot Award, while the architect himself has been named the South African winner of the International Young Design Entrepreneur Award. While housing models and strategies for lower income communities have a greater focus on cost-efficiency and less regard for comfort and functionality, Tsai is exploring how these spaces can be designed to work for those actually living in it. He believes that creativity has the power to change the world, if the majority of the population has the right attitude and willingness to collaborate. His innovative creations are the first step in that direction.