Design considerations for a healthy home in Africa and Middle East -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Design considerations for a healthy home in Africa and Middle East

By Carl Queiros and Tsitsi Mkombe

In order to insure that Habitat houses provide a healthy environment for families, the Africa and Middle East region has incorporated lessons learned from research into house designs, starting from floor and working up and out:

The floor

A recent study conducted for the University of California, Berkeley's Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) found that “Replacing dirt floors with cement in the homes of urban slums makes for more comfortable living―but more importantly, it significantly improves children's health by interrupting the transmission of intestinal parasites and boosts youngsters' cognitive abilities.”

Designing a floor in cement is the most common way of creating a solid floor that prevents disease, parasites and vermin from entering the house. The important thing is that the floor is raised above the ground surface, solid, durable, stays dry, and is not porous.

The walls

Badly built walls also allow disease, parasites and vermin to enter the home. Structurally unsound walls can be hazards—increasing the risk of fire or structural collapse. There is an assumption that “good” houses are made of modern materials like brick, cement and glass. However, readily available/traditional material such as poles, grass, and soil blocks can make good wall material when used properly.

The walls should be well built, treated, maintained and offer the necessary protection in relation to the environmental context—good insulation for cold climates, good ventilation for hot and humid climates.

The roof

Leaky and shabby roofing not only allows for the encroachment of vermin, but also exposes the occupants to the cold and rain. Survey data collected by Alex Marsh, University of Bristol, indicates that damp, wet and cold conditions are a major contributor to illnesses, particularly respiratory illness. Typically poor houses have leaky roofs made of traditional materials such a thatch, sticks, and leaves. It is not surprising that in sub-Saharan Africa iron roof sheeting is associated with a “decent roof”.

However well made, quality grass roofs, are superior to iron sheet roofing in a number of ways, including better thermal attributes (keeping warmth in winter and the heat out in summer). Regardless of choice of materials, the roof should create good insulation, be durable, and keep the elements out of the home.

Windows, light and ventilation

Ventilation is important for respiratory complications and poor light promotes the breeding of bacteria and disease. Glass windows, however, are not always the best solution even though they allow for light to enter and can be opened and closed to suit weather conditions. In some cultures, the house is primarily a place to sleep and store things. Large glass windows increase security risks. In our program for orphans and vulnerable children, we found that families prefer not to have large, glass windows as they increase security risks and are seen as extravagant by the community. In malaria prone areas, an insect screen on the window is required.


The burning of certain energy sources such as wood, paraffin and coal have significant negative effects on health, especially on respiratory health. Designing a building with a low-energy stove as part of the house can have a very positive impact on the occupant’s health as well as their financial and general well being. In Ethiopia, for example, a country where many people cook with wood and coal, Habitat for Humanity is building energy-saving stoves as part of the Habitat homes, reducing the amount of wood or coal needed for cooking by two thirds or more.


Space itself is a very important health factor. Crowded, unsanitary conditions aid the spread of illness and disease. Boys and girls sharing close sleeping quarters is believed to be linked to higher sexual abuse of girls and minors, causing much greater susceptibility to sexually transmitted diseases.

In Egypt, domestic animals are very important to the family’s livelihood and, therefore, often share the living space. Habitat helps such families build additional rooms to separate human and animal areas.

Water and sanitation

Access to clean water reduces the risk of water borne diseases. The World Health Organization (2007) indicated that diarrhea and other water borne diseases are a major killer in Africa. Unsanitary toilet conditions create optimal disease spreading conditions. Habitat AME either designs suitable water and sanitation facilities into the housing settlement plans or finds partners who can provide them.

Many of the above design and construction improvements can easily be included in a house. The challenge is trying to meet all these requirements on a small budget. Developing house designs and approaches that provide healthy conditions for families requires some creativity!

Carl Queiros is the director of program development in the Africa and Middle East area office.

Tsitsi Mkombe is the Foundation, Organization and Institution coordinator in the Africa and Middle East area office.


1. Lubel J, Crain R and Cohen R (2007) Framing the issues―the positive impacts of affordable housing on health

2. Marsh, Alex. “ Housing and Health: The nature of the connection”

3. WHO (2007) Combating Waterborne disease at household level

4. WHO (2008) World Malaria report

5. C Wolff, D. Schroeder, M. Young (2001) Effect of improved housing on illness in children under 5 years old in Northern Malawi: cross sectional study