The voice from Cairo crackles with humor. Architect Hany El Miniawy is explaining Egypt’s informal housing sector over a Skype video call. He speaks fluent English with an Arabic cadence and uses the word ‘yaani’ a lot — a verbal tic like the way Indians use ‘yaar’ and Americans use ‘you know’.

El Miniawy, 63, has a square face and the calm demeanor of a man who is unfazed by crisis. He is lithe and lean, reflecting the champion wind-surfer he once was. Trained in France, Germany and Egypt, El Miniawy speaks fluent French, German, English and Arabic. His language is both idealistic and practical. "There is a huge gap between demand and supply of housing in Egypt," he says. "Most of the poor Egyptians live on the peripheries — in the desert, in villages, on the outskirts of cities. This gives rise to a huge informal housing sector that is built without government permission. Millions of people live like this without health insurance, bank account or savings."

What is the scale of the problem? "Have you heard of Hernando De Soto?" he asks, chuckling in reply.

Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto and the Institute of Liberty and Democracy (ILD) that he founded have worked in Egypt for several years at the invitation of Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal. In his book,

The Mystery of Capital, De Soto states that the poor in Egypt own a staggering $250 billion in ‘dead capital,’ or money that operates outside the law. Even if you include the Suez Canal and Aswan Dam, says De Soto, the size of Egypt’s dead capital is 55 times the size of all Foreign Direct Investment into the country, and 50 times the amount of bilateral aid that Egypt has received over the last 200 years. De Soto estimates that as many as 92% of all Egyptian buildings and 90% of businesses and people operate outside the law. A bulk of Egypt’s wealth, in other words, lies with the poor, and the reason is because of a moribund unfriendly government.

"In Egypt, the person who wants to acquire and legally register a lot on state-owned desert land must wind his way through at least 77 bureaucratic procedures at 31 public and private agencies," writes De Soto. "This can take anywhere from five to 14 years. To build a legal dwelling on former agricultural land would require 6 to 11 years of bureaucratic wrangling, maybe longer. It explains why 4.7 million Egyptians have chosen to build their dwellings illegally. If, after building his home, a settler decides he would now like to be a law abiding citizen and purchase the rights to his dwelling, he risks having it demolished, paying a steep fine and serving up to 10 years in prison."

El Miniawy founded ADAPT (Appropriate Development Architecture and Planning Technologies) to try and change all that, at least in the housing sector. Working with his brother Abdel Rahman El Miniawy, Hany has built more than 21,000 low cost homes for poor and marginalized communities in Egypt and Algeria. But his impact is larger because his techniques have been repeated and imitated, thus indirectly benefiting some 200,000 people.

His projects in Algeria include Biskra village, where he built 500 dwellings — both public and private — serving 3,000 people; El Wad, where 400 units for 2,400 people were later expanded to 8,500 units serving 51,000 people; and Oulad Djallal, where he built 650 units made of limestone serving 3,600 people. In Egypt, ADAPT has built community centers and public spaces and trained more than 100,000 people in its low-cost housing methods. In El-Nassereya in Aswan, Upper Egypt, he built a settlement for the builders of the Aswan Dam with the participation of local inhabitants.

ADAPT uses three strategies to build low-cost homes. First, rather than import mass-produced and expensive reinforced concrete and bricks that the poor cannot afford in the first place, ADAPT runs the local soil — whether it is in the Nubian desert, Alexandria or the Sinai peninsula — through a series of computerized lab tests to determine soil composition and durability. Second, the ADAPT team designs cement mixes by adding iron ash, rice straw, cement and brick dust to local clay and soil, and then tests their cement mixes and building techniques for safety and durability against factors like wind erosion, earthquakes and the stresses of a modern multilevel building.

Lastly, they enlist local help. Wherever it works, ADAPT has a mobile training center where they teach local youth their techniques: how to test the soil; how to prepare construction material out of what is available regionally; how to mix local clay with recycled ingredients like ash and ore to stabilize it; how to use the local brick presses to make construction-quality bricks. Thanks to this training, the construction work continues long after ADAPT has moved on to other projects. "We believe that each location has its own solution," says El Miniawy. "We do not build with a single material, mix of materials or construction technique. We search for viable building materials on or near each location we build on."

In each instance, ADAPT involves the local government in the process, both to finance the construction and to make sure its effects are long lasting. "The biggest challenge in any new project is convincing the local authorities that we can help them," says El Miniawy. "Our advantage is that the cost of our implementation is 50% lower than the norm. So the authorities can engage in something like a political bluff and say that they did this and take all the credit for it. But at least the people will gain something. We find a way always. It’s not easy, but we find a way."

Finding a way involves sending an advance team to every new location to talk to the locals. "We sit with the people on the floor and start to discuss who can do what and when," says El Miniawy. "We ask a lot of questions about lifestyle, the social fabric, their jobs. Lots of details. The location of corridors and courtyards and kitchens, things like that. With the help of the residents, we solve a lot of the design problems."

Looking for the Truth

One of their earliest projects in 1980 was the first shepard’s village to be constructed in Southern Algeria as part of a government reform program. Called Maader Experimental Village in M’Sila, Algeria, the Miniawy brothers were contracted to build 120 courtyard houses as well as public buildings like a school, mosque, spaces for animal husbandry, shops and a public bath, all of which the government hoped would deter people from migrating to urban areas.

True to form, the first thing that the Miniawys did was set up a temporary annex of the National Laboratory for the testing of building materials on site to examine the composition of the local soil. They also designed the homes in units of four with the kitchens of the four units facing each other with a central courtyard so that the wives could meet and talk to each other in privacy in the back of the house. In addition, as was typical of the architecture in those parts, each home had a central courtyard or hoche. "Why are we always oriented towards the West?" asks El Miniawy. "It is alienating us from our roots. I call our work looking for the truth, whether it is Islamic architecture or Coptic style or Mediterranean or Pharonic. We recognize the capabilities of people — economical, social, cultural, their knowledge, heritage and wisdom. Man is the tool and the goal. Our work title is Earth – Man — Appropriate technology. Community and architecture."

Funding comes from different sources but mostly from the local governments. A project financed by the European Union and the Egyptian Ministry of Environment epitomized the collaborative, fluid approach that ADAPT takes. It worked with 61 local Bedouins to create a visitor’s center near the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula. The architects used local limestone, granite and dolomite to develop paving tiles out of local clay, which had a high iron oxide content. Local sand and clay were mixed to create bricks. The plastering was done using "heeba," a local clay with strong adhesive properties. All this reduced transportation costs and the need for specialized construction equipment. It also used the expertise of the community and increased their ownership of the project. Over the years, ADAPT was welcomed when they went to new communities because of the expertise they brought and the jobs they created. "Houses and construction existed before we architects came in," El Miniawy says. "We use the knowledge and heritage of ancient building techniques and marry it with our scientific expertise. That is really all that we do."

He is being modest. A large part of what ADAPT does is facilitate a relationship between the poor squatters and their local governments. "We go in with a matrix. It disarms the officials," says El Miniawy with a laugh. After discussing design with the locals, ADAPT approaches the local government with a blueprint and a budget of how much it will cost to upgrade existing squatter settlements or build new ones.

According to the Egyptian Center of Housing Rights, out of a population of 70 million Egyptians, some 11.5 million people or 16% of the population live in informal housing. The poor in Egypt have land but no deeds. They own property without proper titles; they build structures without permits, and they live in constant fear of demolition. The problem is exacerbated in cities like Cairo, where people who cannot afford homes live in cemeteries. Compounding this is the cutbacks in government-funded public housing for the poor and the fact that the private sector has concentrated on the more lucrative luxury development of properties.

Migration of the poor from rural to urban areas in search of jobs only makes the whole thing worse. "Cairo is not a productive city," says El Miniawy. "If you look at cities globally, they were built on something — agriculture, steel, software. Cairo produces nothing. It is an administrative city. It is where millions of people come every morning to push some papers and then come back home in the evening. They come every day with the illusion of finding a job but without finding a job."

The government’s method of dealing with informal housing is to forcibly evict residents and demolish these informal structures or attempt to upgrade them. Part of the problem is law 25/1992, which prohibits the provision of government services like potable water, garbage collection, or health and security to illegal areas. As a result, Egyptian shantytowns have temporary homes made of adobe, metal sheets, cloth or even cardboard.

While upgrading these squatter settlements is the most cost-effective and humane method, the government is usually at a loss about how to improve these densely populated settlements. Demolishing them and paying the residents a small amount for resettling elsewhere seems not only easier, but also more lucrative from the government’s point of view. This history has led to a deep level of distrust between government officials and informal housing colonies. ADAPT befriends the residents and offers the government a face-saving way out of this complicated problem. It offers options and solutions to both sides. For a fee, the government gets a trained architectural firm that is willing to do all their dirty work for them.

ADAPT uses this fee to subsidize their operating costs, including equipment, raw materials, labor, training, site preparation, testing the raw material in soil mechanics labs and fees for notarizing lab results. Since the cost of their buildings are 30% to 50% lower than the norm, ADAPT is able to get the government to finance most if not all of their projects. Occasionally, they get outside funding as well. "Our funding methods are crazy," says El Miniawy. "Between the talking and the building, we have no time for anything else, not even to put up a website."

ADAPT’s biggest strength is that it brings together community and government towards a common goal. It works with the local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and master builders to spread the word and increase community acceptance and cooperation. ADAPT also forges liaisons with manufacturers to get volume discounts on building materials, a tricky prospect since much of the importing of cement and building materials is done by the state and powerful business people who had little interest in certifying the local materials that El Miniawy tested and wanted approved for construction. In the end, it was sheer persistence that paid off. El Miniawy kept applying his ideas and building techniques, built community support for a growing number of projects in a variety of geographic landscapes and simply let the work speak for itself.

ADAPT also seeks investors who can participate in large scale projects. For example, El Miniawy convinced the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to finance projects in Luxor, Giza and other tourist sites where informal settlements marred the approaches to heritage sites. In Cairo, the ADAPT team and the local people created 200,000 bricks made from Qattamia’s clay, Helwan’s cement dust, sand and bricks to upgrade a large informal settlement of Manshiet Nasser. Cairo’s Ministry of Culture financed ADAPT to build The Dinishway Museum out of local low cost materials.

Beating the Heat

Getting government funding for low-cost housing is ADAPT’s trump card. Typically in Egypt, most upgrades of the informal housing sector – whether in the Nubian desert, the outskirts of Alexandria or the peripheries of Cairo and Giza — happen in an ad hoc fashion. Upgrades ranging from laying a new water pipe, digging a drain for sewage, or pulling in an illegal wire from the power grid for electricity are self-financed by the people who live there. ADAPT forges coalitions between the residents and the government, which allows for better building practices and long-lasting, legal upgrades of these shantytowns. While the government finances the implementation, the architectural design is driven by the residents. "We go into every project without prejudgment," says El Miniawy. "We analyze the circumstances and come up with unique ideas and priorities."

This involves what ADAPT calls a "commitment to criticizing the so-called classic manner of solving the problems of mass housing." Western techniques don’t always work in the desert, says El Miniawy because "there are a lot of outputs some of which are unexpected." The climate and intense heat can wreak havoc on the construction. The 45-degree heat is a constant but clever building techniques such as double walls, double ceilings and smart placement of doors and windows can reduce the inside temperature by 15 degrees. "It is all logic," says El Miniawy. "We learn from the climate conditions, available materials, ancient building techniques and the social fabric. All this is completely different from place to place. Logic says that if you put in different inputs, you get different outputs."

When El Miniawy began his work in Egypt 20 years ago, squatter settlements were suspicious when the ADAPT team showed up. They thought that the government was going to demolish their homes. "We needed time to gain their trust. Now, with experience, we can do it in a few minutes. What’s nice is that when we start in a new area, we take people from the old area and they make a presentation to the new area. The sad truth is that because of their knowledge of the local dialects and the way they talk, they can communicate our ideas better than we can."

ADAPT has become well known in Egypt, Algeria (where El Miniawy began his career) and Saudi Arabia. "Now that we have a good reputation, the people contact us, not the other way around," says El Miniawy. "Most projects start with the people, and then it snowballs."

A recent project that ADAPT undertook was at Imbaba, a squatter settlement in the outskirts of Cairo. "The old airport was there, and it is a huge area of agricultural land on which informal housing had been built," says El Miniawy. "There were a lot of facilities, and we offered to upgrade the surrounding area and build kids’ schools, a bibliotheque (library), a theater or cultural center, and other things. There was a huge bridge and we told the decision makers that we would build under it, that we would use the bridge as the ceiling. Thankfully, they took us seriously and funded the project."

El Miniawy’s wife, Sanaa Tobah, takes care of ADAPT’s private consultation practice and office. Tobah, an architect and urban planner, also runs El Bedaya, or First Steps, a literacy center for children in the extremely poor neighborhood of Manshiet Nasser. As Veronique Jurgens wrote in a newsletter for the New Cairo British International School, "El Bedaya was set up by a very inspirational lady called Sanaa Tobah. In her centre, Sanaa basically provides literacy support to many children of different school ages."

The El Bedaya center is in the middle of the area where a massive landslide claiming 600 lives took place in September 2008. While Tobah collected clothes, food and other necessities for the landslide victims, El Miniawy helped the residents rebuild their homes and lives. "When I became an architect during Nasser’s time, I thought it was a very pragmatic decision, but in reality, I had seen nothing," says El Miniawy. "I got the illusion of being a doctor or professor, but after graduating, I moved to Algeria and stayed in the desert for 15 years because that is where it was all happening."

In Algeria, El Miniawy and his brother worked with the inspirational Hamdi Diab who introduced him to the concept of appropriate architecture. Diab tragically was killed in an automobile accident, but the El Miniawy brothers stayed on and continued his architectural principles and indeed, made them their own. A project with the camel-trading Bedouins on the southern Red Sea coast allowed two small communities of 9000 people to upgrade their houses and communities. "For me, I like what I do because of the constant learning, and unlearning. A lot of what we learnt about architecture was wrong because it alienated us from our roots, our Arabic vocabulary, our numbers. Does the new generation know this?"

Since 1992, El Miniawy has worked with students and teachers at Azhar University, Cairo University’s College of Urban Construction and Planning, its College of Engineering and Menoufeya University to test his ideas and spread the word. Teaching his principles of appropriate architecture to academics and students, he believes, will not only gain support for his projects, but will also introduce Egyptians to building techniques that are different from the Western ones they are learning in college. "Housing is one of the human rights," El Miniawy states. "What is our role as architects?"