It's All About Dignity: 'Now I Have My Own Toilet'

"Now I have my own toilet!"

That was the incredulous reply Gift Dick-Tom gave Megan Chapman, when asked what she liked most about her new home. Her family of seven had recently moved from Marine Base "waterside" settlement in Port Harcourt to the Passive House Prototypes (PHPs). She, her husband (Faith) and their five children moved from their single room residence in a "Face-Me-I-Face-You" community to a one-bedroom apartment in a small "eco-village," surrounded by trees and places for children to play. They moved 18 miles away with some of their neighbors to preserve their sense of community. Megan, a human rights lawyer, was visiting the residents for the first time.

"Face-Me-I-Face-You" is the popular name given to tenement housing where households occupy one room in a building of 10 to 12 rooms, with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. A building typically has a central corridor with rooms on either side with doors facing each other. The bathrooms and kitchens are located in an adjoining building and because of water and power shortages, these facilities are in less than sanitary condition and can pose a safety and security risk. More affluent families (like the landlords) might live in two or more rooms, but basically, they would still have to share bathrooms and kitchens. This is the housing type that is available to a large segment of the Nigerian urban population. In a country with a 17 million housing unit deficit, there is simply not enough decent affordable housing at to go round.

Residents go to central points to fetch water in buckets from a borehole, for their daily sustenance. A small enterprising cottage industry has sprung up where toilets are built solely for women and can be used for a small fee. The down side is that the men and children defecate in a nearby open field. So, for Gift, it is a huge blessing to have a toilet of her own. It is something she did not imagine could happen. This is the first time that she has lived in a house with its own private toilet. All her children were born in her single-room Marine Base home, and her oldest child is 16. According to Nigeria's 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey, only 37 percent of households in urban areas have access to improved sanitation.

While it is universally agreed that access to decent affordable housing is a fundamental human right, many governments in countries across the world struggle with the task of providing this for their citizens. According to the McKinsey 2014 Global Report on Housing, 330 million urban households around the world live in substandard housing or are financially stretched by housing costs. Left unchecked, this number could rise to about 440 million urban households by 2025.

Fortunately, Gift and her family will not be part of this statistic as they are thrilled to be living in the Passive House Prototypes, a cluster of green apartments arranged around courtyards. They represent a "Whole-System Design" to counter the complex challenges of housing shortages, inadequate power, scarce clean water and poor sanitation. The buildings are bio-climatically designed to be self-cooling, solar powered and water is sourced from beneath the feet of the occupants.

The Niger Delta coastal region of Nigeria has some of the best climate conditions in the world. Port Harcourt has a Tropical Monsoon climate with annual temperatures ranging from 70°F to 90°F (21°C to 32°C) and one can basically live outside, under a tree all year long. The prototype design has been generated by these principles. Green building strategies such as light colored roofs and compressed earth block walls keep the interiors cool. Natural ventilation and lighting keep the occupants comfortable. Solar power provides power to pump up water from a borehole located within the premises. Cell phones, lights and small appliances are also powered by the sun. More importantly, people are given the opportunity to move out of their overcrowded rooms to become home owners.

A surprising fact about the Dick-Toms was that even though they lived in one poorly ventilated room along with their belongings, all the children attended private schools. It wasn't that they could not afford to move; the kind of home they needed simply did not exist! In a country were formal developers focus on providing high end housing, housing for people at and near the bottom of the pyramid is provided by landlords and occupants themselves. Over 90 percent of the housing stock in Nigeria is self-built, and Comprehensive Design Services responds with two products (affordable housing plans and modular homes) to fill this need. The houses are small, attractive, can be built in 12 weeks and are easily replicated.

The African continent is getting hotter and more populous, and serious intervention is needed to tackle the effects of global warming. The Passive House Prototypes afford people the dignity of home ownership, power, water and improved sanitation at a reasonable cost. With such a huge housing deficit, Nigeria could lead the world in sustainable housing with this simple holistic solution. And more people will no longer have to take their business outside, or go into squalid facilities to do the needful.

It's all about dignity!

On October 15, 2015, six Laureates, one for each region, will be awarded $20,000 in funding, a full year of coaching, a lifetime access to the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards community and unique networking and visibility opportunities. To learn more visit