DOUG SHARP is transforming Africa’s landscape by building innovative new houses . . .
Doug Sharp knows about building homes.
As the chairman of BSB Design, a leading architectural planning firm, Sharp has built some of the finest communities of luxury homes in America. A member of Legatus’ Des Moines Chapter, Sharp knows the security and dignity that a good house can give — something he wanted to provide for the poor. The question was how.
A new type of house
“A friend of ours had recently traveled to Soweto in South Africa, which is full of shanties,” Sharp explained. “The conditions of the people living in these informal settlements were awful. They use anything they can to put together a home — tires, metal, rags. My friend came back and challenged us to do something: to come up with a home for $2,000 that one family could build in one day.”
Sharp’s firm accepted the challenge. After coming up with 15 different prototypes, they settled on the Abōd, a durable home that can be built by four people in a day.
The Abōd — pronounced “uh– bohd” — uses a “catenary arch,” a steel arch that holds up a lightweight frame. Abōds can withstand bad weather with their hurricane-grade panels and are fireproof and easy to ship. The structure’s main materials are corrugated metal and plastic panels. The houses can be built on a concrete foundation or recycled rubber mats. Quarter twist fasteners hold the frames together.
Abōd interiors can accommodate a ceiling fan and a loft/sleeping area. The roof can hold small solar panels, and the buildings are easy to move.
“We felt it was important that houses be portable because often in Third World countries people don’t own the land,” Sharp said.
The entrepreneur eventually created a nonprofit in 2006 called Abōd Shelters. His group is using a business model whereby non-profits raise money to build Abōd homes. A team of South African manufacturers are producing all Abōd parts, thus reducing shipping costs.
“All Abōds have safety features like locks on front and back doors,” Sharp said. “The doors are solid. Also, we try to build each community of homes in a circular setting for added safety.”
The original goal was to price the Abōds at $2,000, but the materials cost much more. Right now, they go for $3,300 in Africa.
In 2009, the first community of five Abōd homes was built in Limpopo, a small province in South Africa. The homes were going to be used to house AIDS orphans in a project run by Dr. Jim Blessman, a Christian pastor from Iowa.
The Blessmans ran into difficulties with South African social services and its orphanage regulations, so the Abōd homes were turned into staff housing for locals working with Blessman Ministries.
“Our local pastor in Limpopo now lives in an Abōd home and he is very pleased,” Blessman said.
Blessman Ministries ordered another set of five Abōd homes in early 2013, which were built for what Africans call the “grannies” — grandmothers and great grandmothers.
“We let the grandmothers live in an Abōd for $10 per month,” Blessman said. “We give them all the food they need during the month, and they end up bringing their grandchildren to live with them. Almost all of these children have either lost one parent or both to AIDS.”
Blessman Ministries had another set of five Abōd homes built late last year for their safari game farm, which generates income for the ministries. The homes accommodate staff who had been living in shacks.
“They helped us design a community,” Blessman said. “Doug Sharp has come over to South Africa three times. He is very interested in our feedback.”
Another group of Abōd homes in Zambia was built in September.
“We built three girls dormitories for a school,” said Michelle Rothfus, Abōd’s project coordinator. “They had 100 girls living in facilities that were meant for 50. The funding was provided by the U.S. charity called Hoops of Hope, and World Vision provided resources on the ground.”
For Sharp and his family, being in South Africa and participating in the construction has made a deep impact.
“It changed our lives, just being there with my wife, my son, his wife and their friends,” he explained. “God has been so good to us. It made us appreciate things more — the country we live in, the safety we have, the lifestyle we have, even the food in our refrigerator.”
Faith and work
Sharp grew up Methodist, though his family rarely went to Church. He became interested in Catholicism after meeting his wife Marilyn, a devout Catholic. He converted after the birth of their second son.
“We joined the Des Moines Legatus chapter 10 years ago and I was president for a few years,” he said. “It’s a wonderful group of people who are very supportive.”
Working on the Abōds has been a way for Sharp to combine his architectural talents with his desire to help others.
“The goal with Abōd was, first, to provide dignity and an affordable housing solution, and second, to provide an economic trigger to the communities where they are located,” said Ginny Shiverdecker, Abōd’s marketing director. In fact, Abōds are built with the ability to be transformed into retail stores.
Although Sharp and his team will be doing Abōd builds in Ghana and Zambia early next year, they would like to bring Abōds to the next level and build 100-unit communities or greater.
“The U.N. talks about the problem of growing slums, especially around urban settings,” said Shiverdecker. “The Abōds can be a solution. We want them to be used for disaster relief. Often in disasters people are given tarps, but tarps don’t last long. The Abōd is a long-term solution.”
Sharp and his team have spoken to U.N. officials who showed great interest, but they’ve discovered that the most action-oriented groups tend to be faith- based.
“They have connections, projects on the ground, and relationships,” said Shiverdecker.
It is Sharp’s hope that Abōds can be used to help people on a larger scale.
“We would love to have a warehouse with thousands of these Abōds ready to go as soon as disaster strikes,” Sharp explained.
Abōd markets itself simply with the motto “One home, one family, one day at a time.” As the issue of housing for poor people grows increasingly dire, this Legatus member provides a real solution today.
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.