2017 Pioneer in Innovation Award Winner

Pioneer of Innovation Award (sponsored by NHBRC) – honouring the woman who is passionately and innovatively leveraging new technology, information, processes or management systems with the aim of becoming more proactive and productive.

2017, Awards held at Gallagher Estate, The Award PIONEER OF INNOVATION AWARD was won by Riefqah Abrahams, Pr. Architect and co-founding director of Archi.  She was commended for her contribution to the industry in prioritising social innovation and work within the Housing sector. She is currently spear-heading a catalyst project for the re-interpretation of social housing within the African context.

The ‘smarthouse’ is a response to the current (subsidy/affordable) housing model and the absence of dignified, environmentally conscious housing solutions. The focus is on socio-economic transformation and improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable citizen.

In 2016 we embarked on a project with the Department of Human Settlements for Western Cape Government to design housing for a catalyst project. The requirement was to move away from ‘So-called’ typical RDP housing. The brief was to design a more appropriate housing solution within the budgetary constraint.

As the strategic and design lead on the project, I pursued the idea of ‘Adaptive.Innovative.Design’ (A.I.D). The resulting technological/scientific advancements are small elements in isolation, but when these ‘smart’ elements are grouped together, the ‘smarthouse’ product is far superior to its predecessor ‘RDP’ alternative. The innovative improvements to the ‘RDP’ model are huge advancements not only in building resilient, sustainable communities but also in attracting future investment to previously marginalised communities.

The strategies employed include prioritising research of scientific data and similar catalyst projects,  restructuring the cost plan to include innovative items of ‘green efficiency’ and ‘social enhancements’ which have for the first time been included as a fundamental element of the project. The design team for this project comprises primarily of female architects and engineers. It was a strategic decision to include female professionals on a project of this magnitude, in an industry dominated by male professionals. Women are inherently nurturers, pro-active, productive, and educators. I firmly believe that if you educate a woman, you educate a village. My team of women not only transfer their skill as we navigate through this project, but they are also continuously being mentored and empowered to improve their skill and expertise to become leaders and revolutionaries in the industry.

The ‘smarthouse’ model design has been approved by local government and is currently in the procurement phase. Site works are scheduled for the 2nd half of 2017. This ‘pioneer’ project strives to achieve an innovative outcome that will benefit thousands in its rollout. This is the beginning of the future of housing. We cannot continue in an unsustainable manner and continue to build houses that simply fulfil a quota of housing backlog. We need to inventively think about the structures we place that continue to deplete our limited energy resources without giving anything back to the environment. We need to design for the future, not the present. We need to be vigilant in creating architecture of consequence that enhances and uplifts the communities within which they are placed and benefit humanity at large. The ‘smarthouse’ is responsive to cultivating a resilient urban development that facilitates future growth and sustainable development.

As an architect, I have been involved in many public transformative projects early in my career. I started my career at a large design based company in Cape Town, as project architect, involved in schools, community and sports facilities. I was exposed to the effect architecture could have in the public realm. Good design really can change the world. I had always pushed the boundaries with governmental norms and standards, prioritising the needs of the public rather than being limited by budgetary constraints. In fact, I saw this as a challenge and was forced to be more innovative in order to achieve good buildings within budget.

I co-founded ARCHI, an architectural practice that prioritises adaptive innovative design (A.I.D). Our core focus was implementing a programme for the Department of Education to alleviate overcrowding in schools. Initially comprising only classrooms, this programme developed to include WC’s, feeding kitchens, play spaces, and water points. This programme was the beginning of our transitional schools’ project which then developed into our UN safe schools model.

This programme Effectively contributed to an increase in the literacy rate and overcrowding in schools. 31350 children have access to a safe classroom.


Awards interview:

In a nutshell, Who or What has inspired you to keep pursuing your passion?

“I believe I will change the world. 

  1. Disaster Relief Architecture.In 2013 – I was exposed to the power of making a difference. By placing 950 classrooms, 31350 children now have access to a safe school.
  2. Kofi Anan (ex. UN secretary General)– At the Global Peace building roundtable in 2014 his words to me :

“Women prevent wars. Women play a critical role in conflict resolution. When we incorporate women we broaden our skillset, from discreet diplomacy to robust intervention”’  

  1. Dr Hawa Abdi(Somalia Hope Village Client and 2012 Nobel peace prize nominee). I am inspired by her tireless efforts and extraordinary mission to promote basic human rights and build sustainable institutions in healthcare, education, agriculture and social entrepreneurship.
  2. Migration Crisislocally and internationally – the most vulnerable people have the least but require our service the most. I will continue my journey. Working in marginalised communities inspires one to have hope, to do better, and transform societies.
  3. South Africa.With the implementation of the correct tech and strategies, we will not only have smart houses but smart communities. I believe I have an obligation to use my inherent inventive ability and knowledge to  fundamentally effect socio-economic transformation.

I have been fortunate to be exposed to many global influencers and revolutionaries. One common thread amongst all these individuals is that they have a vision, and remain faithful to the vision.

I will continue to advocate for a better future. As a mother of three toddlers, I continuously have to balance having a family and a career. BUT, as a result, I see the world full of opportunity. With each project no matter how small, there exists the opportunity for new innovation, to create, to inspire and to be inspired.

I have become known for challenging normative standards. I am often ridiculed for ‘making everything complex’. Championing innovation is an arduous task but extremely rewarding.

Upon being kidnapped by radical insurgents, Dr Hawa Abdi stated to her captors; “I am old, I do something for my people and my country. You are young and active. What have you done for your people and your country” These words inspire me to keep moving forward. To learn. To educate. To do more. To be more.

I will change the world.”

“WICA is segmented into eight categories to cater for female contribution across the broad construction industry spectrum,” says Awards Director, Athi Myoli. “The sheer number of nominations received from around the African continent has been overwhelming and this positive response is testimony to the many successes in the industry deserving recognition.”



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