Accessible, adaptable low-cost housing in Egypt

In: "Report of the Fifth International Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments: Access Legislation and Design Solutions, Harare, Zimbabwe, January 16-18, 1992." Internet publication URL: In Internet publication URL:

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Harare 1992

Accessible, adaptable low-cost housing in Egypt

Dr. Safaa M. Issa Abdou, Development & Popular Housing Co., Cairo, Egypt





Architecture is a measure of society's advancement or retardation and a record of nations' civilization. Man is civilization's creator and its primary architect who set its foundations and raised its magnificent, tall edifices. And for Man there has always been the pursuit of civilization, freedom and equality.


Religions with their human principals had a great effect in getting society's interest in man's right to live, with all that could be ingrained in this right, and what is required from ongoing political systems. Sometimes this right was threatened, but it has always been a goal and a requirement that thinkers' views, philosophers' writings and artists' - including the architects' - works stressed its importance.


It has been well-known that society's guarantee and provision of all human rights, related to Man's Godly right to live, is a proof of a high standard of civilization. Thus, we found that the individual enjoys justice, equality as well as personal and political freedom in advanced countries.


Justice and equality imply equal opportunities in all aspects of social life for all society's members; and in order for everyone to enjoy equal opportunities there is a need to provide the services helping all citizens to participate in various living activities.


Hence, we become aware of the way the architect interacts in all sides of society's life. The architect has always been the means to create all that reduces people's suffering and social ailments. He is capable of providing the work that realizes equality and justice through a safe, accessible environment that allows all citizens to participate (according to their capabilities) in their country's development and advancement. This requires a broad perspective from the architect in order to provide the needs of all society's members, not only non-disabled persons with idealistic measures who have always been the basis of architecture design standards. Society includes a considerable growing minority of disabled individuals, which statistics have shown are 10 per cent, and that is due either to sickness, accidents, wars, congenital causes, aging or daily life stresses.


Accessible housing

Conseil International du Batiment CIB at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, through establishing the W84 Commission, aims at building non-handicapping environments in order to mainstream disabled individuals. Disabled individuals cannot participate in social life and its activities while residing in institutions. Hence, the need to provide housing units that accommodate the members of this group and fulfil their needs.


The provision of housing units for physically disabled individuals should not be considered as a charitable gesture from society's side, as they are entitled to this service, besides the fact that special housing units for the members of this group do not raise these persons' sense of freedom that is required to encourage their participation in social life activities as this sense of freedom is not possible without having the right to choose or the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice, according to Archibald MacLeish (Zola, I., 1981, p. 357).


Additionally, the experience of countries having a lead in this field, providing accessibility for disabled individuals in the built environment, has proved that there are some shortcomings with special housing units for the physically disabled individuals. For example, the possibility of their moving out of these units causing some losses to landlords and building societies when these units are not rented and costing some expenses to remodel them in order to let them to non-disabled persons instead of being left empty, the difficulty for the disabled group's members to locate these special housing units, besides the possibility that these special units might not conform in size with the needs of the disabled individual and his family by being either too big or too small. Therefore, there is a need to solve this rising, important problem.


Adaptable, universal design

The solution to this problem lies in the suggestion presented by Mr. Ronald L. Mace, director of the Center for Accessible Housing in North Carolina State University, that is the Universal Design or the Adaptable Design for the Life Span of the Individual. As stated by Lusher and Mace (1989):


"Instead of responding only to the minimum demands of laws which require a few special features for disabled people it is possible to design most manufactured items and building elements to be usable by a broad range of human beings including children, elderly people, people with disabilities, and people of different sizes. This is a concept that is now entirely possible and one that makes economic and social sense."


The concept of adaptable design provides "...basic universal features which can easily be adapted to the needs of a specific user" and not just for wheelchair users who constitute a small percentage of the total population with disabilities. This concept is suggested to be applied to rental housing "where there is frequent turnover in occupancy, although certain other buildings could also benefit from this approach, at least in marketing context" (Mace, R. L. et al., 1990).


There are some fixed accessible features that should be provided (excerpted from Mace & Lusher, 1989):

  • wide passable doors (81.5 cm), an accessible route including a clear path at least (92 cm wide) connecting all accessible features and spaces,
  • clear floor spaces around fixtures such as toilets, tubs, showers and sinks.
  • controls such as light switches, thermostats, electrical receptacles, and faucets within easy reach and easily operated,
  • operable windows,
  • visual alarms, warning signals must be visual and auditory,
  • knee space under the kitchen sink and workspaces,
  • tub seats, bathtubs must have either a built in seat at the head end or attachable portable seat that fastens securely to the tub when needed,
  • showers: if showers are provided at least one must be either 92 cm x 92 cm with a seat to allow transfer or a roll-in shower that can accommodate a person using a wheelchair,
  • offset controls: tubs and showers must have control valves which are offset toward the outside to be easier to reach from the side of the fixture. Hand-held shower heads on flexible hoses must also be provided.
  • reinforcing grab bars: reinforcing must be placed in specific locations in walls around showers, tubs and toilets to facilitate the simple addition of grab bars at a later time.


Adjustable features:

  • segments of countertops over knee spaces at work surfaces and sinks should be adjustable in height from a standard height of 36 inches to 28 inches to allow use by people who must sit down to prepare food.
  • adjustable height closet rods and cabinet shelves are highly recommended, though not specified in ANSI & UFAS, to improve universal use.


Optional removable features:

  • knee spaces required under kitchen counters and bathroom lavatories can be temporarily hidden from view by removable base cabinets.
  • grab bars at tubs, showers, and toilets in bathrooms can be omitted until needed so long as wall reinforcing is in place.
  • there is a possibility of providing a portable, securely attachable tub seat when needed instead of a built-in seat.


Accessibility in Egypt

It might seem as though the Egyptian architect did not fulfil his duties towards local communities entrusting him with the power to express its ideals, beliefs and attitudes as regard to various problems. But the fact is that the problem of the disabled group is new to Egypt, as we have not been through the industrial revolution period with its impact upon many workers with the disabling accidents it caused, and we have not gone through as many wars as European countries with the great number of disabilities that were their results. That besides counting on the previous trend in facing this problem by providing special institutions as El Wafaa & El Amal City in Cairo suburbs to accommodate the needs of some of the members of this group and to provide services for disabled individuals, men, women and children.


This paper presents suggestions to adapt some low-cost housing units located in Haikesteb area near Cairo, providing 10,000 low-cost housing units for low-income families. (Drawings are available from the author.)



There is still a need in Egypt to win the professionals to and get them interested in the issue of accessibility for the disabled group, as well as having the law and legislations reformulated to provide national and local codes requiring accessibility, training architectural students and providing academic curriculum on this issue, besides a system of rewards and incentives that will encourage the best accessible solutions.


Accessibility of the built environment is a direct step towards a more just, fair society in which democratic principles and constitutional standards of freedom and equality guarantee its members their human rights.



Lusher, R. H. & Mace, R. L., "Design for Physical and Mental Disabilities", in Encyclopedia of Architecture: Design Engineering and Construction, ed. J. Wilkes and Sons, 3, U. S. A., 1989.


Mace, R. L., Hardie, G. J., and Place, J. P., Accessible Environments: Toward Universal Design, Center for Accessible Housing, North Carolina State University, U. S. A., 1990.


Zola, I. K., "Communication Barriers between The Able-Bodied and The Handicapped", Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 62, pp. 356-359, 1981.


Questions and comments

Q:   Why are not all the flats made as those which were designed for disabled persons? I could not see any problem in making all the flats the same way. This type of flexibility which you provide for disabled persons could be very useful for all people.


The second question regards elevators. Do you think it is possible at a later stage to add elevators to these buildings? I think that could be a good idea for architects in developing countries to prepare for elevators. They do not need to be constructed inside the building. They could be built outside the building but in connection with the stairs.


A:   Not all flats could be made accessible because of the question of pipes when connected with the sewage system. For example, the one I said could not be adapted, it is the question of the bathroom. They told me if you wanted to change the place of the toilet or shower it would be expensive and it would omit one floor which could not be used. That is why I did not make it. You will also note that the partitions were bolted, that is because our minister insisted that we do not put partitions and that he would leave this for the users. He thought it would make them cheaper; he is very concerned with the cost. But as far as elevators, it was considered too expensive, for maintenance, electricity bills, etc. People, even with a good standard of living, maybe do not contribute to these things and it is a problem for the owner.


C:   I would like to appeal to all African architects to please do not go up in costs. Although you ask for provision for elevators, we have space and I do feel that in the question of low-cost housing if we go up we immediately make it a ghetto situation, particularly for disabled people because we do have this problem of the cost of elevators. So please, do not go up on low-cost housing.


Q:   I would like to pose a general question. When it comes to urban design and urban designing control, is there any merit in disability legislation actually specifying that one should try and maximize the amount of housing that can be provided at the ground level, as opposed to multi-story constructed?


A second question is the cost-effectiveness of that multi-story accommodation in a Third World city.


A:   As far as urban planning I do not think they require that it be on the ground floor. I just suggested it since I will not be able to use any elevators. They do not specify that it should be on the ground floor because if you are making it accessible you should provide it on any floor and you should not even prevent a disabled person from working in a high-rise tower seeing that it would be a problem with fire-fighting. It would not be specified for only the ground floor but as for in my country that is the trend. We use multi-story walk-up buildings and they think it is cheaper for the infrastructure and for the land, although this is in a desert area. Still, this is the trend and the way of thinking. Even people in Egypt criticize it because there is a lot of land in the desert but they do not expand.

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