African builders slowly taking their place on the global stage

Thursday November 16 2017

The visitors lounge of the Commonwealth Resort

The visitors lounge of the Commonwealth Resort Munyonyo in Uganda. The appreciation for global building standards is becoming commonplace in Africa. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NATION 

By PAUL MOORES
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The launch of the first Africa Architecture Awards this year was about much more than celebrating the works of the sector. It was a strong statement of intent.

The awards underline the growing determination across the continent to rival the achievements of architects in other parts of the globe — achievements we have previously only admired and envied.

People are pushing architectural boundaries across Africa, with the awards spurring globally competitive designs.
It is not just the profession driving this momentum. Legislation is also playing its part. In Kenya, for example, there is a move to implement the Energy (Solar Water Heating) Regulations 2012.

Under the regulations, contractors and property owners whose structures use more than 100 litres of hot water a day are required to install solar water heating systems.

The government hopes this will increase connections to the national grid, given the reduction in power usage by the big consumers. However, for the architectural sector, this is an initiative towards designing greener, more environmentally friendly structures.

Standard procedure

Ideally, such initiatives should never be a matter of legislation but a standard procedure for architects. The fact that the government has to enact such a law to ensure sustainability and adherence to international building standards says a lot about what still needs to be done in the sector if we are to truly take our part on the global stage.

In designing buildings we need to take into consideration factors such as aspect, orientation and the sun’s movement across a proposed site, especially in tropical regions like East Africa. This helps in the optimisation of natural light and ventilation in the building’s design.

The use of overlapping roof structures or other natural shading devices and allowing air to flow naturally through a building are low-cost practical solutions for keeping internal temperatures well regulated and minimising the need for mechanical cooling and air-conditioning. These are not just green measures; they help to cut the cost of construction.

Such measures should flow naturally within our work, not because of laws and regulation but because they are the solution for our clients and the environment.

The same goes for work needed to protect our buildings against hurricanes and earthquakes.

The architectural community should be seen as a partner to governments and local councils — offering guidance on the way forward in important environmental and safety matters.

Beyond the issue of capacity-building, there are other challenges to going completely green, including the lack of sustainable building materials. As an industry, we need to be flexible to find locally-sourced alternatives where possible, that optimise value for money, and not necessarily the cheapest materials available.

European standards

When we first came to Uganda about 20 years ago, people we met in the construction industry used to say we couldn’t build to European standards because “it wasn’t possible in the country.”

We persisted and today, the appreciation for global standards is commonplace. However, some technologies and construction techniques that are still seen as new to the region are often already established and widely used in other parts of the world.

If there are challenges, there is also plenty of room for optimism, specifically in the East African region.

In the next 30 years, Uganda will see a boom in growth. From 38 million now, the population is expected to reach 130 million by 2050, according to reports, and with that will come the need for schools, housing, hospitals and a lot more. All of that will need to be planned and built. This will also mean cities like Kampala will continue their outward growth.

That is already being witnessed with the creation of places like Najjera, Kiira, Lubowa and the expansion of roads in East Africa’s urban centres to accommodate the increase in traffic.

Many of the continent’s capital cities will also need to start constructing upwards and adapting to living in smaller spaces. This is already happening in well- planned cases like Kigali or Tanzania where Dodoma is a second capital city, to supplement and ease pressure on Dar es Salaam.

Across Africa, urbanisation is rising. Recent reports note that the rate has soared from 15 per cent in 1960 to 40 per cent in 2010, and is projected to reach 60 per cent by 2050.

With urbanisation come more challenges for communities and those who create them. But for architects with a vision they also bring opportunities to shine and for the rest of the world to look at with envy and admiration what we can achieve.

We are already building momentum, now it is time to build the future.

Paul Moores is the group managing director of FBW Group of Architects and Engineers in Uganda.