‘Architects must design for needs, not luxury’
Fitzgerald Umah is the Chairman, Lagos chapter, Nigerian Institute of Architect (NIA). In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on the preservation of historic building, prospects and challenges of architecture practice in the country.
In other climes, architects are leading initiatives for the revival of historic buildings. What are architects doing in that respect, especially in Lagos? What roles should architects play to protect legacy buildings in Nigeria?
Architects are doing same in Nigeria. Recently, the Nigeria Institute of Architects, Lagos State Chapter (NIALSC) met with Legacy 95 to see how the chapter can partner with them in the restoration of historic buildings also called Listed Buildings in Nigeria. The body signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Legacy 95 that will state our level of partnership with them. We are trying to partner with them because most of these buildings are privately owned by families who cannot maintain them because of funds. We are working with the organisation to reach the families that own these buildings but do not have the funds to maintain or restore them.
As architects, we always wanted to be among others to work on Cathedrals, those architects to work and maintain the Vatican City. The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. So, we are really working and hoping that by the time, we finalized the details of the MOU , we would be able to start working on most of these listed buildings.
Three years ago, when Ilojo Bar was mysteriously demolished, the Chapter made a publication in The Guardian newspapers condemning the act. It was in the light of the above that the discussion with Legacy 95 commenced to see how such act can be averted.
What’s NIA relationship with draughtsmen. Do they still exist and what can be done to nurture that profession?
I am not aware that they still exist because the draught men started by providing assistance to architects with drawings and all that. So, most of them were assumed to be architects. In the last 10 years, we have been trying to achieve integration by providing particular course for them, meaning that some of them need to go back to school to get certified. Although, they are great architects who didn’t go to school, but learnt through the job but that time and now are different. Some of them have gone to study Architecture and seek professional qualifications and get integrated to the system.
In an urban setting, the high cost of land has remained a major issue in creating affordable housing. How can this be addressed?
To ensure that affordable housing is achieved, the state governments must be fully involved, since they are the custodians of every land in view of the urban planning law. Once government subsidies the cost of land, cost of housing will automatically be reduced. In the recent study done with Sterling Bank, it was discovered that, if the government can drop the cost of land by 50 per cent, houses will drop. An architect will provide a drawing and take away the luxury part of the construction to make it affordable. Talking about basic homes, middle class can have access to them. You don’t talk about granite, marble or even tiles. In terms of structure, doing proper engineering value will help in bringing down the cost of the building itself, which is possible. But the cost of land is constant, if the government can bring an influence, the cost of land will reduce.
Secondly, if government and developers ensure that the people who truly need these buildings have access to them, affordable housing will work out. Even when they subsidised the land, they must ensure that the land are given to the right developers not those that will hold on to the land and waiting for them to appreciate, then sell to the third party. Most houses are bought by the rich and rented out to the poor. With what NIALC is doing with Sterling Alternate Finance, if it works out, we would have affordable building.
In what ways can Nigeria architects come out with locally and environmentally friendly designs to drive affordability in housing delivery?
As architects, we must be more innovative, ensure the right materials are used and design for needs not luxury. We must ensure that we provide the right size of space and required spaces not spaces that are left unused always.
Urban regeneration of major centres in Nigeria has been a big issue, what is the Lagos State chapter of Nigerian Institute of Architects doing about it?
The chapter has through the Lagos Architects Forum created a good platform for the discussion of architecture and built environment matters, where issues on urban development, environmental design matters are discussed, and solutions are proffered.
Last year, through the students competition, we were able to identify different materials that can be used for affordable housing. We have commenced the process of constructing our first research project where the materials will be subjected to tests. We will be working with some research institutes and companies to realize this within the next six months. Our design competition has been taken a step further by making the competition for students and young professionals. The title of the competition is affordable home design sponsored by Sterling Bank PLC , through Sterling Alternative Finance. The goal is to identify a design that gives us the utopian community, where there is a balance in living; and the intention is to identify a design that is truly affordable, and when built, it will be accessible to the low-income earners.
Despite the roles being played by architects, why has the state’s urban regeneration’ effort not yielding required results?
The Lagos chapter of NIA has tried its best. We are hoping Lagos state government will have the will power to transform or implement the document sent to them. It will interest you to know that Lagos state government had paid part of Lagos Island land owners compensation to relocate. Those buildings by now should be demolished and new structure should come up. I am well informed about this information that is why Lagos is still an urban slum, the way it is because they have to pay people for so many years yet, they have not been responsive of this land or properties. The policies are there but it has not been implemented.
The will power is not there but many of the places in question have historic background even if the Oba palace will be retained, we have some people around him and some people are culturally attached to their origin so government must find a way to integrate these people back to the system.
How would you rate the performance of Nigeria architects in building sustainable cities?
Nigerian architects are trying its best as a couple of them are doing well and recognized internationally. But coming down to our own soil, they are not there yet because of our poor infrastructure. We cannot talk about smart buildings because so many things are to be considered but these things are impeding on Nigeria to get to that level of sustainability. Again, Nigeria architects are not averse to sustainable architect as we have the capacity, we have the know how but we have not been able to put this down because we do not have the supporting infrastructure. So, we cannot say architects have gotten there as a nation.
Most countries have adopted Architecture Billings Index (ABI) as an economic indicator of demand for non-residential construction activity. What role does it play in Nigeria’s construction space?
They use it overseas, even in protection of their GDP ;what building sells more investment. Any architect using the index is actually importing it but I am not sure we have it in Nigeria. But this is one of what we are trying to achieve in NIA with the help of Lagos State chapter and our platform.
Mentoring in built environment has become a major issue as many young architects on internship are often left stranded. How far has NIA gone to ensure that younger generations are mentored?
In Lagos State, we have tried our best, we visit schools on daily basis and do what is called studentciary and are mentored by different architect. There is a show coming up in Uganda called Archfest that will take place in this month. Some students who are part of Lagos State Chapter will partake in the fashion show, students are also mentored in the office, we also have IT students and go to their schools during their art work competition.
What do you consider as the major achievements of Lagos chapter of Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA) under your tenure?
We have rebranded the yearly Lagos Architects Forum (LAF). And with LAF 10.0, which was the 11th edition because the first edition was held ten years ago. We were looking towards consolidating on what we have achieved in the last decade.
The forum has helped to identify problems of building collapse and we have provided a policy document (Architects Intervention Programme) that will help curb building collapse in Lagos State, if the government implements the programme. LAF has also made efforts in creating platforms for strong architectural practices and partnerships in a growing economy that will outlive the founders.
The event has also critically looked at the incursion of other professionals into the traditional practice of architecture, the causes and the future for architects with solutions proffered for decisive actions. It has helped in the exposure of new technology to practitioners in the construction industry and exposed new as well as innovative materials and their uses in construction.
LAF has helped architects impact positively on students of architecture in the country through the students’ chartered instituted three years ago, which is now a must attend for all students of architecture.
The annual design competition has helped identify students with great talent and strong design strength, which is important to achieving best practices in Architecture.
LAF has also created jobs for architects, manufacturers of construction materials and allied professionals in the building industry through exhibition of products and services, architects works and other forms of networking at the events.