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‘Low-cost housing should act as avenue to demonstrate local content’

By Bertram Nwannekanma
09 November 2020   |   3:35 am
As shelter is a basic human need, it is imperative for every country to domesticate its housing production systems. You cannot rely on others to produce materials and technology you need to provide housing for the people.

[FILES] Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Mr. Sonny Echono

Mr. Sonny Echono is the president, Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA) and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on the national housing policy as it relates to local building materials, and other issues.

The National Housing policy emphasised the use of local building materials. In what ways have architects promoted local building materials in the housing industry?
As shelter is a basic human need, it is imperative for every country to domesticate its housing production systems. You cannot rely on others to produce materials and technology you need to provide housing for the people. The impact is that you don’t have national security; secondly, the cost will be higher. So our policy in this country from inception had been to promote local building materials in our construction and make technology suitable for our use.

The policy of Nigerian Institute of Architects is to gradually substitute these materials that are being produced abroad or to promote the use of alternatives, other materials that can be used in place of those that we import. Some are produced in the country. We’re hoping that with partnership with government, incentivizing Nigerians to produce these materials at a profit should be the goal. But there are still some major challenges, until we address them, we will not be able to get out of the wood.

What are the challenges?
There are two major challenges; the first is electricity. We must address the issue of power in the country so that factories can produce at an economical and competitive rate. The other one is finance; entrepreneurs go through a lot to invest. They have to save money or borrow at a very high interest rate, sometimes as high as 25 per cent. If we can address the issue of finance for entrepreneurs and the issue of power, we would have gone up to 70 per cent on our part to making it possible to promote local production.

There are concerns over housing deficits in the country, what roles do architects play in increasing housing stocks?
There are two issues in housing deficits that we need to define and also clarify them. There is the challenge of distribution. If you go to many urban cities in Nigeria today, there are oversupplies in medium and high-income housing. That’s why you see so many completed buildings and estates not occupied. The reason is high cost of production, because developers were not producing houses for the low-income people who need the houses because they can’t afford them. There is also the absence of efficient mortgage system; where I won’t have to save all the money I need to buy a house but pay deposit and spread the balance over 30 years at reasonable interest rate, not the 25 per cent rate existing now in the economy.

That was the reason we clamoured for the establishment of the National Housing Fund in the first place. In the rural areas, apart from the fact that we have some shortages, most of the challenges are not in terms of physical house but in the provision of amenities.

So, in terms of increasing housing stocks, architects are promoting reduction in cost of housing, efficiency in delivering of homes and promotion of a housing market that is robust. We need to remove all the constraints in acquiring lands, getting land titles, governor’s consent and approvals.

We also need access to low interest rates for long and short time funds, with spread up to one year or two years. Thirdly, there should be effective demand.

How can we establish effective demand, when the purchasing power of Nigerians is very low?
In the institute, we are promoting simple designs that are cost effective; promote efficiency in housing production so that running costs will not be too high. We are talking about promoting energy efficiency and local content in building. You don’t have to pay much for electricity bill, maintenance, especially fixing fittings, fixtures and other components too often.

The Nigerian Institute of Architects had been in the forefront of campaigns for social housing. What modalities should be followed to ensure its takeoff?
Indeed, we have pushed this for a very long time because the biggest challenge has been on how to house the vulnerable segment of the population. The low-income earners need houses but cannot afford to build it themselves. Some people don’t have the time and money to acquire plots or look for architects to design for them. So, somebody else has to do that on a large-scale and make it affordable through some elements of subsidy. We encouraged government to streamline the process of getting these lands to developers so that they don’t have to include the cost of land.

We have also encouraged government to provide site infrastructure, open up the space, so that the developer can do his own internal road or facilities but the external facilities, access road, water, waste management should be borne by the government.

When the public sector provides infrastructure, it encourages gross subsidy by government by making land available to them at little or no cost and in return demand, that they don’t only build houses for the high-income, but have a mixed use development.

Some developers prefer to build for the high-income to get their profits and also low-income, which falls within the bracket of social housing. But government itself should also intervene by providing low-cost houses for the use of lower income bracket. Those low-cost housing should provide opportunity to demonstrate new products, locally available building materials and implement research in buildings.

We’re on the vanguard for this. As we speak, we have made an input into government plans for Covid-19 intervention through social housing across the country. We have also been discussing with Ministries of Works and Housing, as well as Humanitarian Affairs and state governments that are engaged in housing production for various components of their populations either for civil servants, or for people who are coming as cooperatives or association of farmers, association of market people and so on.

In doing this, we want to bring down the cost of building production, cost of construction and cost of access to housing finances.

Do you have any time frame for its take off?
We have told government that the political intervention of 30,000 housing units within the local governments might sound nice but in practice, there should be effective demand. It means that before you begin to put houses in any place, you must ask yourself, who will want to occupy it, and buy them. At the same time, people who need them should have a pathway of being able to legitimately pay for the houses gradually.

We need to focus where the needs exist and make it available by bringing down the cost. One of the things we have not agreed with government yet is on who should provide these houses. When you approach housing from the point of view of government contracts, it is the contractors and officials that supervise them that benefit. Then the so-called subsidy that government is putting on the construction has been removed from the real owners. It goes into contractors’ profits, and how much he is paying to the people supervising him as bribe to allow him do what he wants to do.

People that bought houses produced by these contractors spend a lot of money to repair them before living there. So, we are saying that focus should go to either people who are willing to put their money in the business like real estate developers or individuals willing to provide housing based on the size of their pockets and their immediate needs.

Government also believes that social housing only applies when you build one-bedroom or two- bedroom and put them in a local government headquarters or villages. We’re saying no, majority of our population are moving into the urban areas but they are living at the outskirts because they cannot afford houses in the city centres.

That’s why we are talking about effective demand, finding out where the people who need the houses reside. What type of houses do they need? Is it blocks of flats, single bedroom or bungalows? And addressing those needs based on what they require and what they can afford.

Have Architects Registration Council of Nigeria (ARCON) and NIA resolved their dispute over certification of architects and examinations? What are the terms of settlement?
What transpired in a very nutshell is that there were some disagreements. Issues are basically on personalities, which snowballed into all sorts of actions from both sides. There is enough blame to pass round but a lot of elders have come into it. Both the president of ARCON and myself realised that it is not even in the interest of the profession. There is none of us, who is not a member of ARCON or not a member of NIA. We belong to both. Both bodies are established for a singular purpose and that objective serves both organisations well. ARCON is our enforcement and regulatory arm. It is a body that ensures that all our members abide by the rules. It is the body that ensures that only qualified and registered architects can practice architecture and that quacks are not engaged.

It is a body that protects local architects from ruthless foreign competition, while the NIA is the mother body of all architects, that looks after the welfare of members. It also helps government in promoting policies that bring development in the built environment and architecture in the country.

When we begin to focus on individuals and personalities, we are going to have problems because individuals drive an institution. So, we should not focus on our differences but on things that will help us to grow our profession and we have understood it. We are working amicably and have resolved some of the issues but the final ones will be resolved after our meeting in November.

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