‘Why architects should be responsible for checking building collapse’
The built environment recently witnessed building collapse in Uyo and Lagos, which resulted in loss of lives and resources, In this Interview with Bertram Nwannekanma, the 26th President of Nigerian Institute of Architects and a Fellow of the Institute, Tonye Oliver Braide, provides ways architects can help in checking building collapse among other sundry issues
Many have criticised Nigerian architects for what they called the push for international architecture. What is your opinion about that?
Architecture has a universal language particularly when it involves technology and automation. When these aspects are inserted in a building, what you will see in Australia, Dubai, California is what you will see in Lekki, Lagos. The human taste for a good life is the same around the world. What will create a point of divergence will be in the treatment of the skin of the building. Here it is possible to graft certain motifs , which will give an identifying character to the building. This will create a sense of location and place the building within its cultural context. Our biggest challenge is that our manufacturing base for architectural products is low. Take for instance, doors. Hand carved doors carry a dignified character giving identity to a building, but there are no facilities to mass produce these motifs and graft them to our doors. Local materials have not advanced to a mass production process where the economy of scale will make them cost effective.
On the perception of space, our style is to have a lot of space along with communal areas as will be seen in our country homes. In an urban setting, the high cost of land creates the need for a drive to obtain the highest return on the investment by reducing the land constant in the overall project cost. This will result in some minimalist approach in design and creation of more compact floor plans. There are several complaints from clients that these compact designs are not our style. But the final price will prevail to control the floor area. When the project is a block of flats, it means that you will be having a cross section of the residents from different cultural backgrounds. The general treatment of the façade should project an air of modernity and the urban style of the upwardly mobile individual. In the spirit of the new millennium the design process has entered the information age and we now have a global convergence of ideas. The gaps between the regions should reduce and the thinking process will become universal.
Can it be linked to architectural education in Nigeria?
I will say yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that architectural education in Nigeria has not conducted enough documentation of our indigenous architecture to transfer knowledge to students on the identifying characteristics of our traditional architecture. It is the understanding of the identifying characteristics that will stimulate new thinking on how to make the progression on our style into a new modernity.
No, from the perspective that each student has to conduct some independent research even when preparing very simple designs. The student has access to information from multi-media channels and the international style which is posted on these channels has a dynamic influence on the thought process. By the time the student graduates, his focus is based on his exposure to a design style acquired from multi-media platform.
More research and dedication to duty must come from our Professors and lecturers. The development of a Nigerian Style in a modern context has to start from the classroom. The students will graduate with new ideas and become the instruments of change to create an identifying style in the years to come.
The issue of building collapse has become a recurring decimal, what roles are Architects playing to check the menace in Nigeria?
The collapse of buildings occurs from several factors beyond the direct participation of the architect. The architect conceives the space and hands over to the engineer to put in place the design solutions to carry the structure. The engineer may recommend changes to the design to bring the final solution within an acceptable budget. The architect must have basic knowledge of structural design to appreciate the engineering solution and may have to make certain amendments to the initial design. However while these communication moves between architect and engineer, the client may appoint a contractor who may not have qualified personnel who will be able to interpret the design solutions. This is where the first danger signals could occur. There are cases where clients repeat projects using designs for different sites on new sites without reference to the architect. Different soil conditions could put the new building at risk. Again clients tend to alter projects mid-stream on the advice of ill-informed friends and associates.
This can lead to collapse. Legislation should be put in place to register every building designed by an architect along with the profile of all consultants responsible for the execution. There must be a responsibility clause to bind the architect to the project until completion and certification for use issued. This will give the impetus for architects to hold maximum control on their projects until completion and under these circumstances failure will then lie squarely on the architect for he will have powers to hire and fire any of the actors in the construction process. But under the situation where construction is an all comers affair with persons who have never gone to school claiming to know more engineering than fully qualified structural engineers, buildings will continue to fall and unfortunately lives may be lost. Every building that collapses is a clarion call to Government to take action, call the professionals to take responsibility and put a stop to this once and for all. Where Government lacks the act of will, professionals can do very little.
How can we get Nigeria architects come out with locally and environmentally friendly designs for our local use?
This will come when we address the issues stated earlier. Ranking of architecture schools will create a competitive spirit amongst lecturers and should stimulate a thinking process, which will bring out the best in our schools. The new thinking in architecture will have to start from fresh graduates as most middle-aged architects who have been in practice for over two decades are set in their ways and may find change difficult.
What are the challenges facing architects in practice in Nigeria?
The main challenge comes from inadequate payments for services rendered. Some clients may argue that what they see is what they will pay for as some projects are rather flimsy with a few sheets which cannot convey details of the design intention. So many things are left to artisans to decide on site. Nigerian architects have to produce a workbook which will be matched with fixed standards of payment. Fees should be at par with the expected output. All projects should be executed to great detail as the architect has to take full control of his work. Clients must pay for services just as they buy materials for the construction works. The percentage to be paid should be embedded in the project costs and must be declared and subject to taxation. When adequate compensation packages become accessible to Nigerian architects, we shall see the best of our architects. Some clients compare our services with that of foreign-based architects. They fail to state how much they pay in foreign currency and in some cases upfront.
Can affordable housing become a reality in Nigeria considering the high cost of building materials?
The rising cost of building materials has been a challenge when it comes to designing affordable housing. The benchmarks in pricing for what is termed affordable defers in the various categories from low-income to middle income to high income. While the high and middle brackets can always step one rung down in the pricing ladder to seek out what they can afford, the low income technically have nowhere to go. They can either pay or forget it. It falls on architects to become more imaginative as we have to explore new options in construction particularly with internal partitioning. Space by design can be put to maximum use as well as serving multiple purposes in daytime or at night. In Europe, affordable housing have rooms that are sitting rooms in the daytime and at night convert into sleeping rooms. So we should no longer think of 2 Bedroom Flats or 3 Bedroom Flats but rather mono spatial or bi-spatial living spaces. We also have to adopt flexible furniture from sofas that convert to beds to dining tables that fold away.
Therefore one living space can give the same living experience as a One Bedroom flat. This means that the materials used to build a traditional one bedroom flat can provide two mono spatial living spaces creating decent accommodation for two nuclear families. Low-income affordable housing can also be built in clusters where a communal space could take the place of the traditional lounge. This will give a sense of community and shared values. Government has to provide the enabling environment for the set-up of Light Industrial Parks to provide building components. We must start to mass produce our doors, hinges, ironmongery, sanitary wares, light fixtures and concrete floor tiles. We have the technology to produce ceiling boards from agricultural wastes. We can also produce internal partitions from agricultural wastes. We just have to rise up to the challenge to make it happen.
Furthermore, the affordable housing challenge also involves the cost of land and finance. Policies can be put in place to subsidise the cost of land for the urban poor and also structure the financing packages to fall within the threshold of affordability. Various models have been discussed on which our Institute will soon hold an International Workshop to explore new concepts which could be adapted to our circumstance.
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