Developer, the possible future for the young African architect
Nicolas-Patience Basabose Rusangiza Gasigwa Tata ande Bolongola wa Badjoko, Head of Design @ BasaboseStudio.com
The architecture profession in many parts of Africa today is in limbo. In some countries the nobility of the profession has become questionable and a lot of works done in our cities follow no ethical norms and we end up with countless of structures collapsing. The reason for this is, the lack of adequate regulations and strong institutions to tackle the task of correcting the situation.
Many will argue the responsibility of these preventable deaths lies with structural engineers and other construction industry players, true or not, architects too have a role to play in those.
A lot of current young African architects are trained outside the continent and many have little or no desire to return due to the lack of organization or opportunities in their native nations. Those trained locally have dreams of venturing elsewhere with no hope their titles and qualifications will be recognized to allow them to practice. In this midpoint, many drop out of the profession to make a living.
Not easy being a young African architect, but I sincerely believe our continent offers some amazing prospects if we can be involve ourselves in solving some of the biggest problems in our societies where our expertise is vital. Like housing.
Surely it is time for “guerrilla architecture” in Africa. By “guerrilla” I don’t mean the thuggish push to build no matter what and where, but a strategic approach to the profession and the desire to activate change within our societies. Guerrilla architecture must be both a social and political movement 1. It is time for “Activist Architects”. This guerrilla architect is one willing to step out of professional boundaries often predefined in his training and delimit his or her own new path.
In recent years, we have seen a few versions of this “guerrilla architecture”. Architects daring to overlook traditional limitations of the vocation as simply designers. Architects embarking on a mission to elevate their role in society by putting on a few extra hats. One of the most successful and direct approaches to this new path is that of an architect as a property developer.
Africa has a population of 1.1bn today and urban dwellers are currently standing at about 40% of that total, notably 440m. By 2030, our continent will have a projected population of 1.5bn.2 City dwellers in Africa are projected to be 579m by 20303.
This transformation will create an urban population that is larger than the rural population in about two decades. Many poor urban dwellers are now at par with those of the countryside. However, return migration is impossible and urban poverty is now a permanent feature of most of our economies.4
This massive and fast urban population growth coupled with other socio-economic aspects of our societies present enormous challenges and, if looked at from an optimistic view, attractive opportunities.
The housing crisis is also an opportunity for this new breed of young “guerrilla” architects. We can roughly estimate only a very small margin of Africa’s urban dwellers have adequate housing while the largest majority make with whatever comes their way.
Socio-economic dynamics are shifting in Africa, in many parts there’s a subtle emergence of a quantifiable middle-class and more Africans are open to markets they were excluded from up to now. Africa is rising, so they say. Instead of leaving this new window with all its opportunities to bigger players and other external entities, Africa’s housing market is one thing we can own as our own. Who are better fit for this new role than African property developers and continental institutions? And young architects can also revitalise their profession by stepping into this new realm, because we are the ones qualified to contribute largely anyway.
The recent housing crisis resulted in a sporadic housing boom which has brought opportunist and unqualified players in the mix. Governmental organizations failing, we witness buildings collapsing frequently and many non-adaptive designs erected all over the place without consideration to the physical and cultural context. A house or a building being a lifelong and long-term investment, owners need the guarantee of benefiting from their asset in the long run. To enable that, architects need to market themselves as the “passage obligé”. We have a role to play and an ethical obligation to facilitate the housing of our population. Who has the best pedigree to house this growing African population humanely other than architects?
Few architects successfully managed that dual role in the built environment. Being architect is hard enough, adding a new developer hat only add to the headache, but we thank the heavens there are a couple of trailblazers to look at up to.
The American architect Jonathan Segal developed his first building after graduating from university at the tender architectural age of 25. Since then he never stopped building on his own without any client. Based in San Diego in the state of California his firm combined the roles of architect and developer handsomely. His business model is based on development of property mostly for rental. Over the years his firm has developed and built dozens of projects. One of his iconic projects a block of 141 apartments were sold for 45 million dollars to a set of investors. Construction economics will tell you the project cost less than that to justify its profitability.
Understanding the power and influence of architects in this type of business model, Jonathan Segal encourages other architects to develop their own projects. In some of his courses in the field offered online he was quoted as saying, “through the control of the whole process and the elimination of the client you can build and design what you want and earn fair rewards for your work.”5
Today Jonathan Segal has a lot of large scale projects developed by his own firm. For the young upcoming African architect, that might sound too far-reaching. But everybody has to start somewhere, and there is hope
Alfonso Medina is the 31 years old founder of T38 Studio, an architecture firm based in New York, USA.
The firm finds sites, design, build, and sell. A pretty straight-forward process. According to Alfonso Medina, the architecture side of the business model only works for their real estate side. “We have no other clients. It wasn’t a matter of choosing to set the business up that way, that’s just how it started”, he says.6
“When I went to do my undergrad in Monterrey, I had the opportunity to build a couple of houses in Tijuana, so I took a year off from school and moved there. My mom owned the plot for the first house I built, so we already had a client. That’s the only way I knew how to do it. As long as the house didn’t fall I was happy.”
Alfonso Medina’s career as an architect developer started from his studying years and given the variety and sizes of projects he has worked on so far, young African architects can be assured that big financial backing is not a prerequisite to achieve this. Lions were cubs once.
He has a love affair with Tijuana, the Mexican city he grew up in where he’s now helping to transform the housing stock. T38 Studio is working on ways to improve the quality and the economics of low-income housing. “We’ve already developed over 40 houses in Tijuana—single-family and multifamily units, townhouses.”
Medina’s story is an inspiration for young African architects as it is in the middle of a housing crisis in a society he’s deeply involved in that he finds the drive to formulate adequate solutions. His architecture/real estate firm embarked on a mission to educate the masses on the importance of good design and great architecture on budget. “We’re given the opportunity to commission real architecture for people who don’t know design, who would have bought any house. They start understanding what architecture is.”
This not only expands the investment of potential buyers in quality and longevity but positions architects as that “passage obligé” mentioned earlier.
Surely these great achievers mentioned above operate in countries where structures are in place to enable their endeavours while in Africa we still struggle to have systematic parameters set out for the profession to flourish as it should. Surely these two examples given herein could only be successful operating in societies where the purchasing power of the people is on decent levels. Surely schools they graduated from equipped them to take the plunge in this direction. Surely they had so much playing in their favour, but still, it took individuals to decide on the direction of their practices.
As African architects, we sure have a considerable weight on the balance of power as far as the built environment is concerned. It is all up to us to step up and define or create parameters to enable our flourishing as a profession, as members of the society and as a “passage obligé.”
Besides the lobbying on our parts to influence decisions from our national governments, financial institutions and the people at large, the architect/developer will need a hybrid knowledge toolbox to be capacitated in this novel direction.
It is capital to not only relying on the architecture education anymore. One needs a deep understanding of the real estate market as it is an independent industry on its own, a blazing appreciation the economics of construction and some attachment to social psychology.
Jonathan Segal offers courses on the transformation of the architect to a developer. Many schools offer associate degrees in real estate development, management, financing and the construction side of its economics. Many institutions deliver long-distance or online short courses for anyone anywhere.
Socially as a designer, most of my commissions came from references from my social capital. We are not in ignorance of the opacity used by our governments in the allocation of big projects to Western firms, even if locals can achieve the same and why not better results. It is up to African architects to reinvent themselves and capitalize on what we can offer our societies by creating opportunities that only us can see, understand and exploit. The challenges are here, the opportunities are here, the shift is possible, and the change can happen now. Change we can all believe in●
3 Citiesalliance.org (pdf)
4 AFDB Demographic Trends (pdf)
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