When Lagos, the commercial heart of Nigeria, moved to create more space for its 15 million populace, it went as far as fighting back the Atlantic ocean off its coast to reclaim millions of square kilometres of land – a strong indication of the severity of the congestion of the city. James Inedu George, revolutionary Nigerian architect and arguably one of the most talked about amongst his peers, argues, a fundamental problem is that the architecture of Lagos buildings consume too much space. “Our homes are modelled after the colonial masters’ designs,” he says. As economic activities and migration in Africa’s cities skyrockets, new urban planning challenges arise that need architecture and urban planning to proffer new solutions. “The spacious British design would not work for Lagos any longer,” James asserts.
James’ home country, Nigeria, spreads over a surface area of 923,800 km2, containing 160 million peoples, and battles a 17 million housing deficit. When the government announced an ambitious plan in August, to construct a million houses yearly to meet the housing challenge, James critiques using an analogy – “what if we could build an edifice that could house a million people, would we need 17 million homes?” James’ point – solution thinking and innovative design that saves cost, time, land and resources.
As I munch over a tray of cakes with the design preacher, in one of Lagos’ prime real estates, viewing the sparse skyline of the city’s highbrow Victoria Island, James amazes me as he deduces business and lifestyle from architecture. He shares that the high fenced walls of Nigerian structures is a physical indication of insecurity and absence of trust, in the land. The higher the crime rate has shot up over the years, the higher the fences have gone. “Architecture isn’t primarily about buildings,” he says. Scooping up his Galaxy Tab and shoving it at me, he quips: “This is good architecture!” A product with a disruptive design enhancing mobility and work-time better than its antecedent – the laptop. Architecture is about designing and building products that are efficient, effective and durable.
In September, at the biggest real estate conference in West Africa, Real Estate Unite, the geeky looking artist strode a podium with an iPad in hand, wowing stakeholders with the presentation of an innovative design of two vertically joined duplexes costing 6.7 million naira ($43,000) to erect; in Lagos, home to the 30th most expensive hotels in the world, it costs at least 11 million naira ($70,000) to build 2 simple duplexes. The double duplex design’s cost effectiveness lies primarily in its frame. In place of the conventional columns of cement blocks piled up and held together by increasingly expensive concrete, is a rectangular metal crane, a quarter of a plot wide and 4 floors high, wrapped around with red bricks(or cheaper tiles); a durable model James discloses was used to erect Oriental Hotel, a popular Chinese architecture filling the skyline of Victoria Island.
The red bricks covering the metal skeleton are 25 percent cheaper than cement blocks, and require no plastering, painting, and mortar, plummeting construction cost by at least 30 percent; at 16,000 naira ($100) per cement bag, not plastering a duplex alone, saves at least 320,000 naira ($2000). The downside to the “too good to be true story” however, is a scarce high technical expertise (though not expensive) is needed in laying the bricks. Besides employing cheaper and efficient materials, the double-duplex design saves space by deploying an innovative rearrangement of home setting to reduce horizontal space, building higher then breaking out on all sides, mid air, such that the upper floors are wider than the ground floor or lower floors. A 3-vehicle garage occupies the ground floor saving extra land space on the sides of the building that would have been occupied by automobiles. Consequently, four structures comprising 2 duplexes each can comfortable sit on a plot of land; saving the need to acquire more than a plot to build 2, 3 or 4 duplexes. In Lagos, a plot could go for a million naira ($6,400) in underdeveloped areas and skyrocket to $20 million ($128,000) at high brow ends. These seemingly futuristic designs can help save Nigerians costs on housing plans though there is a little set back that reduces the benefits the architecture proposes; Nigerian housing law permits only a maximum of 2 buildings on a plot of land.
The land reclamation project at the Lagos Bar Beach shoreline – Eko Atlantic, gulping a $6 billion investment from three Nigerian banks and a French group, is expected to house a meager 250,000 residents, with taxes being the only the government revenue source from the urban project, throughout its 78-year lease term. “We’re not building cheaply,” James laments. The Lagos-based HubCT Technologies Head of Design, believes there is so much the state government could have done with the kind of investment. “There are large-scale communities that we need to make. There are still 12 million Lagos residents design can solve their housing problem. If we can provide design strings for these markets – not just buildings, but different architectural solutions to different demographics – investors can profit 200,000 naira ($1280) overtime, off each of the 12 million consumers.” That’s a whole lot of money! You can do the maths.
Good news is, a few individuals and private bodies are beginning to see a range of the light James beams. Construction of multiple room/flat complexes can be seen dotting the city. Several privately owned hostels and housing schemes are springing around the city to carter to the rising middle class and population explosion. On Commercial Avenue, Yaba, is Skyview Hostel, a blue sprawling edifice reaching to the sky, housing over 300 rooms and toilets, with a standby industrial gen and other amenities. Most of the occupants are young, upward and mobile. Tunde, a sculpturist below 30, lives there, dolling out around 40,000 naira ($254) per month as rent. Real estate is rife!
“I can’t afford at once the 2-year rent for a room/flat in this strategic area,” Tunde says. In Nigeria, home owners rent apartments on at least a 2-year term with additional charges; a heavy financial burden the Lagos state government has begun advocating against. The housing solution provided by proprietors of the Skyview Hostel allows Tunde and his likes to put a roof over their heads with a fraction of their monthly earnings.
Skyview is only a fragment of what could be in Nigeria. Unfortunately, urban planning which is a macro-level architecture and dictator of real estate, does not contribute up to 5 percent of the country’s GDP. James insists “Architecture can be good business.”