It has been said many times that Africa is not a uniform place in which every country and every market conforms to the same rules and circumstances. Yet, how many South African professionals really take that to heart when venturing outside of SA’s borders to do business? Architecture is a profession which requires one to be particularly open to continual listening and learning, and the partners at Messaris Wapenaar Cole Architects believe that the willingness of even a seasoned professional to do this, and to work collaboratively, makes a significant difference to doing successful business in other African countries.
The firm has seen particular evidence of this in some of its own projects. The Edge, a sizable new upmarket residential development in Kampala, Uganda, is a good current example. This 160-unit complex in Naayla, Kampala, is being developed by Ascent Point Investments, a Ugandan property development company. Messaris Wapenaar Cole Architects (MWCA) secured the project based on its extensive experience in high density residential architecture, with the firm having been referred to Ascent Point Investments by one of its long-standing South African clients, Limestone Properties.
Its track record of successfully completing projects in a variety of African countries was an additional contributing factor.
A process of continual learning
Jeffrey Cole, the partner in charge of The Edge project at MWCA, comments that although the firm has approximately 30 years’ experience in residential projects and over ten years of experience in Africa, the success of every aspect of the design in this project has been as a result of willingness to learn about the cultural and lifestyle requirements of Ugandans, the business and operating environment in that country, and the overall social, environmental and infrastructural conditions which inform the process.
“Our design of the units at The Edge initially followed a fairly typical South African model, which is the one we know best and which therefore served as a point of departure for the design process,” he explains. “We then spent a great deal of time with the our client discussing how aspects of the Ugandan culture and way of living needed to be accommodated in the design.” For example, Ugandans tend to be extremely private people and issues of privacy and visibility are of much greater concern than they are to the average South African. Aspects such as common walkways, lines of sight, the creation of multiple and discreet entry and exit points from units all had to be considered. The creation of public and private areas also had to be given additional thought.
In addition, most people in Uganda still do a great deal of cooking outside. Matoke – a variety of starchy banana – is a commonly eaten dish in East Africa and is generally cooked by steaming it over a charcoal or wood fire – an activity which most often takes place outside. Not only does this mean that every unit in The Edge requires a fair-sized courtyard space in which residents can cook, but since the process tends to generate a lot of waste material, it was necessary to provide a waste yard for every block in the complex rather than just one for the entire complex.
Setting a new standard for Kampala
With there not being a great many precedents for attractive and upmarket residential complexes in Kampala at present, the professional team and the client devoted long hours to finding the best ways to design something that would stand out in the Ugandan market – that would raise the bar for residential development – but which would also meet all the functional and aspirational needs of residents. “Our client, Mr Henry Lubwama, wanted to develop something special on this site. There is not much in the way of original development in Kampala at the moment – there is a great deal of replication, and residential complexes don’t tend to be well planned or to accommodate Ugandan lifestyles well,” comments Cole.
Accordingly, the client has spared no effort when it comes to making this development stand out from the rest. Located on a gently sloping site, the development consists principally of three residential blocks and a clubhouse. Amenities include a complete gym and saunas; a pool and a rentable entertainment area with kitchen; a jogging track and a children’s playground. The residential blocks are between four and six storeys in height, and are served by elevators. “It is so important for the development to present an attractive public face that our client has undertaken to improve every approach road to the complex at his own expense. This includes surfacing the roads (which are otherwise dirt roads), managing storm water runoff, and planting pavements. Unlike in South Africa, this is not expected of developers in Uganda – the client is doing it completely voluntarily,” Cole adds.
The Edge is designed to appeal to wealthier Ugandans and to the young and rising middle class who, although they may work or study overseas, still want to invest and secure property in their home country. In addition to considering the various cultural requirements important to Ugandans, the design of the units had to be stylish and contemporary – on a par with what well-educated and well- traveled people have been exposed to.
Furthermore, the complex is fully equipped to provide backup power and water to all units. Since power supply can be unreliable, each unit has the ability to be fitted with an inverter. Water tanks installed around the complex are able to provide 1,200 litres of water a day to each household for three full days in the event of a water supply problem. Storm water runoff is being managed by means of a walled-off basketball court which functions as an attenuation pond after a downpour.
The team even had to provide for proper sewage disposal from the site, which has been done by means of sharing a properly designed mini sewage treatment plant with a neighbouring development.
Detailed coordination and planning required
Whilst MWCA has undertaken all the conceptual and design work on The Edge, the full professional team in Uganda also includes a Ugandan architect of record, as required by law. This architectural firm, SASA (headed up by Dr. Kenneth Ssemwogerere) is actively involved in daily site management. Cole reports that the working process as a team has been smooth, comfortable and collaborative.
“We have had many workshop sessions together to ensure that everyone is able to implement best practices and to work optimally as a team,” he says. One of the aspects of the job which has needed more attention than usual has been the development of generic specification documents for the contractor to work from. “Uganda doesn’t currently have legislated building codes, although the authorities are working on implementing something in the near future. However, because of our experience in Africa, we are familiar with the process of generating functional and performance-based specification documents which are largely based on British or European standards. For example, rather than specifying a branded product, the specification needs to describe how the product must perform and what materials it must be made of,” he elaborates.
While projects such as this may not afford architects from South Africa the comfort of the familiar systems and formulas, MWCA’s philosophy is that adaptability, flexibility and the willingness to learn ultimately make for a stronger practice all round. Old and accepted ideas in one’s familiar environment can be challenged, whilst everyone involved in a project which presents unfamiliar aspects, has the opportunity to broaden their knowledge. It is clear that this approach, combined with the firm’s long-established reputation in the residential market and its African exposure, have served it well. While The Edge is progressing smoothly, the company has since been appointed by the same client to undertake another upmarket residential development near Lake Victoria.
“We look forward to applying what we have learnt on The Edge on this new project, to improving on that knowledge, and to deepening our relationship with HL Investments as a client,” Cole concludes.