In millions of homes around the country, people live in distress. From the notorious ÔÇśface me I face you' buildings in city slums to properties running into millions of Naira, the experience is the same. Without air conditioning, most Nigerian homes are a nightmare, whether they are designed by your neighbourhood draughtsman or a highbrow firm of architects. Indeed, we are all prisoners by design.
After decades of architectural practice in Nigeria, nothing much has changed in the way we build? Concrete blocks piled on concrete blocks, a roof, fittings and ÔÇśyara', we have a house. Yes a house, but not a home. A home is much more than mere concrete blocks and a roof. A home is a total concept, which according to one expert, ÔÇśtakes into account the complex and dynamic interactions between a building and its environment, among a building's energy systems, and between a building and its occupants.' Therefore, architects must look beyond mere eye catching aesthetics in building homes and other structures.
Nigeria is a hot and humid country. In the north, temperature swing between 6 and 44 degrees centigrade while in the south it could be between 23 and 32 degrees. Yet our architects, including the best in the country, continue to design and supervise the building of structures without sparing a thought about aeration, natural lighting and thermal mechanics. Nigeria now suffers from the ternary problem of lack of enough housing stock (over 12 million in deficit), substandard housing stock and dysfunctional housing stock.
The current trend around the world is to build structures that make economic and environmental sense. In Europe and North America, architects, driven by the rising cost of energy, global warming and better quality of life for the world's population are working tirelessly on new frontiers in structural designs.
In the United States of America, the Department of Energy collaborates with builders to ensure that new residential and commercial properties include prescribed energy efficiency standards. Some homes have already cut their energy needs from the national grids by as much as 40-60%. A few have achieved 100%. In some American states, you get tax rebates if you build with certain material such as solar panels. The same thing is going on in Europe.
What is even more interesting in this new thinking in designing is that it is not all about complex computer modelling. There is a lot of commonsense thinking involved. For instance, in Nigeria, our architects can simply begin by redesigning the side of a building that picks up much of the rays of the sun from early morning to mid afternoon. The windows on that side can have larger overhangs to prevent sun rays having direct access to our bedrooms. This can be reinforced with trees that provide shades.
While this may appear simplistic, it works well towards reducing the amount of heat that gets into a property. However, when the simple techniques are combined with more sophisticated ones (such as those simulated with computers) the effect is usually impressive as shown in the documentary on how the Beijing 2008 Olympics main stadium was built.
Besides, concrete blocks have outlived their usefulness. Modern techniques are gravitating towards other kinds of building material, such as aerated blocks, galvanised steel wire lattice, polystyrene (insulators) and other lighter materials that are tough, fire proof and better heat and sound insulators.
As the British would say, a man's house is his castle. Our architects must be more creative and move away from the conventional way of building our homes. Lecturers in architecture departments in our universities must confront their students with daring assignments, away from the common place and uninspiring final year projects. Research is the key. True national development emanates from relentless research aimed at unravelling the problems that are specific to our country. Revelling in ancient text book theories or traditional concepts restrains us to the past while the rest of the world zooms to the next new phenomenon.
Think for a moment about the simple design of a staircase. I work in a 12 story building. Whenever the lift fails, it is an unimaginable strain on the heart and muscles to go up due to the steepness of the stairs. And that is going up leisurely. What if there is an emergency and fire-fighters need to go up such a building for a rescue operation? Can you see the danger in loss of precious time as a result of the difficulty in going up? The general design of stairs in the country shows that most architects do not spare a thought for the functionality of their designs. Even as you read this piece, this rather irritating design flaw is still noticeable in high rise buildings under construction in various parts of the country.
Here is something for our architects to look up and think about. In central Harare, Zimbabwe, they will find a shopping centre and office block called Eastgate Centre designed by an architect called Mark Pearce. The Centre provides a huge 5,600 m┬▓ of retail space, 26,000 m┬▓ of office space and parking for 450 cars. The structure which opened in 1996 was designed to be ventilated and cooled entirely by natural means. Eastgate is said to use only 10% of the energy needed by similar conventionally cooled building. According to a report, the building saved its owner $3.5m (US dollars) in energy cost in the first five years. Mr Pearce got his idea for the Eastgate Centre from studying how termites build their mound and achieve a constant internal temperature of 30 degrees. There is also a German company that has come up with a roofing design that can bring down the internal temperature of a house by as much as 10 percent during the hot season. Examples are too numerous to recount. But you could find simple examples of how architects are putting their heads to good use in the book "Design Like You Give a Damn-Architectural responses to Humanitarian Crisis."
For over two years, I consulted for an NGO that was supposed to introduce a different kind of housing delivery for low income earners based on simple but effective designs. Working with a business development company we researched various social housing concepts across the globe and came up a design that was cheap, sturdy and has been used for the past twenty years in other parts of the world. At the end of the painstaking work, all we got were "put down" comments of how the concept won't work in Nigeria because Nigerians are very proud people. I dare not ask, where has our pride gotten us?
The reason why the national social housing policy is stuck in the mud is partly due to the lack of imagination by our architects to come up with cheap but acceptable housing designs that will address our housing crisis. Early in 2008, I visited an abandon housing project in Akwa Ibom State. It was meant to be sold to state civil servants but no bank, including the Federal Mortgage bank, was willing to finance the project on the basis of the argument that the prospective beneficiaries can not afford the houses (the lowest was priced at N5m). When I eventually meant the prospective beneficiaries and the trapped contractors who had spent their own and borrowed funds to kick start the project, I felt sorry for my country.
Is it not said that necessity is the mother of invention. If that is so, why do we shy away from innovating when we lack so much? Why are we afraid of change even if it will make our lives better? I am not an architect, but I have read enough to know that we are not getting the best deals from our architects. I look forward to the architects and their sympathisers to beat me up on this piece. But I must say that I am simply tired of being told that this or that is not possible in Nigeria. For now, I have stopped talking to the so called experts. I have begun putting up a structure that will challenge the conventional way of doing things in many aspects of our national experience including the housing problem. I am carefully picking those that I will work with. My main criterion is that anyone who comes on board must be willing to dare to be different in seeking novel solutions to our age long problems. That is not too much to ask, is it.