Interview: David Adjaye
To what extent are new buildings in the region constructed in a sustainable manner?
DAVID ADJAYE: We saw a long period of difficult political climates, which slowed research into best practice. So at present there is an explosion in the region that is without precedent. Government is adopting a handsoff stance to stimulate the private sector, so local authorities are almost at the whim of developers, who are coming in with models from outside the continent with little adaptation. As a result, developers, who are focused on profit, determine the image of the city before you have had a chance to understand it.
Academies and governments should invest in sustained research into what the built environment should be like, so that information can be distributed to the various governing bodies that look after the built environment. At present, the governing bodies are behaving like what we call building control in the UK, which monitors construction but not building ideas.
In the absence of sustained research, the way to accelerate this is to learn from local professionals who are deeply invested in the local environment, have their feet on the ground, and are looking at how mobility and rapid urbanisation is occurring. In the UK, leading architects are sometimes brought into local authorities to accelerate idea generation around models unique to the geography and the context, but also looking at models specific to creating a new density that allows for economic growth.
The buildings from the Nkrumah era are still standing, and were informed by a government brief that there had to be a lesson about geography and climate built into them. The early modern buildings are very good in terms of response. There is an opportunity in this economic renaissance to learn from that period.
Should companies be doing more to use local materials in the construction industry?
ADJAYE: Many countries yearning for some image of modernity believe that imported products are the only way to go in the built environment. We have an incredible timber culture in West Africa, incredible clay to be used for bricks and we have great skills if we foster training. The nurturing of local industry, which is very much a government issue, activates the industry and local context by denying the quick fix of importation. We need to develop an entrepreneurial class of building products coming out of the local environment, so that they become key materials which create more interesting ecological cycles in these communities and these contexts.
What can be done to address the challenges facing affordable real estate development in Africa?
ADJAYE: The luxury market is the easiest to deal with because it exists in the transnational parts of African cities, which have commonalities with city states around the world. Similarly, smart cities are the low-hanging fruit – easy pickings for that first wave of development. But the real work is to do with the emergent middle class on the continent. That is the real work. The conversation Africa needs to be having is regarding middle- or low-cost housing.
One key issue is using the right level of technology. Low technology – not meaning bad – becomes very important in many systems. The Eco-Build Sandbag Building System in South Africa is a sandbag technique that creates really good, dense and soundproof wall construction for rapid urbanisation of low-cost housing. It is essentially a frame with a sandbag fill and a plaster finish. The technology is working but many local authorities are slow to adapt. In Nigeria, however, the Eco-Build system has been totally sanctioned. In fact, the government bought the franchise from South Africa and is using it to roll out a mass housing programme. That is the kind of innovation that needs to happen in other countries that are facing housing shortages. Concrete frame and steel may be unaffordable, while block work is useless for this continent, as it does not have sufficient density and thermal mass.
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