‘Lack of infrastructure hampering architectural practice’

Babalakin

MR. OMOTAYO BABALAKIN is the Vice President(West), African Union of Architects, former President of Association of Consulting Architects of Nigeria and the Managing Partner of Consultants Collaborative Partnership. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, he spoke on factors militating against social housing in Nigeria and ways to revive abandoned government properties.

Architecture is evolving over the years with innovations and creativity? How has it played out in Nigeria?
Nigeria, being a developing country, has created opportunities for architects, engineers and other professionals to demonstrate their capabilities. Over the years, we have tried to follow international norm in the industry with respect to innovations and creativity. But as we are growing, we found out that a lot of things have changed. Reason being that we now have information technology ruling the world. Unfortunately for our architects and engineers, not everyone could meet up with the challenges. This is as a result of infrastructure and finance gap. For instance, Building Information Management (BIM) software is now in vogue in the field of architecture. Obviously, this is an important software that ensures a designer meets up with international best practices. But, not everybody can afford it.

Secondly, we needed to train our new and upcoming architects to be responsive in terms of this new technology. Somehow, we are getting there, but we don’t really have the infrastructure. You know in today’s world, everything is virtually on-line. So, if Nigeria is not providing infrastructure to help businesses and those of us in creativity to develop; things are not going to change. The cost of Internet here is relatively higher than other places around the world. The difference depends on the speed that you have. So, that has limited the high sense of innovations. But if you have to be in the forefront of your profession, you have to catch up with all these innovations. You have to spend more money; you have to make sure that you procure the right services.

With over 40 professionals are working together, we need software to interact with colleagues and professionals abroad. Over the years, they have taken their architecture students on that part of technology. So, they are better placed in terms of education than us. That is why we always have the challenge of incursion of foreign architects in the country. They have better knowledge because of their level of education. We have had our own education in our own time and have been responding to infrastructure changes. But then, we need support.

On innovation and creativity, we have architects and good architectural firms in Nigeria that have done good works but lack of infrastructure is hampering a lot of them. For example, how many 30-storey buildings do you see in Nigeria? How many construction companies do you see here in Nigeria? Nigeria with population of 200 million people supposed to have 40 Julius Bergers. It is only when you have such number that projects will be more competitive and the cost of projects will be greatly reduced. The issue of corruption has also made things worse for us. Nigeria has sacrificed meritocracy on the alter of mediocrity. We don’t believe on merits any more. There is nothing to challenge us. That is one of the issues.

Over the years, the construction sector is contending with new roles and more problems, how can professionals fit into this new era?
What we have seen over the years is the fact that there is a big new role in the construction industry, which is project manager’s role. It has always been there but I think it has been expanded. In those days, it is the architect that used to play that role. But because of the level of technology that is available, a lot of other professionals have taken over that role. Engineers, structural and electrical engineers, any body like the quantity surveyors can take over that role and because the clients now want someone ready and adaptable. Property management is also something that is now all over the place. Project managers are taking the lead role and other professionals are taking directives from them and they are working as a team. So, architects over the years have adapted to that because they are now like the clients’ representative. They are taking over every project management job, ensuring that everything is in accordance to what the clients want. That used to be the role of the architects. It is imbedded in our role but now taken over because of the fact that not all the architects are good managers. You can be a good designer but not a good resources manager. You can design beautiful edifice but in terms of management you are not as competent. That is what has really changed, but architects are reacting to it generally all over the world, and we don’t have short supply of this in Nigeria. We are building our businesses to respond to that.

The Nigerian Institute of Architect has recently been campaigning for the introduction of social housing to cater for the low-income members of the society. What are the challenges mitigating against such schemes? How can it be tackled?
Social housing, if you recollect, is something that has been done in the 80’s during Alhaji Lateef Jakande era. We still have many of them around. What happened then is that we were producing the building materials. The issue is that there is no country that has developed by becoming a buy and sell country. During the Jakande era, all the woods that we needed, cements, blocks, doors and aluminum were locally fabricated. If we had built infrastructure and there is electricity, because production is highly dependent on electricity, and transportation is less stressful, manufactureres then can reduce their prices. So all those companies have closed up over the years. It is possible to do social housing with products that are not costly, if we have factories that produce building materials. Remember in 1985, we used to have ceramics producing factories, which is one of the best in West Africa. The tiles in my father’s house in 1984 are far better than any of those imported now. But the companies didn’t survive because there was no electricity. So, lack of building materials’ industries is the main challenge to social housing in Nigeria. The industries that should be able to produce are competing with foreign ones, who are running on lower production cost but not necessarily making better quality products.

So, social housing that Nigerian Institute of Architects is planning is a good one, but we need a lot of financial backing to be able to succeed. We need a lot of industries that will produce building materials at a lower cost to be able to function. We can only do that if government gives us electricity. So, the government has to provide an enabling environment to be able to help us to industrialize and get cheaper building materials. That is why sometimes, what government starts as a low- cost housing for the medium income earners, by the time they get to some stages, the people cannot afford it because of the cost. It is a tough environment.

The real estate sector has been bedeviled by the slogan ‘affordable housing’. What is affordable housing and what steps should be taken to ensure cheaper houses?
Affordable housing to me is ability to get housing at affordable rate with a reasonable time and quality. I can tell you that affordability is very relative. We need to qualify it. There are certain strata of people that cannot afford houses; that’s why there is social housing, because their salaries cannot allow them to afford it. My father built his own house from the salary he was getting from government as a civil servant. He built that house for eight years. I can’t afford to do that because of the fact that I can’t wait for eight years. Affordable housing is usually for less privileged people that cannot afford to buy a house and they can only get a house that is reasonable in terms of quality and prices. So we have to go back to infrastructure. Affordable housing is possible if the infrastructure is there so that the prices of goods are down, which will help us to make people get it. In terms of designs, we have brilliant architects and engineers that can do that, but for you to make it affordable, those materials should be available and must be cheap and reasonable. So, the fact that we are not producing and relying on imports makes it difficult. If we are not importing, our naira will not be devalued and you will only use it for essential purposes. So, the level of affordability will depend on the desire to ensure that our industries are able to produce building materials that can be bought at a reasonable cost.

There has been disagreement between engineers and architects on designs and their implementation in housing projects? How can this be minimized?
I am not sure what kind of conflict that arises between architects and engineers but one of it is professional competence. If you’re an incompetent architect and you are working with an engineer, you found out that the engineer would most times be correcting the architect, the architect would feel he/she should be in charge of the project. If any body wants to start a project, he must ensure that the level of professionals in his team can deliver. With that, you will hardly have problems, because each one of them will respect themselves. In terms of design, which is very critical, you know unfortunately the reality of our lives and the level of creativity are total different. So, the conflict that will arise is a result of professional capabilities. Engineers have always respected the architects, it is only if the architect is not capable or competent.

In various cities, there are government buildings left to decay. What should be done about it? Do you think that architects have roles to play in resuscitating these edifices?
One of the issues in the country is not having a purpose. For example, we are involved in the Federal Secretariat, Ikoyi during Obasanjo’ s regime before the project got stalled. We have planned 480 apartments, we demolished every thing, and we did the sample of flats, two bedrooms, three, and four bedrooms. Unfortunately, Lagos State government did not give us approval. That project was in 2007, you could imagine if that project was turned around, the impact of that project on people. The number of people that will be feeding and living there, it could have be a small 1,004 estate today.

The architects have their limitations in getting the authorities to work; it must be a government that is ready to undergo transformation. Government should look at those buildings and what use it will be; ensure it is beneficial, profitable, and rewarding to the communities.

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