A Holistic Approach to African Architecture
Writer: Emily Jarvis
Project Manager: Stuart Parker
Leveraging its extensive experience of emerging markets, Bentel Associates International (BAI) is aligning internal processes across its offices in India and South Africa with international trends and technologies to ultimately support the development of sustainable real estate in a local context.
Having influenced a significant number of award-winning building designs across Africa in recent decades, BAI’s involvement in landmark developments has been well documented in our magazine, with the Company’s Business Development Director, Tim Harlech-Jones keen to share his review of the past year and the trends driving the business to new heights. “South Africa is currently playing catch-up with the practices upheld internationally in places such as the UK and US; and we strive to be at the forefront of this transition as it happens here,” he says. “Our team is leading the charge in sustainable design, and we are utilising the latest technology to drive our own long-term continuous improvement by investing in a piece of state-of-the-art building information modelling (BIM) software.”
With each project – spanning the areas of retail, commercial, hospitality, residential and mixed-use – benefitting from BAI’s internal workflow and efficiency improvements, as well as its strengthened base of external consultants, the Company has seen a proliferation of new capital combined with a strong project pipeline.
“Alongside streamlining our processes, we have been able to increase the number of projects we can undertake at any given time by steadily growing the office to handle projects wherever they may be across the continent. You never know where your next project will come from,” he adds.
With South Africa’s retail development scene reaching a certain level of saturation and feeling the wider effects of the country’s lower economic growth figures, there has been a somewhat radical review of the approach taken by developers to answer the local retail requirement. “There are instances where we have seen an increase in our master planning consultancy work, which looks closely at the macro-economic and urban design considerations that make any project viable; including the infrastructure, attractive resale value and other risks in a bid to future proof the development and reflect positively on the sustainable success of the project.”
In spite of the market’s maturity, BAI is still seeing an increased number of enquiries coming from South Africa, with a wide range of projects in the pipeline. Harlech-Jones highlights: “We have been lucky enough to pick up some incredible projects in recent times; including a super-regional lifestyle retail development in Umhlanga, Durban, with a further mixed-use development in the pipeline; a regional retail development in the Western Cape; three smaller retail centres in Johannesburg and the surrounding area; as well as a number of other smaller centres ranging between 6,000m2 and 12,000m2 in size.
“Adding to this is demand for the redevelopment of aging shopping centres which have either had a change in ownership or strive to retain their footfall against the competitive nodes that are appearing, by reinventing the centre.”
South Africa is not alone as an economy experiencing a low growth forecast and this is having a knock-on effect on development across the continent. While retail developments and urban nodes are appearing, it often is the case that the original plans have been scaled-down to trigger further financing to add to the pre-REIT investment, or through a lack of infrastructures such as power and transportation. Harlech-Jones predicts: “There has been a review of what components make up a city and how they are designed. As a result, we will see an influx of convenience centres and definitely more urban nodes which will appear outside the CBD. Already, we are seeing a decentralisation in Nairobi, Accra, Lagos and the other big cities that over time we hope to see being built-up into new mixed-use urban nodes.”
Master planning and urban nodes have been two hot topics during the many panel discussions which BAI regularly participate in with other business leaders to discuss just where the industry is headed. “We are finding that developers are downgrading their initial expectations, with the ability to extend at a later date. So, for example, by having just one anchor tenant and a number of line shops in a smaller development, suddenly the planning time is reduced significantly and the initial development can be completed much quicker. Of course, building a convenience centre can then make it more challenging to secure that all-important anchor tenant, and the devaluation of many African currencies against the US dollar has also impacted this,” adds Harlech-Jones.
“A positive, though, is that we are seeing a number of smaller urban nodes develop where residential and commercial are complementing each other thanks to their close proximity, which is naturally bringing life to new, smaller – but growing – decentralised convenience centres. This opens up opportunities in master planning to continue adding further elements such as hotels, leisure centres, restaurants and so on to build up the area that eventually becomes a fully-fledged node.”
As the Bentel brand grows, the Company hopes to transpose its vast architectural skills in the retail, commercial and mixed-use environments into the hospitality and residential sectors. “We have a lot of skills that can easily be adapted for other markets such as this, where we really think we can add additional value,” he further details.
Recent advances in cloud-based processing and collaboration is an ongoing trend within the building industry and is something which is now an important part of BAI’s architectural design development on projects. The Company’s Head of Sustainability, Marco Macagnano explains: “The introduction of faster internet connectivity across the continent has created incredible opportunities to link multiple offices in real-time to the execution of projects. This greatly enhances our ability to coordinate our work with external disciplines, and involve the client within design development. When we combine this with building information modelling (BIM) and the ability to create highly detailed 3D models complete with services and structure, we are able to build a complete virtual version of a building.”
Comprised of a single and holistic database of finishes, components and spatial analysis, while maintaining active and synchronous collaboration with the rest of the design team, BIM can also simulate building performance and energy efficiency to ensure that BAI is making the best possible design decisions as well as helping clients get maximum returns.
“However, BIM relies on a combination of software and total team buy-in from the onset, so it is important for us that we communicate the benefits to our clients to facilitate streamlined teamwork between all disciplines,” Macagnano says. “We understand that our responsibility as architects doesn’t end the day the doors are opened as the building has a life to live, and future generations to serve. We therefore embark upon design taking into consideration the lifecycle of the project, and seek to utilise our experience in design, as well as the opportunities offered through BIM to provide our clients with a knowledge ‘asset’ that can be actively monitored and evaluated by integrating it with intelligent building technologies.”
Harlech-Jones summarises: “Ultimately, the more accurate you can be, the better the project will be, and the more sustainable the business will be.”
Engineering the right teams to add value to the turnkey consultancy process, BAI’s main priority is to remain competitive in the long-term in order to continue to be seen as a top-branded architectural consultancy with capabilities extending across Africa. Harlech-Jones concludes: “In the next 12 months, it is key that we develop ourselves locally and entrench our values and the Bentel brand further on the continent. We know you are only as good as your last project and our award-winning portfolio is testament to working closely with the industry-at-large while exploring the relevant international trends and how they could correlate to Africa.
“Understanding these dynamics will result in the creation of a sense of place on a local level, and we want to play a key part in this change and are putting all the pieces of the puzzle in place to make this happen.”