Fri, 22/02/2019 - 08:30
Current Issue 69
Kenya’s Agile Architects
Beglin Woods, founded as a merger of two one-man bands in 1991, has built up a portfolio of hundreds of projects and continues to play its part in the ongoing development of the East African nation
Writer: Tom Wadlow
Project Manager: Eddie Clinton
There is reason for optimism in Kenya’s construction scene at the moment.
Consultancy giant Deloitte recently published its annual Africa Construction Trends report, a study which places Kenya second only to Egypt in terms of the number of ongoing projects worth more than $50 million.
As of mid-2018 the country had 41 such developments underway, combining to generate $38.2 billion in value, double that of Ethiopia.
“Kenya is a very busy market at the moment, and one which is embracing higher standards brought in by players from Europe, Asia and elsewhere,” comments David Beglin, Partner at Beglin Woods Architects.
“The old days of locally-assembled curtain walling and kitchen joinery are over. You can now go to the most sophisticated manufacturers in the world for pretty much every element of a design. The world of architecture has been completely opened up in recent years.
“Le Corbusier famously said in the 1930s that the house is a machine for living in, and we are only just starting to see this realised now.
“There is so much going on in Kenya specifically. We are in desperate need of low-cost housing and hospitals, while there is also a glut of offices being built and 30-year-old buildings like hotels being renovated. The developing world is entirely different to the developed world – it is very busy, very lively and very interesting. I could go on for hours.”
Beglin’s energetic appraisal of the industry is backed up further by Deloitte’s forecasts, with Kenya poised to play a central role in the wider East Africa region’s projected growth of 6.4 percent for the mid-2018 to 2019 period.
Beglin Woods Architects has been contributing to this improving picture since the early 1990s, and has built up a sizable portfolio of projects of all shapes and sizes during the past three decades.
Asked if a particular development stood out, Beglin is quick to state that every project completed or ongoing is special in its own way, receiving equal attention to detail from start to finish, from a tiny off-grid single household to a 20,000 square foot premises for the United Nations.
The latter, based in Nairobi, is something of a hallmark for the company.
Completed in 2011, the UNON compound comprises four buildings linked by airy walkways which are flooded with natural light and surrounded by green areas.
Solar panels cover the roofs, while 600 indigenous tree species also add to the sustainable nature of the site, examples of elements which combine to make this one of Beglin Woods’s most ambitious works to date.
In the residential sphere, the Nova Apartments in Nairobi is a 17-storey building which has recently been completed.
Containing stylish luxury residential apartments and triplex penthouses, the scheme was awarded Best Concept for ongoing projects by the Architectural Association of Kenya.
This is largely thanks to its spectacular indoor and outdoor communal facilities, which include swimming pools, a cafeteria, spa, gym, games room, cinema screening room, convenience store and half-acre garden fitted with a running track and water features.
“My wife calls it the tagliatelle building because of its façade,” muses Beglin. “Every building has its own unique character, its own reasoning, its own justification, and you are only as good as your next building.
“The UNON building, for instance, is renowned for its sustainable features, while at the other end of the spectrum, we have designed a house for a retired couple which is completely self-sufficient in terms of water and power. It’s so small it may not even be in our brochure.”
What has allowed Beglin Woods to build up this portfolio and level of trust over time is its hands-on approach with projects and clients.
“Liability is such a huge thing, and we are trusted to deliver and make it happen, and will never stop being fully dedicated and available until the job is completed. Architecture is a service,” says Beglin.
“If needs be, we can field a team of four directors, which translates into four hands-on designers and four administrators. We are like four separate practices under one roof, and it has turned out to be a very successful formula.
“We don’t have individual egos
here either, and this stems from Simon and I liking each other’s work before we combined practices. If a job comes in, we decide who is best-placed to take it.”
Indeed, Beglin Woods in turn expects clients to contribute to the design process, helping to ensure every building with a company stamp on it is designed and constructed to the highest quality, on time and within budget.
“We have talked about sustainability in terms of eco-friendliness, but arguably the most important aspect of sustainability for us is financial sustainability,” adds Beglin. “We have to deliver on time and within the client’s budget – we must worry about every single door handle.”
This ethos, naturally, leads to extremely detailed and thorough vetting of contractors and suppliers.
“This is arguably the most important part of an architect’s life,” Beglin continues. “It’s a critical and very lengthy process. We draw up a list of people who can do the project based on previous experience, so it can sometimes be a bit unfair on up and coming contractors because they can’t skip the queue.
“Once we’ve drawn up a shortlist, we meet them, we interview them, we look at their workshops. Ideally, we look for partner- and director-level involvement and staff on the ground from start to finish.”
Looking ahead, it is inevitable that practices such as Beglin Woods will be contracting out more work to specialists in new construction techniques as productivity increasingly moves up the agenda.
The rise of prefabrication, for example, is something which Beglin highlights as already transforming the industry and the way in which architects go about planning a development.
“Prefab is huge,” he says. “Hotels these days are being assembled on-site with rooms that are already completely made.
“Procurement is no longer about walking down to a local furniture manufacturer – you have companies all over the world who have giant warehouses where you can order 500 beds and sofas at a time. If you’re putting a thousand doors into a building, you are not going to run your fingertips over a thousand doors and say that one is not up to scratch.
“However, we do not lose sight of local craftsmanship… it is a balancing act between machine and human elements of a building.”
And it will be by staying abreast of trends such as this that will ensure Beglin Woods continues to offer relevant, reliable services in the future.
“Building intelligence and automation is another big topic,” continues Beglin. “There is no limit to how much a computer can tell you about a building if you feed in the right data. Energy efficiency, maximising space, water usage – these are all trends impacting our industry.
“We need to be able to absorb such technological ingenuity as and when it comes, but at the same time keep our integrity as designers and make sure we contribute sensibly to Kenya’s development as a country.”