Sunday, May 24, 2020
Harrisburg, PA, USA

n 1984 and the years preceding it, it was always an uphill task to get people to embrace formal design of residential buildings. I know because that was the year that I started architectural practice. Some people seemed to think that only commercial buildings needed formal architectural design. Even when some potential clients agreed to a formal design, the amount of money some were willing to pay was always very low! I ended up designing a host of buildings, constructed in Nigeria, before departing for the United States in 1987.

Since then, Nigerians have fully embraced architectural design of residential buildings. While in Abuja, during my December 2016 trip to Nigeria, a friend of mine took us round the city to areas like Asokoro, Wuse, Maitama and the rest. A lot of the buildings I saw were aesthetically very pleasing! The story was the same in many other towns and cities I visited.

Yes, I was impressed by the aesthetics of the buildings, but the superfluity of some and the redundancy of many of the architectural elements, troubled me. The whole thing reminded me of what Louis H. Sullivan, a renowned American architect, wrote in 1896. In an essay, titled: “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”, he declared that “Form Follows Function”. In other words, the way a building looks should reflect its function. Many of the residential buildings I saw easily flouted that principle. Some are very wasteful, contributing to the runaway cost of residential buildings in Nigeria.

Take the roofs of the buildings for instance, many are high-pitched, steep sloped and of the hip roof type! The heights of some of the roofs are sometimes two to two and half times the height of one building floor! Even in very cold regions of the world, where extreme snow fall necessitates steep-sloped roofs so that snow does not cause sagging or collapse, the roofs are not that high or steeply sloped. Aside from the “unnecessariness” of this type of roof structure, the building owner ends up paying double the amount a normal roof would cost.

Furthermore, in some of the buildings, the roof structures do not reasonably project beyond the limits of the exterior walls. Consequently, even during the mildest of rainfalls, the exterior walls are constantly soaked and slowly weakened. Also, because of moisture entrainment, the paint on the walls peel, so the walls need frequent re-painting.

Now, let us turn our attention to balconies or sit outs in the buildings. A balcony is a space people can sit around and get fresh air while taking in full view of the environment around them. But I saw buildings with balconies without roof covering or canopies! In some cases, where the balcony was covered, the roof cover did not project far enough to protect someone from rain or sun. In spite of the nonfunctional nature of the balconies, their presence in the buildings unnecessarily add to cost.

One problem created by these types of open-air balconies is that because of constant exposure to rain, cracks develop in the concrete floor. Moisture seeps into the steel reinforcement bars causing corrosion, premature deterioration or even failure.

Another issue pertains to the structural components of some of the buildings. Having done my own share of designs in Nigeria, I am familiar with the range of structural loads residential buildings are subjected to. I find the columns(pillars) in some of the buildings highly oversized for their function. When you unnecessarily increase the cross-sectional area of a concrete column, it means extra sand, extra aggregates, extra cement, sometimes extra iron bars to reinforce, extra paint and extra labor. All these increase the cost of the building. Some of the buildings have so many columns - redundancy! In addition to their ubiquity, some of the columns block views to the outside from balconies or windows! Form not following function.

As we drove around my hometown, I saw many buildings under construction, with steel reinforcement bars(rods) jutting out. The size of reinforcement bars I saw were just mind boggling. You could use those bars to reinforce bunkers! Clearly, the larger the size of rebars, the higher the cost. When unnecessarily large rebars are used for residential buildings, they are exponentially increasing the cost of a building without commensurate increase in functionality. Even some floor slabs(decking), are so thick that one wonders why.

In other instances, I saw homes where electricity is needed, in broad daylight, to see in the corridors, hallways, walkways, and utility rooms, the result of insufficient window openings. Those homes cost a lot more to operate because electricity has to be on all the time for lighting, air-conditioning or for fans. The owners pay high electricity bills or must buy costly generators to run the homes. These are just a few of the issues.

A few months ago, in collaboration with a young architect in Nigeria, we completed the design of a two-story residential building. I insisted on cross ventilation and natural lighting for all nooks and crannies of the building. The final design is aesthetically pleasing, functional and cost-effective. These attributes are not mutually exclusive.

In conclusion, let me emphasize that design of superfluous buildings is not always the fault of the designer. Sometimes, clients tie their hands by asking for specific features in their buildings; features they may have seen in another building and liked. To satisfy the client, sometimes designers reluctantly oblige. Designers must however continue to resist this so that buildings they serve up to clients will be cost effective and yet aesthetically pleasing and functional.

In part two of this commentary, I will discuss how the concept of Value Engineering is used to reduce the cost of a finished design, before construction starts, by as much as 20% or more.


Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War