Can Architects be Meaningful Contributors to the Housing Deficit Conversation in Uganda?

by Bernadette Ssanyu
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“Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results” misattributed to Albert Einstein.

In October 2022, the Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development disclosed that Uganda has a deficit of 2.4million housing units. Knight Frank in their April 6th, 2022, report titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Uganda’s Affordable Housing” estimates a need to build about 300,000 units a year to reduce the gap. Let us assume only 30% of this can be built, other limiting factors accounted for; that is 90,000 units to be delivered annually.

There are about 250 or so architects in Uganda.  In the ideal world, an annual capacity of 90,000 housing units means each architect is required to design, supervise, and deliver 360 units across the country – one unit per day! A herculean task!!!

Some of the barriers to even contemplating this task are rooted deep within the practice of architecture itself and the standard of practice in Uganda. This article shall discuss 4 barriers, largely within the remit of architects. It centres around standardisation and mass production or replication of aspects of architectural processes and the housing unit itself.

  1. The Design Process

Architects are trained to consider each project a custom piece with multiple design iterations, visualisations, and customer signoffs. This process can be tedious, lengthy, and is mostly inside the computer. It is non-responsive to clients’ needs especially those impatient to see shovels in the ground, a bit of concrete and their homes take shape.  

  • Conditions of Engagement & Scale of Fees.

While spending time on the design process, the architect expects to receive a fair sum for their services. The practice of architecture is regulated by law; the Architects Registration Act, 1996, and bylaws from the Architects Registration Board – The Architects Registration (Conditions of Engagement and Scale of Fees) Bylaws, 2009. These provide a minimum fee structure for the services of an architect. The numbers therein are prohibitive for regular wanaichi.

  • Permitting

Besides lengthy design processes, high cost of the service, the customer must pay for permits – computed as a factor of the gross floor area, location and building type. This is another lengthy process as one requires both a development permit and a building permit; processed sequentially. Each permitting period is legally 30 days without deferrals; making these another 60 days tucked on to the schedule – at least.

  • The Construction Process

Academic research attributes up to 33% of building construction waste to inefficient design. Architects are uniquely positioned to understand the drivers of construction waste and identify strategies for waste-efficient construction.

It is important to explore work arounds these barriers and perhaps ask ourselves an important question: Is every project necessarily unique? Must every house be a custom build?

I say not. We can “produce” housing; much like the North American jurisdictions.

The demand for housing in the US and Canada is satisfied by production / spec housing. A homebuilder typically holds housing product inventory. Some inventory already built spec homes from which a buyer selects their preference, arranges for funding, and moves in within days. This business model is risky for ordinary Ugandans as holding inventory requires huge capital investments. NSSF, National Housing and private companies like Nationwide Properties supply this demand. In the other business model, inventory is held in the form of home designs. A buyer, after selecting their preferred plot, selects their preferred home layout, elevation, global & model options. Construction drawings are created within 2 days, approved within a month and construction commences. Such a home can be built within 3- 6 months. At 100 units a year, for a small home builder, can deliver a unit every 3-4 days.

Efficiencies are earned in delivering homes as production units as opposed to custom builds. The outcome is a fairly boring general outlook in communities. But it at least provides partial answers to the question of delivering housing for the masses.

The second business model is less capital intensive and feasible for Uganda’s architects. What pieces of it can be borrowed, customised, and applied in the Ugandan situation? I offer some suggestions for valiant architects:

  1. Even in Uganda, plots are fairly modular, in standard sizes – 50’x100’, 60’ x 80’, 75’ x 100’, 100’ x 100’, etc. For each plot size, create a suite of layouts of homes that are responsive to development guidelines and anticipate site conditions. For each layout, create elevation options for a little variety.
  2. In addition to this catalogue of house plans and elevations, create a suite of interior and exterior finish selections based on what is commonly available and affordable on the local market.
  3. Alongside these products develop core specifications to guide the builder; these can be upgraded for more exclusive projects as required.
  4. Complement this work with that of an estimator to attached prices to the designs & design options. This is a crucial piece to understanding the economics of construction. Plus, it facilitates the conversation with a potential customer whose most pressing concern is “How much?”.

For value addition, the architect must test the product models and continue to refine them in order to hit desired price points. Each additional time you build a unit, there is an opportunity to make it better. Some of the questions one has to ask and answer, regularly are:

  1. What are the pain points in this design? Does it work as intended?
    1. How can we design waste out? Which elements can be standardised for better efficiency? Bathrooms to reduce tile wastage? The roof to decrease lumber offcuts? Mabaati offcuts? Windows to optimise use of a piece of glass, mild steel or aluminium?
    1. What are the alternative, more affordable and available materials? Can we establish relationships with material suppliers and trades partners and secure preferential pricing for our customers?
    1. Does the design support modern methods of construction?
    1. What does your customer need to know about maintaining their home? Are there provisions for additional fixtures, appliances that may be installed at a later date?

Beyond the real of design, an architect can consider strategic partnerships. Now that you have achieved architectural design excellence, can a bank back your work and offer your customers incentives? Preferential mortgage rates? 

Even more value might be derived from engaging local authorities to pre-approve your plans (within agreed parameters). Can this reduce the amount of time needed to approve your typical designs? Can authorities trust you to supervise your projects and deliver quality work? Perhaps your pre-approved designs can be granted a partial permit (to an agreed limit) upon submission to allow your customer start construction right away.

Perhaps… none of those will happen. But it is a vital piece in a conversation we all must participate in if we are to find answers.

Ultimately, the architect develops a tool kit that meets the customer where they are. They are able to answer the customer’s most pressing questions – cost, timelines, and the local authority’s ones too on quality of the product. The turnaround for such projects is incredibly quick. Builder partners also develop efficiency as a result of repeated actions.

Finally, this does not take food from the architect’s table. A custom design for a 3-bedroom house may take 5 days worth of work and it is sold once. If handled as a product, the 5 days go into product development, plus an additional 2 days for refinement and construction documentation each time the product is sold. This shortens design times and possibly approval times considerably. Shovels can hit the ground in 10 days or less from the time a customer walks into an architect’s premises. In addition, once fully developed, a design can be sold multiple times over several years. Consequently, the cost of design per unit is much lower and more accessible to wananchi.

“Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results” so why don’t we change the rules and try something different. Our country needs it.

Arch. Bernadette Ssanyu

Calgary, AB, Canada.

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