HOUSING IS NOT AN ARCHITECTURAL PROBLEM
THE UNENDING CYCLE OF NO SOLUTIONS TO AFFORDABLE HOUSING
It’s 6:30 pm on the last Thursday of my internship at HTL, I’m at the local Addo beach in Ajah, Lagos, a 10-minute relief point from the horrendous studio apartment I lived in. I tucked my legs in the sand and enjoyed the skyline across the lagoon while trying to start a dialogue with the groaning clouds on why she’s about to cut my stay short. In the midst of this, a short scene caught my attention, a young boy pulling his frisky little brother while telling him “mummy said we should go inside the house, rain wants to fall”. I watched as they walked away slowly in back and forth arguments and eventually disappeared into an abandoned ship at the dockyard.
Wait!..he said “the house” right?
This element of shock didn’t last long as I saw many other people in the area doing the same thing as the rain started to drizzle. I walked towards these ships and observed how people had converted and designed the interiors to suit their housing need. I noticed how they carved out spaces and elements from rusted voyages while bringing them together to create multilayered Favelas. Shock, amazed, surprised, wowed, sorrow….I think I felt them all at once. The rain started screaming and I had to run back. I continuously thought about this piece of architecture, not only how low the living conditions were but the sense of creativity that sparks up from informality. At some point, what crossed my mind was “is my studio apartment still horrendous?”. We thank God for life.
You know when you look at some situations, it shows you how helpless your profession is…and with all that knowledge, you can't just provide a proper sustainable solution?…welcome to Nigeria. Let me try and paint this picture for you. Some days ago, the Government increased the Minimum wage to N30,000 which is moderate poverty ($2.7/day) according to the World Bank. Budgeting standard says you should not spend more than 30% of your income on housing (Amadeo, 2018). When you look at this critically, Architects are meant to design “affordable housing" that cost N9,000 per month. Bro, that's not design anymore, that’s a big miracle.
Housing is this dynamic concept that doesn't just involve the physical structure but also the production process and services that make it liveable. These services range from transportation, electricity to other social amenities. In a city like Lagos, a small urban fabric with a 5 million housing deficit continues to struggle with population explosion expressed through traffic congestion, all round pollution and an increase in slums. The irony is, the cheapest housing areas in Lagos are not proximal to central business areas due to the cost and time of transportation. Hence, the increase in housing cost.
Recently, a competition was organized by the Lagos State Chapter of Nigeria Institute of Architects in conjunction with the Sterling bank which focused on affordable purpose-built design solutions to housing needs in Lagos State. This is not the first time we are hearing about competitions like these, it has become an annual celebration of beautiful architectural renderings sprinkled with poverty porn that never actually work in context. It was Bamboo 2 years ago, then Containers last year, what’s it going to be this year? Pet-bottles, Burnt bricks….maybe mud, in a “nice way” though. Don’t get me wrong, these solutions are really amazing generally, but in Nigeria, specifically Lagos, they are worthless as they are trapped within what I call AN UNENDING CYCLE OF NO SOLUTIONS.
From the cycle, Affordable housing solutions spread across concepts of Urban decongestion, Circular economy, Affordable materials, Vertical living, Shared living and so much more. In the process of application, there are impending barriers of Politics, Land, Economy, Culture, and Government which render these solutions unattainable.
- Urban decongestion: It is the idea of creating affordable housing on the outskirts of the city where land should be cheaper but limiting geopolitical factors render services such as transportation inaccessible thus increasing housing cost.
- Circular economy: An amazing concept that suggests that if there are as many buildings as humans in the city, they shouldn’t remain idle but also generate income for sustenance. This is expressed through creating vertical farms, spaces to accommodate various types of the informal economy and so much more. However, erecting these buildings on the outskirts where land is cheaper would cut them off from the economy. In this case, the high cost of land and other unfavourable policies towards the informal economy limit the design’s affordability.
- Affordable materials and construction methods: This should be the most explored concept as it looks at alternative building materials such as bamboo, pet-bottles, containers, etc., and cheaper construction methods such as modular construction. Again and sadly, in trying to apply this, the expense of land within the city becomes a limiting factor. In terms of economy, looking at available material industries and technical know-how, the irony is masonry block is still the most affordable material in Nigeria and it is not even affordable.
- Vertical living: As compared to global Cityscapes, Lagos and other cities in Nigeria are less dense and do not explore verticality. Vertical living is a concept where more high rise buildings are provided to solve housing challenges. Sounds simple right?…but still, you would encounter economic limitations such as the high cost of land, materials and high rise construction. Ultimately, high rise apartments may not be affordable.
- Shared living: This is a concept that explores the ability of people with extra rooms in their homes to engage platforms such as Airbnb in solving housing challenges and generate income. The major limiting factor to this is our culture which places importance on privacy. It can be traced to our traditional inward looking designs and continuous expression in present buildings with an example being our prison-like looking fences. It’s hard for Nigerians to share part of their homes to people they don’t know for a period of time. Trust me,…I get it, Nigeria is a complex place. Combining culture with profit-driven real estate development and other limiting policies leads to a situation where serviced apartments mostly engage in Airbnb platforms with a minimum of $20 per night. You can scroll back to the income metrics I gave before and compare, and you know what that means…..
Exploring other architectural concepts such as micro-living, space transformation, etc., show that the design is still somehow affected by limiting factors in the cycle. It shows how dynamic the housing problem is and why affordable housing in Nigeria (Lagos) is slowly becoming a myth. Last year, I sat at a 9H lecture where the speaker, Stephen Ajadi, pointed out that housing is not an architectural problem. I remember myself grumbling and saying “so what’s my degree for", but I completely agree now. Housing is a dynamic problem that needs all hands on deck which includes mostly the government, real estate professionals and users in general as architects are only a piece of the system that can fix it.
Yes, I know what you are thinking, the Nigeria system is already messed up, so we do nothing? As much as I still look forward to the outcome of the competition mentioned earlier, I think the discourse should now be different. We need to stop looking for purpose-built designs as the solution to affordable housing. The discourse should be how to find loopholes in this unending cycle of no solutions and capitalize on them to solve housing problems. This would include learning from informal settlements, encouraging a setting that provides housing designs with checkmates on these limitations and so much more. We (architects) have to come to terms with this or we would continuously seat in urban classrooms while people in informal settlements teach us what creativity from informality (loophole) looks like. You know, like those dilapidated voyages.
Amadeo. k. (2018) How much rent can Americans afford on minimum wage? retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com