Benson Wairegi – How we created the best skyscraper in Africa

Benson Wairegi

From his expansive office at the old Britam House at the junction of Mara/Ragati roads in Upper Hill, Benson Wairegi has an unobstructed view of the massive Britam Tower, one of Africa’s tallest buildings.

The 31-floor building is not only a source of pride to the Britam family but the country as well, having bagged the coveted Emporis Skyscrapers Award, a first for Africa.

The judges were impressed by the tower’s sustainable design that takes into account water and energy efficiency. They were also taken in by the tower’s prismic design where the four corners narrow towards the top, making it a landmark structurein the Nairobi’s skyline.              

When we asked Dr Wairegi, Britam’s group managing director, what this accolade meant for him and the company, he drew attention away from himself, praising the team of experts that made the tower rise to the top.

“Yes, the award is a good thing and a global recognition of what we set out to do. It is a confirmation of our stand on innovation. However, I like to focus ahead on what we can do to keep this fire of innovation going,” he said.

While Britam Tower was constructed between 2013 and 2017, our discussion with Dr Wairegi revealed that the foundation for it had been laid more than 30 years ago.

To understand the roadmap that led to the epic construction, one needs to get inside the mind of Wairegi. Behind the self-effacing honcho is a man of steel who is never afraid of diving into uncharted waters.

One day in 1986, Wairegi brought the board chairman of the then British-American Investments Company, Britam’s forerunner, to Upper Hill. The mission? To show him a piece of land where the company, then domiciled in downtown Nairobi, would relocate.

The chairman, Wairegi said, was perplexed. There were no corporate firms in Upper Hill.

The area was dotted with bungalows that housed top government officers. Wairegi wanted to set shop in an area where men, women and children retired for the night.

“He thought I was mad. How could we leave the core of the city for some virgin territory where no other corporate dared to step in? How would workers get there with no public transport system in place? Where would they eat? But many didn’t know that Upper Hill was being rezoned as a commercial district. I even got word that the British High Commission was interested in putting up an embassy here,” Dr Wairegi recalled.

His persuasion prevailed. But more hurdles lay in the way. The company could not afford the Sh65 million needed to complete the proposed 12-floor building. That was a colossal amount of money back then and a decision was made to build the office block in stages. So dire was the situation that they could not even afford to erect a perimeter wall.

When the office was completed, no tenants were available to take up space. Relief came when the Export Processing Zone agreed to pay rent at the rate of Sh10 per square foot and Sh2 per square foot for service charge.

“It was a case of pushing boundaries by taking calculated risks. It was all about the future vision. The company has now come of age with a diverse portfolio that includes financial management services. We asked ourselves what we could now do to signify this financial strength. Thus the idea to construct the new tower was mooted,” said Wairegi.

Britam Tower,Upper Hill,Nairobi during the launch to potential clients.

GAPP Architects & Urban Designers and Triad Architects won the bids to design the Sh7 billion tower with African features.

Among the green features incorporated in the building include a water recycling system, LED lighting and a spacious atrium that allows more natural light into the building.

The building is said to save 39 per cent on energy and 50 per cent on water in comparison to a typical office building. Britam Tower is also the first office building in the country to receive the final International Finance Corporation’s EDGE green building certification.

“What we have done is to encourage other developers to embrace sustainable practices. While our team of experts went around the world looking for the best practices, we used a local contractor, showing that we don’t need an international company to achieve the best outcomes in the construction sector,” he said. While the tower is a first among equals on the continent, Wairegi’s current concern is how to fill it with tenants.

The Grade ‘A’ office building may be up to 50 per cent occupied, yet Wairegi is not looking for just anyone with some cash to become a tenant.

“We take a long term view of our investments. We know international corporates are looking for such kind of offices. We are not afraid to wait for the right clientele,” said Wairegi.

What next for the Britam boss after the tower? The answer is very much shaped by his current reading: The Mountain Within: Leadership Lessons and Inspiration for Your Climb to the Top by Herta Von Stiegel.

“In the 1990s, I wanted to make British American a number one company in the region. Britam, the rebranded company, is now in seven African countries. I am still climbing the mountain while tagging new talent up the mountain,” he said. “The tower will ensure that Britam legacy lives on and that the company does not join the “corporate graveyards” strewn all over the country.”