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Unique designs draw investors to Nairobi’s skies

By Peter Theuri | March 12th 2020
Modern Nairobi Cityscape

Nairobi’s skyline is fast evolving as new, classy skyscrapers rise to pierce the city’s skies.

The beauty of East Africa’s business hub is being boosted by investors pumping fortunes into real estate and grand edifices adorning the city. And it is not just tall buildings, but aesthetically appealing ones.

The tallest two buildings in East and Central Africa sit in Nairobi’s Upper Hill area.

The 163-metre tall UAP Old Mutual Towers, whose construction was completed in 2016, took the mantle of the region’s tallest building, but the glory was short-lived.

A year later, a 200-metre competitor Britam Towers showed up a few hundred metres next and took UAP Old Mutual’s thunder. The most recent skyscrapers of the green city in the sun include Prism Tower, Le’Mac and FCB Mihrab Tower.

Others coming up include The Pinnacle Tower (70-storey) pinned to become Africa’s tallest, the stalled 63-storey Hazina Towers, the 47-storey Global Trade Centre (office), the 40-storey Montave Southern Tower and the 44-storey Nairobi Condominium Tower.

However, winning the race for the skies was not enough for Britam Towers. In 2017, Emporis, a firm that awards 10 skyscrapers for “excellence in both aesthetic and functional design” globally, ranked Britam Towers 10th on their list for the year.

Britam Towers became the first skyscraper from Africa to get the nod in the 20 years the award has been running.

The 31-floor beauty’s breakthrough showed Kenya is taking the continental lead in architectural creativity and proficiency.

But Africa still has a lot of catching up to do if it has to compete with architectural powers such as the US, China, United Kingdom, France and Italy, which have dominated the rankings since 2000.

Designed by GAPP Architects and Urbanists and drawn by Triad Architects, Britam Towers has three floors below the ground. It boasts 1,002 parking places with eight elevators.

Its construction began in 2013 and four years later, it was opening doors to the public.

In recognising the building, Emporis noted that Britam Towers ‘features a unique prismatic shape’. The firm also pointed out that the scintillating Upper Hill building boasts turbines on the top that generate power — contributing to the tower’s sustainability features.

In the latest rankings (of 2018), normalcy returned. No building from Africa appeared in the top 10. China’s MGM Cotai took the lead, with Emporis praising the building’s conception - a composition of nine jewel-like boxes with cutouts to break down the overall volume.

The building has an atrium, a swimming pool and an exercise facility. It is a 35-floor building whose construction took five years, beginning in 2013.

France’s 31-floor La Marsellaise and 39-storey UK’s 52 Lime Street buildings complete the podium for 2018.

The whole list consists of three edifices from the US. As innovations come up in Nairobi city, it is becoming necessary to produce appealing constructions. Yet the efforts made in creating the appeal might be ignored by those unable to appreciate the beauty at the expense of other factors including location, pricing of rental units and the buildings’ size.

Architectural Association of Kenya President Mugure Njendu noted that high rise buildings give the best return on investment owing to the high price of land in Nairobi.

But their beauty is a plus, and architects have to go an extra mile to achieve this. “High rise buildings offer more visibility, which puts more challenge on the designers to ensure they design buildings that stand out,” she says.

Who are the most potent investors in the country, the people behind the beautiful skyline Nairobi boasts?

“Primarily, corporates who want an architectural landmark in various areas - whether Upperhill or Westlands or any other area. Kenya has also become a regional ideal location for many global companies,” said Mugure.

“Many investors are looking outside their countries to invest in property and Africa, specifically East Africa, is a quickly emerging market in this regard. Considering that East Africa’s urbanisation rate is highest in the world, and Kenya is its economic hub, many investors are injecting capital into buildings in the region,” she says.

AAK last month rewarded buildings that showcase excellence in architecture in the country.

They considered the buildings’ design (innovation, technologies, originality and creativity), sustainability (design, process, lifetime use), durability and the sourcing of materials locally.

“The quality of works presented was sadly underwhelming, especially as the jury knows of projects that would have qualified and where not submitted,” read the jury’s report.

“Besides, the presentation of the projects, especially the quality of drawings, in many cases was poor. In many instances, the quality of the presentations did not reflect the actual projects.” In the best low-income house category, no building qualified for the top award. However, Karibu Homes were awarded in the runners up category, having hit a 60 per cent score.  It was credited for creating a neighbourhood design that is innovative, simple and livable, and also creative use of local materials and texture in the facades. The best residential building was Lake View 29 (studio sketch), credited for its creative design. The runners up was The Hacienda.

Tiara Business Park took the honours for the Best Commercial Building due to its design. It connects with its six surroundings using forms and materials that speak of the building use and where it sits.”

In second place was, curiously, Britam Towers, lauded for creative use of building materials, especially the innovative sun shading elements for climate control.

Others that won awards were Crawford International and Indian Ocean Beach Resort. “The buildings show a very interesting approach to the process of making, using local craftsmanship and combining traditional techniques with a reinterpretation of the same,” read the report.

In downtown Nairobi, another landmark — the CBK Pension House adorns the city skyline. It is the newest beauty, standing shoulder to shoulder with Times Towers.

It was built by Chinese contractor China Wu Yi. Moses Okemwa, the architect behind the masterpiece, says the freedom to experiment with form and material is responsible for innovative high-rises the city is seeing.

Mr Okemwa, who was working with Arprim Consultants says more is yet to come in the metropolis’ skyline. “The design of CBK Pension House is made up of two curved structures, the leaning (in opposite directions) a semblance of two old pensioners whose backs are bent with age. In between is a support system that holds them together, an indication that pooling of resources can save these people in their old age,” he says.

The CBK Pension House’s taller tower has 27 usable floors with three viewing decks above the service floor, while the shorter tower is made up of 24 usable floors above the ground.

He is upbeat that the over 90 per cent of the city’s built-up areas that are made up of low-rises will give way to high-rise buildings. Modern offices, if well designed and when aesthetically appealing, are bound to attract a lot of renters. Availability of support spaces lures in more tenants.

According to Okemwa, buildings are essential elements for way-finding and place-making, noting that Africa’s architecture is headed the right direction. “KICC has for a long time been the face of Nairobi. Africa needs to have a lot of iconic buildings that when seen can be immediately linked to their host cities,” noted Okemwa.

The attractiveness of these buildings means that office spaces are more likely to attract occupiers. “The aesthetic appeal lures more people as they are more alive to good design now,” noted Mugure.

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