An architect’s life – Business Daily

Architectural Association of Kenya President Wilson Mugambi during the interview at Under the Radar hotel, Nairobi on February 9, 2022. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG
Wilson Mugambi is at a point in his career where he can play golf in the morning, go back home to rest, and —if he has no pressing business engagements —call it a day.
On the morning I am meeting him at a restaurant in Nairobi’s Kilimani, the president of the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) is supposed to be golfing with his friends at Sigona.
“We couldn’t play because one of the key guys hadn’t arrived from Mombasa,” he explains.
Three things strike you about Wilson when you interact with him: his athletic build, tranquil temperament, and depth. He is also social, a side, he says was enhanced through sports when he was younger.
“I played football, basketball, and rugby in school. I was the best in high jump.”
Today, though, sports feature less in his life. “Working out and playing golf are the only physical activities I engage in. The thing with golf, unlike rugby, you can play until you’re 90.”
He took over at AAK last year, at 38, becoming the youngest male president of the 55-year-old organisation. I wonder what leading older professionals mean to him. He says it is humbling.
“It’s a testament to their faith in me. I went in unopposed. But this also comes from years of mentorship, having been a registrar at the association from 2013. It all started in student leadership in university.”
The co-founder of ArtCore, a design and construction company, would later be elected as a council member of the East Africa Union of Architects.
“Whenever my seniors compliment me for the job, I know it’s because of the support they’ve given me along the way.”
We are meeting only a few days to Valentine’s Day, and I cannot help asking what his love language is. Wilson fidgets in his chair.
“I’m a giver,’’ he announces after a momentary silence. “I like to give my all to people, especially those that I care about. I hang out with my family and friends, to discuss life and business and to have fun.”
He tells me he will not be around on Valentine’s Day this time, though, as he is part of a delegation travelling to the United Arab Emirates ahead of the Dubai 2022 World Expo. “I’ve organised some gifts to be delivered to my wife.”
His predecessors at AAK (Emma Miloyo and Mugure Njendu). Is there a tinge of admiration about how they ran the organisation?
“I know focused people in life, but these two exemplify this value. Both enhanced the profile of the association. Being the first female president of AAK, Emma made sure it was a 21st-century organisation, by having the right structures in place, which was a big milestone.”
His vision for AAK? To build collaborations with other stakeholders “to bring value to the built environment” he says, because “AAK does not have a monopoly of knowledge and expertise.”
The association has partnered with several stakeholders in a slum upgrading project to improve the quality of life for dwellers.
“This partnership is looking at housing and the environment, but also basic infrastructure such as access to water and electricity.”
They are also working on a design prototype targeting government’s affordable housing programme with the view of “bringing the cost of construction further down.”
“The world’s construction industry is going digital and into 3D printing. Soon we’ll break ground on the first fully 3D printed house in Kenya through one of our partnerships,” he says, noting that this space has more, bigger opportunities for professionals.
Architects and engineers are traditionally somewhat uptight and introverted. Wilson says architecture has the science and art sides of it, and that he is inclined more to the artsy side of things.
“Architecture isn’t all about straight lines.”
One moment he talks about rectilinear and curvilinear boxes and other organic objects in architecture lingo and memes on social media the next, all with a startling fluidity.
“I’m a bit contemporary and liberal in my approach to design, and that translates to my personality. I’m not strict in terms of how things should be.” Architecture, he adds, is not for the strict but for the passionate.
Many Kenyans go for pitched-roofed, simplistic, and straightforward homes at the expense of thoughtful, classy designs with flat roofs, clean lines, and many large windows. Why is this so? Are Kenyans utilising architects?
Wilson says it is a question of exposure and preferences. “The client is king. Usually, someone will see a [concept] somewhere and ask the architect to design the same for them. This denies me my creative freedom.”
Then some feature imaginative designs, but all of which look like they were developed from the same brief. It is the case with townhouses in Nairobi —many look like replicas.
He insists that homebuilders should always communicate their needs to architects for professional advice. “If you can afford to build a home, allow the architect the freedom to meet your spatial needs with their creativity. No decent architect will misadvise you.’’
When I observe that the cost for modern designs is higher than for contemporary ones, Wilson explains that it is the nature of finishes that determines the overall cost of a house.
“The architect only designs the structure. Then a quantity surveyor does the breakdown of costs (bill of quantities). The client can then choose to proceed with or to scale the project.”
Still, he emphasises the need to focus on quality rather than “being fixated on the budget” element, saying that Kenya can challenge the West in its architectural output.
Married for 11 years now, has two daughters, nine and three, he says his home is run like a system, with his wife as the fulcrum of operations. “Our system is one of openness and efficiency. We’re not too closeted on any particular expenditure. We like to enjoy ourselves as much as possible.’’
Every day, the architect hits the gym at 6 am before taking his daughter to school at 7.30 am. By 8 am, he has started his meetings of the day.
“I am mostly on site in the afternoon based on what project I’m working on at the time. Thereafter, I attend meetings until 8 or 9 pm and go back home in time to see my children to bed.”
As an insider, is he proud of where the architectural landscape of the country is? It’s a mixed bag for Wilson.
“In the high-end side of the market, apartments, mixed-use structures, skyscrapers and malls, we go all out. It’s in the low-end market segment where we overlook creativity and go for one-size-fits-all designs.”
He argues that there is “a certain level of closet-mindedness” that Kenyans must get rid of because “we’re the hub of East and Central Africa.”
Then there is the question of capacity. Kenya has under 2,000 architects against more than 10,000 in Egypt, for instance. “It’s easy to see the impact of having more architects in this country.”
After eight years as a golfer, playing twice a week, the sport has become a release and an escape for him. “As you walk and enjoy nature, it cools you off. When playing golf, you’ll never touch your phone. You also meditate. It’s a form of therapy. When I’m not playing, my wife gets concerned.”
He adds that being a member of a golf club ‘‘keeps you from breaking your bank’’ to play a round goes for only Sh1,000 and an extra Sh1,000 in caddie fees.
Wilson often plays with potential clients. Golf, he notes, allows one to permeate the minds of people.
“Watching someone’s behaviour on the course is important. You can tell if they’re aggressive or sneaky and other such qualities. By determining their character, you know what approach to take when you finally get down to business negotiations.”
If he could play with any personality, it would be Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa or British billionaire Richard Branson. “I’d want to have an easy chat with either of them just to pick their brain.”
If he was not an architect, Wilson would most likely be a property developer. “I’m fortunate to have doubled into the construction space. I’ve designed and built some of my projects.’’
He does imagine, though, how his life would have turned out had he pursued a career in sports. “I’d an opportunity to train for Team Kenya and become an Olympian, but I let it go,” says the man who was the base performer in his school choir.
Kenya’s built environment, especially in urban centres, is characterised by cutting corners, illegal approvals, and outright flouting of building procedures, with corruption at the centre of it.
To address the chaos, he prescribes three solutions: accountability, strengthening of laws, and enforcement. “We need to shake off the mindset that when you’re wrong, you can get away with it because someone will always be willing to look the other way.”

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By Kwetu Buzz

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