Since the founding of united➃design last year, we’ve been busy planning projects in two different parts of the world, Afghanistan and Niger. In Afghanistan, we have been developing educational infrastructure for women and girls, while our project in Niger has challenged us to consider the growing need for housing in West Africa. One million inhabitants live in Niger’s capital, Niamey. The city’s population is expanding, along with the country’s economy, which the World Bank forecasts to grow at a rate of 6% over the next year. Although it’s the capital of one of poorest countries in the world, the entrepreneurial spirit found in Niamey reflects that of other West African cities, and has cultivated a thriving middle class.
The middle class in Africa
In the US, imagining middle class life in Africa may be difficult, mostly because the media continually presents us with images of starving children or war torn villages–but statistics can help us to reframe these stereotypes. In 2012, for example, the African Development Bank reported that Africa’s middle class amounted to a third of the continent’s population, putting it on par with China and India. These numbers are impressive, but it’s important to define “middle class” in this context, which is considered to be the amount of disposable income a person has to spend on extras, such as a mobile phone, or a cup of coffee. Right now, most middle class Africans have a disposable income between $2 to $20 a day. That’s a wide range, but it means some people are now able to afford a modest home.
Global development and architecture
And here’s where architects should enter the story, but they don’t. Despite the acceleration of building activities and population growth in many African cities, the ratio of trained architects per capita is very small. For example, according to the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, there is an average of one architect for every 60,000 residents in Kenya, compared to Washington state in the US, where there is one architect per 1800 residents. A lack of architects (and planners) is only one factor contributing to a disturbing trend of poorly planned development. As Andres Lepik observes in his book Afritecture, “…'building' cannot always be equated with 'architecture,' and the African situation betrays similarities with those in many Asian and Latin American countries: where formal planning measures are being implemented, and the breakneck growth of megacities is being guided to an overwhelming degree by politicians, building developers, and investors.” This results in projects such as the 'new towns' in Angola, funded by Chinese investors, which are clearly a repetition of what has already been occurring in China for years. It really doesn’t matter if a project is being built in China or Africa, it all looks the same.
Housing for middle class families
Large scale planning that ignores local needs and cultural traditions concerns us. Fortunately, Niamey has yet to see its first mass housing project, but we know it’s only a matter of time. As a small firm, we can only engage the issue at a reasonable scale, so we have opted to develop a multi-family housing prototype for middle class residents. Located in a neighborhood called “Niamey 2000,” the development is comprised of six units, with a total of 2000 m2 (around 20,000 sf). Right now, we are only developing half of the site, but if all goes well, we will also build the second half, making this the only densely planned housing project in the city to date. We are excited to be the first architecture firm to address the demand for this type of middle income housing in Niamey.
Contextual and Contemporary
Understanding and responding to the immediate context is important, and the project’s vocabulary is inspired by the traditional architecture in the area.
We plan to use as many local materials as possible. This is important, because Niger is landlocked, and most industrially produced building materials (other than cement) are imported into the country, making them expensive. Luckily, there are several promising low-tech materials that are available locally, such as laterite, an earthen material that can be formed into unfired bricks. We have also been considering handcrafted mats and artisanal leather for certain areas of the project. united➃design will be in Niamey over the summer, so stay tuned for our posts while we are on-site seeking out experienced craftspeople, local materials, and inspiration for the project!