• Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Nigeria must develop home-grown building technologies to make housing affordable – Osundolire

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The built environment in Nigeria has witnessed some challenging moments in the recent past; from housing deficits to building collapse. In this interview, Ifelanwa Osundolire, a US-based writer and architect spoke on how Nigeria can bridge her housing deficit among other things. Excerpts by JOHN SALAU:

Nigeria has recorded several building collapses in the recent past; what do you think are responsible for these?

Buildings collapse for two reasons: It is either the structural members cannot (or can no longer) carry the load imposed on those buildings; or as a result of natural disasters undermining their stability. To protect the public from the disastrous impact of building collapse, building control agencies in every nation institute and enforce a wide array of building codes. Where buildings pre-date those codes and are not updated; or those codes are not strictly enforced before, during and after construction, building collapse is imminent.

Read also: FG plans affordable housing for low, middle-income earners

On the back of this; what is your view on the regulatory framework in the Nigerian built environment?

The regulatory framework in Nigeria is in fact robust. There are national codes and guidelines written into our laws governing professional conduct in the environmental design and management sectors. I was opportune to provide secretarial support to the Lagos State Technical Committee for Policy Reform on Planning Regulation and Building Control dubbed Lagos Habitat 2011 and this offered a first-hand appreciation of the rigour that went into developing that policy document by the various professionals and professional bodies involved. However, policy is nothing without enforcement and a fanatic devotion to the immutability of the rule of law. If building control policy fails in a state like Lagos, it wouldn’t be because of the inadequacy of the necessary tools of control, it would be as a result of the failure of enforcement and continuous improvement on the existing legislation.

As a professional in the built environment, what are the differences you have noticed on both ends with your time in Nigeria and now in the US?

America has succeeded because of its systems and has benefited from centuries of continuous innovation, while preserving its heritage in the built form, and creating a generally more orderly and beautiful country. Hernando de Soto’s seminal work: The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, explains the potency of the American system better than I can. Paradoxically, the leverage that the robust American system lends it remains its greatest challenge in that untoward practices may find its way into that system and become entrenched attributes that are difficult to rout. Another stark difference is what I would refer to as constipated Capitalism. Most professionals are better remunerated in America because American capitalism puts a considerable mark up on its labour. The challenge with that is the marketability of American labour outside America and a higher cost of living across the board. I know you asked for differences but I would also like to talk about the similarities. From the little I’ve seen, the human tendency to bend the rules for gain appears to be universal. I’ve seen US developers undertake developments without the necessary approvals; county real estate auctions that are undermined by cronyism; and stakeholders that donate heavily to campaign fundraisers so that Aldermen would look the other way. However, what tempers this universal disposition to cut corners is how formidable the American legal system can be. In many instances, perpetrators will suffer the consequences.

People have always talked about the ‘japa syndrome’ as a challenge to the country; how critical a challenge is japa to the built environment?

The most unfortunate dimension to “Japa” is the brain drain. It is like a farm that is turned into a mining pit, where the exhumed soil can never be replenished as fast as it is being depleted. Nothing can grow in such a place. While “Japa” certainly benefits most of the “Japees” it is to the collective detriment of the Nigerian nation. If anything, the “Japa” phenomenon should have been elevated to state of emergency status. The built environment, like any other sector isn’t exempt. When all the best engineers in the country now work on offshore rigs off the Pacific coast, and the left behind have their eyes set on emigrating, there is just so much progress that can happen. Progress requires deep roots and strong boughs that spread outwards, and none of this would be possible with the water lily reverse-civilization into which this whole “Japa” thing has thrust us. I am one of them but the irony is not lost on me. I am aware of the collective price we will pay for not stemming the tide.

Cost of living is now a global challenge; how would you advise Nigerians hoping to migrate to the US or other countries across the world?

Working and living abroad is a different animal. This is a hard truth that most people won’t realise until they arrive at the golden door they’ve always dreamed of. Below some certain income brackets, you may find yourself living from hand to mouth. You may have to start over; you may have to eat your ego and let your past go. Taxes will be a new experience for you when your salary reads $100 and your take home reads $60. You will need to adjust to incessant bill cycles that are such an integral part of the system that it is impossible to extricate yourself from their constancy – student loans, car notes, credit cards, minimum payments – you will need to understand debt and how it works, otherwise you will be mired in it. You may have to contend with reversals of fortune, place and title and unlearn patriarchy and soul deep traditions. If I would borrow an axiom to answer your questions, it would be “Always live within your means,” and lead with curiosity in knowing how money works in your new environment.

On the back of your understanding of both markets; how can Nigeria bridge the housing deficit?

I will have to throw my personal hypothesis out here. I dare to say that the Nigerian housing deficit cannot be sustainably addressed until we have credible data to dimension it; we create a financial system to support it, and develop home-grown building technologies to consistently make it more affordable. In the US, the economic miracle of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the extensive global latticework woven around US mortgages is just phenomenal.

If you were to advise the government, especially the ministry of housing; what would be your advice?

Commission a credible, and continuous data collection; work with the financial sector to develop sustainable Nigerian-style mortgage instruments that can be traded globally, invest heavily in local building material research through leading institutions in Nigeria in collaboration with leading global institutions.