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The Architects’ Role in Advocating for a Good Housing Policy for Ghana By: Tony Asare

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It is a huge task to explain to a non-expert that the concept of Housing is not merely the development of houses and the process of providing for housing does not simply get solved by

building houses. As we walk through our cities and we meet people and we must understand that at the close of day the people we see around us return to a place they call residence or abode. They must not necessarily own it and the buildings should not be built by them. The residences in discussion may be a kiosk around Kwame Nkrumah Circle, a plush residence in Villagio or a slum in Sodom and Gomorrah or Old Fadama for political correctness.

Unfortunately not everyone retires to a basic decent house and that simply is a definition of the housing deficit. The definitions could be stretched to inadequacy of the houses, over populated accommodation, unsafe houses, houses without adequate infrastructure and even uncompleted houses.

However in an attempt to solve this problem it must not be politicized and it is my firm belief that Architects and Planners must lead this process with the support of our allied professionals. The solutions must be intelligent, periodically reviewed, all inclusive and cost effective whilst taking into consideration our human resources, research and development, private public partnership as well as public funds and our financial regimes. The solutions may have to come from within the country and foreign simply because the deficit is so huge that the solutions for all housing types would be difficult to come from one the government of Ghana, one company or institution such us State Housing Cooperation or GREDA. It will require a complex syndication of expertise and that can only be guided by a National Housing Policy that stakeholders must buy into and believe in.

It is gratifying to note that a lot of work has been done in this respect. It is not clear whether the policy document has been put before cabinet. However, since 2006 that the policy development started it is likely that it may require review even before taking to Cabinet. With all the controversies surrounding STX and GUMA Housing schemes we have to understand that if the solution is deferred it ends up compounding our housing problem. This situation must be arrested after 50 years of Architecture in Ghana.

To attempt to simplify the problem we should look at the following facets of what the policy document would entail:

  1. Definitions of House Types, the proportional deficits and the projections in the short, medium and long term
  2. Construction Materials Philosophy, Research and Development and the use of indigenous building materials and techniques.
  • Construction Legislations i.e. building codes, building regulations and Building Control.
  1. Capacity of the expertise in the housing industry i.e. from carpenters and masons all the way to contractors and housing finance experts as well as the policy of apprenticeship and capacity transfer for new technologies.
  2. Specifically looking at potential housing stock that is unavailable because of the large numbers of uncompleted house all over the country.
  3. Slum improvements
  • Urban regeneration
  • Infrastructural planning and urban management
  1. Disability and age
  2. Land tenure
  3. Exit strategy especially for development of real estate projects.
  • The prevention of skewed housing development to prevent the creation of a lopsided availability.

 Definitions, House Types et al

We often get the notion from our politicians that housing provision must be 1, 2 or 3-bedroom units. This scope of housing barely satisfies the broad housing need. A housing policy should attempt to clearly define house-types and their classification as well as their availability and demand. This dossier should be thorough enough to cover all the possible spectrum of accommodation that Ghanaians need and must summarize into a technical specification data that should serve as a guide to architects, developers and investors.

These in broad terms must define floor areas, door types, and wall finishes, window types, ceiling finishes, roofing materials, lighting and plumbing. It must define Planning Standards in terms of densification, land sizes and infrastructure availability and more. The vague definitions of low, middle and high income house types cannot serve our purpose anymore. House types have become even more complex and consideration of these house types must be defined according to need, income levels and life styles and even the cultural perspectives should feature strongly.

Construction Materials Philosophy, Research & Development

Construction Materials for Housing in this country has not been seriously driven by scientific process. The BRRI and CSRI have not been able to affect the housing material market and builders and home owners are yet to accept indigenous building materials like pozzolana. We have over the years stuck to 5 and 6 inch blocks for all these years. We have not developed the louver windows beyond what has been there all these years. We have continuously embraced many foreign windows whether they serve our environmental needs or not.

Very few companies have the incentive to venture into new areas or comprehensive research and development due to ineffective tax rebates. Various companies have misused it and therefore a relook at this policy is important to get maximum output for loss. Most Ghanaians are usually not used to change of building materials and methods which is also a disincentive to innovation. Our traditional definitions of what a ‘good’ house is have been static. We have abandoned pozzolana and the use of lime in earth construction.

In this respect, government should be the leader to employ these new methods of construction in the bid to instill confidence in the usage of new technologies and Architects must lead in the specification of these materials and also advocate for their use whenever the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, there should be a policy to force private developers of certain category of housing to use these methods and even go into capacity building for employment for tax rebates as well.

Construction Legislations

Our building codes, building regulations and Building Control does not allow for innovative housing provision. The last edition of the Building Regulation, LI 1630 was last published in 1996 and it is clear that it has outlived its usefulness and needs a complete overhaul. The definitions of what is considered to be basic space are absent and therefore thresholds affect the stock of houses we provide and it certainly does not consider the lower echelon of home owners.

It is also expected that the Regulations would attempt to look at densification thresholds. For instance, if one designs houses with spatial threshold as specified in the regulations the result usually falls way above affordability for rental or ownership for urban poor.

However using data from a recently conducted housing survey indicates that average household spatial use is far below the projected average. A basic 2-bedroom unit that is 50 square meters is considered to be small. However the data reveals that on the average a household uses about 33 square meters. Therefore thresholds for single units could be pushed further down to about 25 to 28 square meters and various house types could be redefined for housing for the bottom of the poor. Another aspect that requires careful discussion is the exemptions to acquisition of building permit. As the law stand institutions such as military and all security housing, all ports, university settlements, mining buildings, buildings for foreign missions, agricultural buildings, kiosks, corn mills, small garages and carpentry shops. This will require a serious review since they directly impact on the urban fabric and the overall housing stock etc.

Capacity

Capacity of the expertise in the housing industry i.e. from carpenters masons all the way to contractors and housing finance experts as well as the policy of apprenticeship and capacity transfer for new technologies. The soft and hard technologies and know how would have to be considered if we have to comprehensively deal with Ghana’s housing needs. The whole spectrum from architects, planners, engineers, suppliers, service providers, bankers and all would need to be innovative about solving problems in order to change the status quo.

A key issue in this process is synergizing all these fields and the architect would have to lead this process. We need to encourage more architects to go into housing finance; especially housing micro-finance, construction, research and development and any other related field in order to affect the market. We also need to spearhead the educational curriculum of our vocational institutions and advocate for policies for improved, recognized and institutionalize apprenticeship in Ghana.

Potential Housing Stock in Uncompleted Structures

The period when one had to apply for application for habitation prior to occupying their houses is long gone and the last time an application was lodged at a municipal assembly on behalf of a client it drew ridicules by a colleague architect. People move into their structures more often these days before they are completed. It is very common to see so many uncompleted houses in our urban areas, on our ceremonial streets, and even government projects for this reason. These buildings have become squatter abodes and sometimes house people with deviant character. This is a result of building owners constructing their structures at a pace that financially suite them.

However, buildings that are not completed on schedule regularly mean a shortfall in the housing stock. A habited uncompleted building means that there is inadequate infrastructure; the quality of the house may be sub-standard. These factors drive property values low and therefore affect revenue for property rates to our various assemblies.

What innovative idea or advocacy programme can architects come up with in order to drastically reduce this phenomenon? Why should architects not intervene in the design process in a bid to reduce this by managing design briefs, educating our clients whilst we also advocate for disincentives for building projects generally in prime areas.

Slums and Urban Regeneration

The phenomenon of Slum upgrading and urban regeneration in urban management is very important with the background that land is generally scarce and existing infrastructure should always be taken advantage of is key. This call for a review of densification, improved services and infrastructure and new structural plans as well as re-zoning should be done.

Architects have at the backs of their minds that slums are almost blighted and generally should be demolished and redeveloped. Experience has shown that this approach just shifts the problem or affects the city negatively. However, slum upgrading particularly approaches the problem by looking at taking advantage of mobilizing small funds and using cooperatives to develop low income housing for the very poor. These buildings are not the conventional house-types and sometimes incremental design approach often yields better results. Architects would therefore have to be abreast with contemporary best practices in order to make meaningful contributions to the debate for a good housing policy.

On the contrary, urban regeneration is a capital intensive venture that requires a very complex mix of all professionals from every area. It is even more complex in our present circumstances where government land is proportionally small and the rest are privately owned. This private ownership consists of family lands and are often third generation ownership or older. Secondly, infrastructure may be old and increased demand on services calls for a complex collaboration between Metropolitan, Municipal, District Assemblies, PWD, Services Agencies such ECG, GWSC, Ministries of Works, Housing and Water Resources, Local Government and Professional Bodies such as GIA, GhIE, GIP etc. However, the vision to create a sustainable city which is aesthetically pleasing should be led by Architects and Planners. Do we have to still sit on the fence after 50 years?

Disability and Age Recently at a review of the review of the Disability Act 705 with the Ghana Federation of the Disabled it was evident that designing for the disabled is becoming more complicated. Architects and Planners usually plan for physical disability and visual or hearing disabilities does not feature strongly in design considerations. However, with the passing of the disability law a host of design consideration would be required for especially public buildings. We should be prepared to improve our knowledge in some of these areas to be able to serve the disabled and the aged. The ARC and GIA would be required to organize seminars and workshops to educate members in these new laws. It should also be included in the curriculum of Professional Practice Examination as well.

Exit Strategy

Finally, a look at real estate projects such as Sakumono Estates and Regimanuel Gray Estates and post construction management of the two tells part of the story. Waste collection is a problem, common areas and facilities such as walkways, streetlights and even remodeling is so contrasting that developing and existing strategy should be made a must for real estate projects. We should clearly have laws that will help preserve and sustain residential areas. Architects should advocate for what developers will do with Landscaped Areas, walkways, street lighting, space left over after planning and areas that could be used if there are disasters. The planning application presently demands these to an extent; however we should press for a dossier of various disaster management protocols for these small settlements.
After I returned home in February 1956 from the United States of America, having received a Bachelor of Architecture, Howard University Degree in 1954 and Post Graduate Certificate, obtained in 1955 from the Interamerican Housing Center, Bogota, Colombia, South America on a United Nations scholarship, I discovered soon thereafter that I was the first and only U.S. trained Gold Coast Architect with a professional Degree. I became, also, aware that there were a few U.K. trained Gold Coast Architects who had obtained non-degree professional Architectural qualifications. Given the environment I encountered upon arrival in the Gold Coast, certain concerns became evident in short order. Among those concerns in the Gold Coast were: 1. Registration of Architects as Draftsmen by the City Engineers Office, Accra where I was registered as Draftsman No. 95. 2. Architects’ drawings for building permits were being vetted by Draftsmen for the City Engineer’s approval. A very unusual, clumpsy, awkward and wrong practice which needed to be remedied expeditiously by restructuring the City Engineer’s Office to include a City Architect.

Conclusion

In congratulating the Architect as we celebrate 50 years of serving Ghana we need to step beyond site analysis and take charge and become industry leaders which is our birth right. We should be seen to be innovating and crafting our urban and rural areas for the next 50 years. When the time comes for us to celebrate our 75th Anniversary we should look back and lift our head high in pride and pat ourselves in the back for an improved service to Ghana. Our country should have been made more attractive and a place of pride. Our visionary leadership would have been entrenched and we should be designing post modern cities and buildings. Let the sketches begin. Congratulations Ghanaian Architect, Congratulations Ghana Institute of Architects!!!