Locally Relevant International Design Excellence
Over the last 30 years of my architecture and design career, I’ve traveled to a number of cities and countries; probably more than I can reliably recall at this point. A number of years ago, I began to approach my business trips a little differently. Instead of the standard business-trip schedule – airport, hotel, office and meetings, hotel, back to the airport – I began to reserve one night to explore the city I was in with the taxi drivers I’d befriend upon arrival to their hometown. When I first started working in Nairobi, Kenya, I doubled down on my strategy. If DLR Group was going to be designing architecture for communities there, we needed to have an intimate understanding of residents’ expectations, and what we should look for in the local design teams we hire.
Young African Leaders Initiative Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi, Kenya by DLR Group. Photo by Jeff Couch.
Doing design work in Kenya is a distinct opportunity to experience a beautiful culture rooted in environmental connection and a group-oriented community focus. A strong connection to nature and local materials is expected to transfer to the built environment. For example, natural ventilation is the preferred cooling system, whereas the United States persistently combats warmer temperatures and powerful heat waves with even more powerful mechanical systems. Of course, this makes sense when examined regionally – depending on the state you reside in, temperatures vary greatly on the heat spectrum. However, in Nairobi, the climate holds steady between 65 and 85 degrees all year round, giving good reason to stay connected with the natural environment. To incorporate this cultural influence into design, our team employs architectural strategies such as rain screens, shade structures, and creative floor plans that permit natural air flow while preserving programming functions. For example, cross ventilation means not only designing buildings with operable windows but including clerestories above doorway transoms so air flows into the core of the floor plates. While the open connections across building interiors help natural air and light travel, it also helps sound travel. For the building to operate harmoniously, we have to program functional spaces in these new buildings very strategically.
Architectural features that can support a building designed for natural ventilation. Image by DLR Group.
This connection to the natural environment extends to the materials we use to build their environment. In Nairobi, the prevailing construction practices favor concrete structures. The material is inexpensive, abundant, locally available, resistant to termites, and malleable to the sophisticated nuances of local construction practices. While they have access to steel and imported materials, concrete also showcases the Kenyan preference to leverage local labor and resources that occur naturally, nearby. As designers focusing on sustainable strategies, we cannot argue this approach: Reducing our reliance on imported materials not only helps support the local economy, but it significantly reduces carbon emissions in transport and the embodied carbon of a finished building or development. One of the most rewarding design challenges we overcome in our practice in Nairobi is finding the best way to apply these local practices to the international influences our clients request.
Maarifa Cavendish University in Mukono, Uganda by DLR Group.
Local Clients Deserve Global Design Quality
Many of our clients are familiar with the DLR Group brand, having spent time in our large retail and mixed-use projects such as the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, and the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. They have seen first-hand our ability to deliver culturally sensitive, and relevant, design solutions that offer visitors a sense of discovery and excitement. In turn, these experiences are shaping the way our clients want to build mixed-use developments in Nairobi. They want world-class destinations while staying true to the Kenyan culture and practices.
With most of our work scaling between 5- and 100-acre mixed use and campus planning sites, it takes significant expertise and experience to develop design solutions that can successfully fulfill these two goals. Our state-of-the-art mixed-use developments consistently leverage local construction practices and materialsto deliver towers between 30- and 40-stories-high that function as the visual identity for brand new community space within the city limits. This also means having boots on the ground. Our office in Nairobi is something suitcase architects - a term often used by our clients for firms that do not have an office in Nairobi – gives DLR Group a unique look at Kenyan culture. Every day our team experiences the navigation, safety, and circulation factors that we must consider to effectively elevate the human experience through design.
Our local design practice in Nairobi is a two-way street. We learn as much from our local partners and clients as they learn from us. Building community with Kenyans and working within the country’s framework has presented our team with design opportunities not previously available to us. By embracing our position as a global, integrated design firm, we are able to balance on the fulcrum of local culture with international standards of excellence.
Read more our international studios, and our design work at the Mall of the Emirates.
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