The Elegance, a commercial building in Nairobi, Kenya, designed by Aleem Manji Architects, broke ground in February 2016 and has already garnered the attention of the architectural world with two prestigious award nominations.
The design principle of The Elegance is fairly simple; the office floor level plates rotate at the centre by around 5 degrees clockwise with every additional floor, akin to a deck of cards being fanned out from the centre. A challenge with this system was the sheer length of the cantilevers at the upper floors, which lead the architects to rethink the structural, and in the process, the building itself, and how it could be made better and more efficient. This led to the practice working with systems which are new to the Kenyan market
The client, M/S VeePee Developers, required a commercial building that was initially expected to house a Ground Floor and Mezzanine Showroom Space of around 10 000 square feet; office space of approximately 70 000 square feet; and parking facilities adequate enough to park three cars for every 1 000 square foot of commercial space.
The brief evolved over the design stage, but some of the brief requests that the architects were tasked with paying particular attention to were to create a potential landmark in the area. The area itself (General Mathenge Drive in Westlands) is fairly close to the CBD area of Westlands, which teems with commercial office space. The client required a building that would set itself apart from the other office spaces and give itself top of mind awareness with any potential buyers.
Additionally, the client was interested in a building solution that would assist in reducing the requirement for mechanical ventilation within the offices, while Aleem Manji Architects were also tasked with looking into non-traditional building systems in the hope of erecting the building as efficiently as possible, without compromising on building safety and efficiency. Provision of some green areas around the periphery of the floor plates was also specified; these could be by way of balconies or shaded courtyard spaces, depending on the final design footprint.
At the design stage, the architects focussed initially on the massing of the internal spaces, while looking at the relationship between the spaces and the circulation volume. The massing requirements focussed primarily on capturing the area requirements, thereafter evolving them into a finer design.
The initial iteration of the design revolved around exploring the possibilities of an organic footprint, and analysing its impact on the overall design. They started off by evolving a template, which progressively regressed inwards from floor to floor. They also allowed for marginal terrace space facing towards the road, which would be built as green garden spaces. Further iterations of the design centered around the usability of the spaces by way of partitioning the floor plate into smaller spaces as well as shifting to a more orthogonal approach as opposed to a curvilinear design.
The fourth iteration brought in an alternative facade design based on the same plan. This design sought to be simpler than the original, with more emphasis on visibility through the glazing and a subtle mix of materials and textures. Corian facade elements were introduced to give a pop of colour, and the smooth texture of the Corian was given a contrast with the use of a signage wall the entire height of the structure, which would be clad in Slit Stone Cladding.
The final client approved design was an evolution of Iteration 4. The fundamental change between the final design and Iteration 4 came as a result of two factors: market analysis and consultation with the local County Council leading to an increase in built up area, resulting in two additional floors of office space. Consequently, there was a need for additional car parking space, and additionally the decision was made to increase the parking ratio from three per 1000 square feet to four per 1000 square feet (for enhanced sales appeal), leading to an additional two floors of mezzanine parking.
The site of the project is located in the Westlands area of Nairobi, which is fast becoming an extension of the main CBD in as far as high rise offices and apartment blocks are concerned. It is located on General Mathenge Drive.
The area is primarily associated with mid to upper income dwellings and offices.
With the revised zoning of the area by the County Council, the area is expected to see prolific growth in high rise apartments and offices. The site itself is bordered by General Mathenge Drive towards the south of the site, requiring a building line of 9m to be left from the road. The development itself has been located centrally on the site, leaving room for the building line, as well as the requisite by-law requirements for siting.
The General Mathenge neighbourhood recently underwent a rezoning exercise which allowed multiple residential units and high rise commercial units. As a result there is expected to be a proliferation of high rise building in the area over the next five years or so. Having said that, the majority of the structures in the area are still low rise residential homes.
The location of General Mathenge is somewhat unique, in that it is a direct link between the new Westlands CBD commercial area, and the mid-high income dwelling areas near the CBD. As such, the road itself has and will have a mix between commercial and residential properties, with the commercial properties being located closer to the CBD area, and the residential further away from the CBD
As a result, the typologies of structures in the area and surroundings tend to vary fairly drastically, ranging from single family units such as: to low level commercial developments (2-3 storeys at most)
The change in the zoning led to a larger variety of typologies being introduced. As would be expected, the area is still looking to develop its own character. Various distinct design languages have been implemented within a kilometre radius of the site, leading to a vibrancy of design languages, but unfortunately without what would be described as a distinct vernacular style.
The absence of any distinct vernacular language allowed the architects to select a language that would fulfil the brief of the client; that of creating a unique design that would, hopefully, become a landmark in the new burgeoning neighbourhood.
Key areas of the project
Broadly, the scheme can be said to have two key areas, namely the Parking Areas and the Office/Showroom Areas. The Parking Areas are split into two sections: The Basement Parking and the Mezzanine Parking. The provision of ample parking spots was one of the initial design brief items, and formed a critical aspect of the client’s sales plan. As such, the parking solution provided took on added importance to the overall design. The provision of a stacked parking solution led to the creation of higher ceiling heights in the mezzanine floors and basements.
While the basements did not pose much of an issue by way of facade design, the mezzanines did. Aleem Manji Architects sought to soften the bare parking floors by use of Corian Facade elements, using translucent backlit Corian so that the elements would emanate a glow at night.
There are two sections of commercial space: the Showroom Space (Ground floor and Ground floor mezzanine), and the Office spaces. The Showroom spaces are located on the Ground and Ground Floor Mezzanine floors. The reasons for this was twofold: one, the showrooms are expected to attract a high level of footfall, thus ease of access was paramount and secondly to ensure visibility of goods/wares from the main road. The Office spaces are separated from the Offices by the mezzanine parking.
The First Floor is a dedicated floor for Eateries/Restaurants, principally targeted at Fine Dining, Coffee Shops and/or Lounge Bars to target the residents and office users around the area. They have also made use of the slab that covers the uppermost mezzanine parking floor by converting the top of the slab into an outdoor garden seating area that will serve the individual food outlets. This has the additional benefit of ‘greening’ a vast portion of the footprint of the site, as can be seen in the plan alongside.
The Offices themselves occupy the 2nd-10th Floors. They have been arranged around a circulation core at the centre comprising a Staircase and 3 Lifts, one of which is a goods lift. All floors are additionally served by a kitchen area and wet facilities, although individual plumbing points will be provided in each partitioned office. There is also a provision for an additional Fire Escape Staircase, and provision for ducts for Electrical/Mechanical/ICT in the vicinity of the Fire Escape Area. The office floors themselves have been further partitioned to cater for a variety of sizes and buyers, as can be seen in the plan of the Third Floor alongside.
The Main Reception for the building is located on the Ground Floor, immediately prior to the Circulation Lobby. The design Language used was an earthy mix of timber boarding on the backdrop and skirting of the desk itself, black slit stone cladding which we felt tied in with the massive entry wall on the external facade and frosted glass on the desk. The design was finished off with Mild Steel Circular Plates on the backdrop and Round Gypsum Bulkhead to reflect the circular motif on the outside. The deliberate use of skews on the desk elevation abstracts the skews of the floor plans as they progress upwards.
The circulation spaces were designed with a similar material palette to the Reception area: The floors were designed with Porcelain Tiles and Timber Boarding, while the partitions were designed to be mainly Aluminium/Glass walls with selective use of either Timber clad or Slit Stone Clad Gypsum infills.
Although Nairobi’s temperature through the year are fairly moderate, there is a slightly high diurnal range, especially during the summer season. Additionally, being fairly close to the equator, the sun’s path is mostly East to West.
The majority of the energy consumption in commercial buildings comes from Internal Thermal Control and Lighting Requirements. In Kenya there is a prevalence of using artificial cooling (air-conditioning) to regulate internal temperatures, especially during the summer. Additionally, there is some use of artificial heating in the form of electric heaters during the cooler evenings. The architects worked on mitigating these by attempting to maintain channels for through flow of cross ventilation through each floor plan; incorporating sun shading elements to prevent direct absorption of sunlight into the windows; the use of materials with a high thermal mass; and the use of a modified stack effect (the central void around the circulation core has vents along the roof level to allow hot air to escape from the roof level, creating a pressure difference in the void, thereby creating a natural flow of air through the void from all the floors, thereby augmenting the natural cross ventilation)
In order to reduce the energy requirement for lighting, they have put in place strategically positioned large windows to ensure that the use of artificial lighting during the day is minimized, along with LED light fittings as standard in all common areas.
The most abundant available natural energy source around the equatorial region is the sun. The design will be utilizing renewable solar energy via Solar Water Heating PV panels for lighting in the common areas: Lobbies, Staircases, Circulation Spaces, Fire Exits etc.
The specification of the Glazing Solution was one of the most important aspects of the overall design. The reason for this was twofold: Firstly, glass formed the primary external finishing component of the building. As such the efficiency of the glazing solution would determine the overall efficiency of the building, both aesthetically as well as environmentally.
Secondly, due to the shape of the plot, there were vast swathes of glazing exposed to the rising sun and the setting sun, and with them came the inevitable heat gain potential within the structure that would lead to an excessive us of mechanical ventilation if not checked.
The architects thus resolved to conduct a solar impact study with the help of Saint Gobain glass, who after location/sun path simulations recommended a specific combination of glazing solutions for the building.
An additional benefit of the double glazing solution proposed and accepted was its acoustic performance, taking into consideration the proximity of the design to the busy General Mathenge Drive.
Innovation with regard to construction needs to be contextualized, specifically with regard to construction practice in the region. In brief, an overwhelming majority of construction within the region is based on Reinforced Concrete Frame structures with masonry infill (in the case of multi-storey structures; low level structures sometimes use wall on wall structures). Alternative materials used as opposed to masonry infill include precast concrete aggregate blocks and interlocking stabilized soil blocks. In rural areas the predominant construction system is still mud and wattle with thatched roofs (for family dwellings), though these are being phased out to single storey masonry houses with corrugated metal sheet roofing.
In this context, the architects have used a few elements of Innovative technology. These elements may be considered the norm in more developed countries, but as of yet haven’t seen any widespread use in Kenya. Some of these elements include:
Structural Support System:
The architects explored and opted for the use of a Steel Structure, as opposed to the standard RC Framed Structure. The reasons have been outlined earlier but in summary are:
– The speed of erection and resultant reduction in construction time
– The ability to cantilever larger distances (integral to the design language), and,
– The accuracy allowed for with steel structure construction as opposed to RC framed structures, where the tolerances expected in the plasterwork were far in excess of those expected with a steel structure.
Currently, steel structure construction is mainly limited to warehousing and industrial projects where long uninterrupted spans are required, and the need for short erection times are paramount. The Elegance will be one of the first projects done in Nairobi to adopt a steel structural system for a building more than 10 storeys in height. Indications are that should it be successful and viable, more will be expected. One of the additional advantages of using a steel structural system has been alluded to above: accuracy. With this in mind, it allowed the architects to explore a couple of other innovations, including a stackable parking solution, and the use of drywalling internally, as opposed to masonry infill, both of which are outlined further in the next few pages.
The Elegance was recognised as the second runner-up in the AAK Awards of Excellence in Architecture 2016 in the category of Best Concept/Ongoing Project. As a fairly young and small firm, to be mentioned in the same breath as more established firms was in itself recognition.
Furthermore, Aleem Manji Architects was also named as a recipient of two Africa & Arabia Property Awards 2017-2018, and will be honoured at the Africa & Arabia Property Awards in Dubai in September 2017. They will be recognised in the Commercial High-rise Architecture category for The Elegance, and the Residential High-rise Architecture category for another project, Rumaisa. The Africa & Arabia Property Awards are judged by an independent panel of 70 industry experts. Judging focuses on design, quality, service, innovation, originality, and commitment to sustainability.
LOCATION: Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya
ARCHITECTS: Aleem Manji Architects
CLIENT: M/S VeePee Developers