High, compact buildings that save ground space

Most satellite towns like Ruaka and Kitengela have freehold title deeds, meaning somebody can build, say a single or double-story residential home, and then right next someone comes and puts up a 14-storey building. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

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New zoning laws in the offing for Nairobi

Nairobi could be set for a major facelift after the County Assembly passed a motion allowing the construction of commercial centres and high-rise apartments in its posh suburbs.

The motion, which was passed recently, seeks to introduce new zoning regulations in the city as it grapples with high demand for housing and business premises.

If implemented, it will see drastic changes in developments in Zone 4, which includes Spring Valley, Riverside Drive, Kileleshwa, Kilimani, Thompson and Woodley as well as Zone 5, which includes Upper Spring Valley, Kyuna, Loresho and Lavington/Bernard Estate. Also expected to see radical changes is Zone 15, which includes Dagoretti.

The sponsor of the motion, Waithaka MCA Antony Karanja, said that the increasing city population could no longer allow controlled development in some estates as there is a greater demand for housing and, consequently, physical planning services.

“We are deeply concerned that physical planning throughout the city has largely not kept pace with the ever-changing city landscape and demand for housing, especially as regards the city’s zoning policy, with areas that initially had no proper public infrastructure such as a sewage system not allowed to have multi-dwelling developments,” said Mr Karanja.

He said the high population growth rate was exerting pressure on the low-density residential neighbourhoods, necessitating a review of the zoning policy to allow the development of affordable multi-dwelling housing there, adding that Nairobi has not had a comprehensive plan since the Metropolitan Growth Strategy of 1973.

The rural exodus, which has seen more and more people moving to urban centres in search of a livelihood, has put great pressure on the available commercial and residential space in urban areas countrywide.

Consequently, land, which is fixed factor of production, has become increasingly rare.

The pressure brought about by demand outstripping supply has led to even land that was meant meant for agriculture and other non-commercial uses being hived off to accommodate commercial and residential buildings.

Indeed, sometimes even with money, you are not assured of getting enough land for your intended development.


So, what measures can you take to make the most of this situation, given the rapid growth in real estate being witnessed in many parts of the country as a result of devolution?

Mr Simon Ng’ang’a, a property consultant and the managing director of Granite Capital Kenya Ltd, says there are a number of ways of making maximum use of the land one has, irrespective of its size.

For instance, Mr Ng’ang’a says, a person thinking of building a residential home can choose between a bungalow and a maisonette. The two structures use land differently, with a bungalow occupying more space on the ground while a maisonette extends upwards.

He explains that, usually, an acre of land accommodates eight maisonettes or an equal number of bungalows. However, since maisonettes have two floors, you can build 16 units on an acre, but only half as many bungalows.

“You are better off building a maisonette since it occupies less space on the ground because it extends upwards. At the end of the day, nobody is looking to live in a concrete jungle. You are looking to have a house as well as some green space, instead of having a bungalow that spreads horizontally,” says Ng’ang’a.

Although a maisonette takes considerable space on the ground, it is still better than a bungalow. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH

He adds that flats are another option but adds that most landlords do not go for flats because they would not want to live in the same plot as their tenants. “If you live in an area where you are allowed to rent out, then it might make sense to build as many floors as you wish and then rent out the rest of space because you will still have enough space for your family. So it becomes both your residence and commercial space,” he says.


He further notes that whether you decide to build a residential or a commercial facility also plays a huge part in the amount of space used, and how best to maximise this. So if you are building a residential block, you will want to leave some green space for recreation while such a requirement is not necessary in the case of a commercial block.

“The difference between the two is that when building a residential house, you want to leave enough space for families to relax and play but when building a commercial structure, you want to have as much rentable space as possible.

“For example, if I have a quarter of an acre and I am putting up a commercial building, I would have one or two underground floors for parking and use the space above the ground to build as many units as permitted,” he says. Mr Ng’ang’a notes that another factor to consider is the design of the house, adding that the more compact it is, the more space it saves.

And closely related to the design is the shape of the land. Take, for instance, two pieces of land, one square measuring 100m x 100m and a rectangular one measuring 100m by 50 metres. He says the shape determines how best to design the building, noting that the rectangular piece of land offers you more leeway because of the length.


“With a rectangular piece of land I can do many things. For example, I can build my house in one corner and still have a lot of land left that I can landscape, convert into green areas, or use to put up a gazebo,” says Mr Ng’ang’a.

He recommends that you get a professional architect to design the house for you since he/she will take into consideration the shape of the land and how best to use it. “You should have a house design that is compact, rather than spread out. Involve an architect who will help design a house that makes the best use of the land.  It is really hard to determine what your house will look like without considering the shape of the land,” offers Ng’ang’a.

Mr Reginald Okumu, a real estate expert, concurs, adding that developers sometimes end up using more land than necessary because of extravagant designs that do not make maximum use of the land.

“There are some buildings that, if you enter them through the back, you are already on the second floor and if you enter them from the front, you find yourself on a lower ground floor. So it is possible for the architect or designer to take into account such factors,” he points out.

He adds that optimising design means an investor must take into account the shape and gradient of the property, noting that a flat surface has more space than a sloping one.

“For instance, if you design a circular building, you already lose a bit of space compared with if you are building on a square or rectangular piece of land. There are shapes that optimise space use,” he asserts. Mr Ng’ang’a says another option is to build as many floors as allowed by an area’s zoning laws in order to minimise space use on the ground.

“Zoning rules and resident association rules dictate the type of house you can build. Kileleshwa and Lavington are in the same area but are treated differently in terms of the zoning regulations. Kileleshwa has seen a boom in commercial buildings for sale, unlike Lavington, where you cannot put up a building beyond a certain height.

Buildings under construction in Lavington, Nairobi.


“Most satellite towns like Ruaka and Kitengela have freehold title deeds, meaning somebody can build, say a single or double-story residential home, and then right next someone comes and puts up a 14-storey building,” he notes. Mr Okumu concurs, adding, in addition to building upwards and having as many floors as technology and civil aviation rules allow: “The other way is to go down below the ground and have additional units there,” Mr Okumu says.

Meanwhile, Mr Felix Onyango, the chief executive officer of real estate firm Dominion Valuers and Properties Ltd, further notes that zoning regulations stipulate how much you can build up in terms of the site area.

“Get a prefeasibility report from a consultant to know what is allowed in the area. For instance, is it an apartment, retail or office block? It is important to get such a report because, w you might be planning to build a block of apartments yet that is not allowed in the area, or it might be allowed, but restricts you to just two floors,” Mr Onyango says.

Maurice Akech, a structural engineer with the National Construction Authority (NCA) says that for efficient space use, high-rise or high-density developments such as flats, in which the units are at different levels, are preferable to bungalows, where all the rooms are at the same level, or maisonettes, which have only two storeys.

“As the population continues to grow, there is demand for more space, more housing and the only way to maximize is to go up as much as you can, so we need to resort to skyscrapers instead of bungalows, using the smallest footprints possible. I would also advocate for mixed-use developments so that everything is integrated within the same development,” says the engineer.


However, he warns that the desire to maximise on space should not affect the provision of social amenities such as the provision of water and waste disposal, adding that planning for access roads, especially for residential development, should be borne in mind.

Mr Ng’ang’a also warns against flouting rules, compromising on quality and not valuing people’s lives in an attempt to make the most of the available space. He says that some developers in areas like Zimmermann, Roysambu, Huruma and Githurai have resorted to building flats with more floors than permitted while others compromise on quality in order to build more units by taking shortcuts such as not using qualified professionals in an effort to cut costs.

“Our counties have not expanded enough to supervise construction on their outskirts so there are many buildings that have come up without the approval of the city or the county authorities. Just recently there was a report that more than 600 houses in Nairobi were unfit for habitation,” he says.

Another problem arises when a developer decides to put up a building without the help of an architect, leading to the construction of a substandard building. Mr Ng’ang’a says that the practice is more common among those putting up huge buildings for commercial purposes than among those building rental houses.

“I have heard complaints from architects abandoned projects halfway becaus the owner decided to add more floors than originally planned after have bribing the county officials and felt they were now free to go against the regulations.

“As a buyer or developer, it is important to understand the kind of rules that apply in a specific neighbourhood,” Ng’ang’a advises. Mr Okumu agrees, warning that the quest to have more units might lead to overstepping the boundaries or over designing, that is, going beyond what is structurally sound or allowed, or compromising different aspects of the construction.

“You can compromise quality in an effort to develop as much as you can, but I think you need to balance between the maximum you can do and what is structurally sound,” Mr Okumu says.