Fitzgerald Chukwuemeka Umah is a Consulting Architect with over 20 years of experience in the building construction industry specifically architecture, project management and construction.
A chartered member of the Royal Institute of British Architects and an international affiliate of the American Institute of Architects, Fitzgerald has been involved in several aspects of the built environment.
Registered with the Architects Registration Council of Nigeria (ARCN) and a member of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA) where he currently holds the chairmanship position of the Lagos State chapter. In this interview with Daily Sun, Umah gave his opinion on ways of making the Nigerian environment more business friendly.
LAF 9.0 is the reboot, the refresher, and the regeneration of last year’s deliberations and charges. Being the Lagos Architects Forum, it is only normal that our primary focus should be on the mega-city’s response. Hopefully, this response would be worthwhile enough to be replicated elsewhere.
We are confident that our distinguished guest speakers would do justice to this topic and provide valuable insight to sustainable implementation. On my part as the Chapter Chairman and for the purpose of this speech, I have chosen to approach Architectural Regeneration from the perspective of growth in the architectural practice, especially in Lagos State. To analyse this objectively, we will need to take a holistic view of the practice in the country.
How have we fared? Is the profession adapting to new stimulus and growing? Are its organs deteriorating or regenerating through autopoiesis? To answer these questions, we need to face some bitter truths. There is no gainsaying that these are challenging times for the profession with new vectors, new challenges, and new stimuli emerging daily that require prompt reactions and necessary evolution. Failure to respond and regenerate into a more resilient organisation can only result in systemic stagnation and eventual decay. This morbid reality could be dispelled by identifying the threats and neutralising them. Here are a few threats that come to mind:
Increased patronage of quacks
Many clients do not see why they should pay more for ‘pieces of paper’ when a guy down the road can do it for one-tenth of the price. They believe this would leave them with more money for actual construction in these austere times. If regulation is lax enough to permit this, then why not? The architect needs to be more responsive and adaptive to these situations to survive. He also has to find ways to plug such leaks in the system.
Lack of awareness of profession
In a largely social media world where regular communication is key to keep one in the eye of the public and where everything is a brand or commodity, architecture has fallen down the pecking order of professionals and so desperately needs to catch up. We have failed to accept that the days when our prominence could be taken for granted are long over. There is also an erroneous belief by clients that technology has taken over our functions and as such our input in the process is overrated. We have not done much to sensitise the general public (who all are potential clients) in this regard. Few appreciate the rigours of the design process, the painstaking efforts to develop and eventually build. Up till now, many clients still wonder why they should pay so much for doodles on paper. Some value the design process only by the number of sheets submitted and not by content. This is a global challenge but architects in many developed countries are finding ways to adapt and educate. Over here, we appear more constrained.
Misconception of sector in various quarters
When I recall how many of the towering landmarks in Lagos were done by local architects in the ’70s and ’80s, I wonder where this notion came from. Probably the propagators feel we have been left behind. Some years ago, a prominent individual asked a friend of mine whether local architects could produce good quality perspectives and realistic 3D animations.
To me, this is more unfortunate than amusing. When you look at it, you cannot really blame him for asking. You cannot fault him for looking elsewhere for a solution, probably because there is no one to educate him. Of recent, we have spent more time on internal bickering than enlightenment while the public waits impatiently or seeks counsel abroad. Houses need to be built. Offices, factories and malls need to be designed and nobody here is telling them how.
Dwindling remuneration of architects
This is an off-shoot of the previous issues earlier mentioned. When fees and commissions drop, staff salaries, increments and bonuses are affected. If we fail to adapt to ensure that conditions remain favourable, it will become difficult to retain good staff and properly remunerate them. There will be high turnover of personnel and lay-offs. These disengaged or disillusioned architects still need to survive and have families to cater for. At that point, the primal need becomes the most important and not professional ethics regarding fees. As more young architects join the job market and struggle for clients on their own, there is more competition over limited commissions and more compromise over professional fees in order to survive. The desire for professional tutelage also becomes less appealing because harsh realities bite. Hence, a vicious cycle is created which can only be stopped by the architect himself. It is our hope that the intervention programme presented to the Lagos State government, if implemented, will solve this problem.
Incursion of other professions into traditional practice of architecture
As the world evolves, certain developments are inevitable that require the architect to become more creative to adapt in order to retain his role or position in the building industry. For example, in certain new methodologies of project management, the architect is no longer the main design developer but just a contributor like everyone else.
Lack of succession plan or effective partnerships in firms
This is a sensitive area in this part of the world, which I recall, was touched briefly by Prof. John Godwin at a Lagos State chapter end-of-year party several years ago. It is not only peculiar to architectural firms in the country but to companies in general.
Dedication and commitment are usually more assured with the promise of reward. When this is lacking, commitment to one’s future in a company is tricky. Thus, there are more sole proprietorships than partnerships in Nigeria. Many global organisations are more confident in engaging partnerships or limited liability companies to handle massive projects for obvious reasons. Evidence of a succession plan, better risk management (for example, if the principal passes on mid-project or is incapacitated) and a need for structure have caused many architects to lose out on bids and other project considerations.
The idea that “I can do it alone” will only take one so far. If Zaha Hadid, for example, had no structure or succession plan, her firm would not still be handling projects posthumously today. In today’s world, brand is everything and her brand evoked confidence, which still keeps her firm afloat, long after her death. This goodwill also ensures that loved ones and staff who have remained committed all those years are catered for so long as they maintain standards.
Hertzberg’s Motivation Theory recommends considerations to ensure our architects and firms continue to grow and regenerate for the survival of the profession. We can no longer continue to pretend that all is well when the profession and environment are suffering.