What changes in house designs reveal about communities

A mordern house in Lutete, Kajansi

To understand a given society, sometimes all you have to do is look at house designs, building materials and finishings preferred. These are usually an expression of that society’s current socio-economic, cultural and even political state of mind. If you take a step further and dig into that society’s archives by perhaps looking at pictures of its old building designs and styles, you will find patterns that tell a story of that society’s history.

A quick look at house designs, can easily spell out issues such as generational differences, the state of security, economic prosperity and to some extent, the political affiliations of people.

For instance, one might argue that the rapidly mushrooming apartments in some parts of Uganda indicate economic growth, prosperity and stability for a given section of the population. On the other hand, preference of modern, state-of -the art architectural house designs to older designs that were introduced during colonial times by most people today could speak to generational differences in tastes, or exposure to other world styles. This of course is not a definite, but is an interesting way of understanding a given society.

The Ugandan Evolution
A house built in the 1960s and one built today are completely different in design and in many cases, even the building materials used vary.
Dr Assumpta Nagenda-Musana, a professional architect with Technology Consults Limited and a lecturer of architecture at Makerere University’s College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, says the political, social and economic state of the nation is clearly portrayed by the type of buildings that existed then.

“Before colonialists came to Uganda, most Ugandans and Africans in general had their own house designs. Most, at the time, built houses with conical shapes using grass and mud. These houses were round. They reflected our culture and way of life in general as Ugandans or rather Africans,” she says.

“By just looking at the houses built then (pre-colonial times),” Dr Nagenda-Musana adds, “One could also clearly tell the kind of political environment our Ugandan society had at the time. One that was dominated by monarchs and mini-monarchs.”

Some publications such as the Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa by Frederick Lugard and Townsmen in the Making: Kampala and its Suburbs, published in 1922 and 1957 respectively illustrate a shift from house designs commonly used by Africans/Ugandans (conical houses) before colonialists set foot on the African continent, to what they refer to as Western house designs. This, Dr Nagenda-Musana emphasizes, came as a result of most Ugandans getting exposed to Western designs like the French style house design that had large windows.

“Most Ugandans ended up adopting the Western style of building after colonialists set foot in Uganda. Having a house like a bungalow, in most cases, was a show of status. The new house designs were also safer and could accommodate many people,” she says.

Tastes and preferences
Mr Anatoli Kamugisha, a real estate developer with Akright Uganda, a real estate development agency, argues that change in house designs is as a result of tastes and preferences which inevitably vary from generation to generation.

“The kind of designs preferred by people in the 60s may not in any way be appealing to a current generation,” he says.
Mr Kamugisha says preferences are also sometimes dictated by cultural dynamics of different ethnic groups.

“People who belong to a certain ethnic grouping where it is taboo to be in close proximity with in-laws specifically mothers-in-law prefer house designs that allow them to live separately from their in-laws,” he says. The change in tastes on the other hand, Mr Kamugisha adds, is also a result of people getting exposure to house designs from foreign countries.

“Most people think the designs they see in foreign countries look extremely good so they end up copying them without considering the environmental realities back home,” he says.

Some of the trends he says that have been copied by Ugandans are open kitchen spaces and extremely large living rooms among others.
According to another school of thought, the availability of more disposable income could explain the continuous change in tastes and preferences.

Ms Azeda Katende, a real estate agent and member of the Association of Real Estate Agents Uganda, subscribes to this school of thought adding that that income has enabled many Ugandans to travel and gained exposure.

Today, the cost of constructing a basic residential house, according to Mr Ananias Atuhumuriza, an architect with Excite Construction Limited, is dictated by a number of factors including size and type/quantity of materials to be used. It can stretch to Shs100, 000 million and more.

“In the past, it was cheaper to construct a house than it is today because there was cheaper labour and building materials to use. The approximate cost, went up to Shs50 million in 1990s” Mr Atuhumuriza says.

Modern architecture
According to Urban Sprawl and its Smart Management by Mani Dhingra , modernisation in Uganda took shape in 1967 when the Israelites undertook major housing projects like the construction of Bugolobi, Wandegaya and Bukoto flats in Kampala.

This house was built in 1896 by reputable masons, Miller and Stanley, for Zakaria Kizito Kisingiri, one of the three regents to King Daudi Chwa . Photo extracted from : “Sprawl and the City” authored by Dr. Assumpta Naggenda—Musana.

The adaption of modern architecture, Dr Naggenda—Musana says, was part of a wider cultural transformation embracing both creative arts and the Western culture.

She says architects in the modern movement, such as Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier drew strong analogies between architecture and the machine age. It involved the use of new industrial materials such as concrete, glass and steel. Mechanical services such as air-conditioning and piped water were also introduced.

In his book, Lugard also writes that during colonial and pre-colonial days, information was limited among Ugandan architects. This, he says, was a result of lack of adequate training programmes in architecture. He notes that limited technology hindered information sharing.

Ms Susan Atai, an architect with Symbion Uganda limited agrees.
She says, “It was difficult and tiresome to come up with beautiful designs because there were no computers to ease the job. One had to draw a structure, indicate where everything would be placed, do all the mathematics and art designs, indicate the size and type of material such as bricks and nails, among others.”

She notes that a design that would take a year in the 1950s can now be drawn within a day with the use of a computer. People feared to be creative by coming up with beautiful, but sophisticated designs because realizing them was also sophisticated.

“Modern rectangular designs were mostly used for official and administration buildings such as Bulange in Mengo,” Atai adds.
Available literature about the history of house designs indicates that earlier versions of modern structures were mainly rectangular with repetitive pattern windows and doors. Examples of such buildings, according to some architectural scholarly works, include Mulago Hospital, Parliament Building and City Hall.

Tall buildings with sophisticated designs are also popular in Uganda today. Such buildings are becoming common place in all the growing towns countrywide. Dr Naggenda--Musana however argues that tall buildings are not favourable to tropical kind of climate, something Mr Kamugisha disagrees with saying they minimise space.