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Charting the course for women architects

Mugure Njendu, architect and urban planner, Gitutho Architects and Planners who is also AAK secretary, talks about her career and why more women are welcome to join the industry

Tell us about yourself and the company you work for

I am an Architect and Urban Planner and a Director of Gitutho Architects and Planners Limited (GAPL). The firm has been in business for 36 years. I joined them in 2006 and became a director in 2011.

The firm has a diverse portfolio of projects including commercial, residential and institutional and health projects in Kenya and the greater East African region.

How did you get into architecture?

My father is an architect and I developed interest as I grew up. I always had an interest in Art, Physics and Mathematics. Architecture was a natural progression for me.

I studied in Boston, Massachusetts and Miami Florida for my Masters in Architecture, Suburb and Town Planning. I love travelling and the cultures you experience in different cities— building designs, public spaces and how cities grow.

What motivated you to get into this sector considering that it is widely known to be male dominated?

It was a natural selection for me based on my interest and talents. Yes, it was a male-dominated sector, but that is changing. When I undertook my registration exams, out of close to 50 candidates, only four of us were women.

Today, the ratio is much closer to 50/50 which I am particularly proud of as a leader within the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK).

Ensuring you are visible, as a female architect, makes the career more accessible to other women. If they see us doing it, leading in the association, they know there is a personality that can identify with their own challenges.

What challenges do you face?

The built environment is a very dynamic sector. We engage with clients, financiers, contractors, government and parastatal representatives, contractors, other consultants, and fundis on site.

Common challenges are coordinating these teams of people as the Project Architect and dealing with different personalities and objectives.

Specifically, as a woman, there are moments that you have to work harder to prove yourself more than your male counterparts. I consider that a challenge one can rise up to, not a hindrance.

What kind of works in your portfolio are you most proud of and why?

I have been registered for 10 years and I am privileged to have been engaged on interesting projects. Our firm is the architect for the Post Modern Library at Kenyatta University.

This project has been featured in numerous publications and features, primarily for the design of its hyperbolic parabola roof, translated into skylights, which is unique in Kenya.

There are a number of projects I am proud of, from a home renovations project in Runda to a residential home in Kilifi and most recently, the administration building for the University of Embu.

I am privileged to call many remarkable institutions my clients, and for the faith they accord me in executing their visions.

Are there untapped opportunities in this sector?

As consultants we are now thinking outside the box. Architects have become innovators in building products, engineers in building technology. In the past, we have strayed away from tasks outside our main description.

If you, for example, have financial or legal training, you are able to view things more holistically and see the impact of decisions made on projects from an early stage.

What are the misconceptions about working in your sector?

There is a wrong belief that architects and other consultants make lots of money and that you don’t have to pay if you can get someone cheaper to do the same thing.

Like most designers, architects suffer from the design-for-next-to-nothing syndrome. I think the biggest take away is that cheap can be very expensive.

We have seen the recent building collapses in our city. A large percentage of the buildings put up in Nairobi have no consultants on board. We are taking huge risks.

Would you like to see a medical quack plod your body? Neither would you negotiate consultant fees with your doctor, because your health matters. We would like to see the same approach when it comes to construction.

Define your work

I think it would be a focus on the best quality for the best value, and our focus on designing sustainable buildings, which are low-cost to operate based on decision made in the design phase. We believe that beautiful does not have to be costly.

If you weren’t an architect, what would you be?

Probably a struggling artist. I say struggling because I love art, to draw especially, but I don’t think my work would be good enough to make a living out of. And an activist as well. So, maybe a struggling activist artist.

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