James N Gitoho is an architect and urbanist behind some of the most outstanding buildings making up the Nairobi Skyline. He currently serves as a senior architect and a director at TRIAD architects, a position he has held since completing his Bachelors of Architecture, (B. Arch.) degree from the University of Nairobi in 1981. Before Joining University of Nairobi, James attended Pumwani Primary School, Nairobi Technical high school (currently the Nairobi Technical Institute) for his secondary education and was later admitted at the Jamhuri High school where he did his A-Levels.
James N Gitoho is a born architect with his artistry deeply embedded in all the buildings he designs “I always had a sense of the environment, detail and the passion for the built environment. Growing up I enjoyed outdoor activities and was a boy scout in primary school; building and construction was part of my upbringing together with my brothers who are now structural engineers,” James explains.
TRIAD Architects was a natural progression “I remember meeting the late Arch. Daniel Mutiso, who was one of the TRIAD directors and an external examiner at the university at the campus car park, at the time I was busy looking for a job, our brief interchange turned out to be an interview and my entry into TRIAD Architects, today 36 years later I am certain that it is the best decision I ever made. TRIAD Architects has become a part of me,” James adds.
With all Architecture accolades he has amassed it is impossible to believe that his first career choice was mechanical engineering. While at Nairobi Technical School, he desired to be an aeronautical engineer. James would later apply for both engineering and architecture only to be accepted to pursue the latter.
“After joining campus I was set on changing to the engineering Faculty and I planned to go meet the Dean, as fate would have it I found a very long queue and by lunch break I had not yet been allowed in. The same afternoon I attended induction at the Faculty of Architecture and I chose to continue with the program. Today, looking back I am certain that it was nature’s way of leading me to the right decision, the opportunities that followed for internship at Mutiso Menezes International and the Ministry of Works only cemented the path I had come to love, Architecture” James says.
With an outstanding foundation at the University of Nairobi and aggressive mentorship at TRIAD, James rose up the ranks at the firm steadily. Seven years into the firm and at the age of 32 years, James was invited to join the partnership. In the same year, a design competition for the now Barclays Plaza building was called and TRIAD was amongst the four firms invited to participate. James was the partner in charge and his design concept was selected and TRIAD commissioned.
“Barclays Plaza was the stamp of acceptance I needed in the industry at the time. I built it as an environmentally friendly, handicap accessible unit, a first of its kind in Kenya.Today 23 years later it still stands iconic, a defining part of Nairobi and a great source of pride for TRIAD and great tribute to our directors at the time including the late Daniel Mutiso, David Bristow and Tim Vaulkhard,” James says.
James work has been described as futuristic, unconventional, daring and artistic. To name but a few of his projects; the Times Tower Building, Sarova Mara Game Lodge in Maasai Mara, William Holden Wildlife Centre in Nanyuki, Murang’a & Narok Teachers Training Colleges, 40 branches of Kenya Commercial Bank, (KCB); refurbishment and extensions to clinics in the Rift Valley, a number of Barclays Bank of Kenya branches across the country and the Ruwenzori House (Uganda).
James has also championed the building of CFC Bank headquarters along Chiromo Road, Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) headquarters and Deloitte Place. Most recently, James and his team have worked on the UAP Tower and Garden City project phase 1 among others. Currently, they’re working on the Garden City Mall Phase 2, the Britam Tower and the Avic Tower among others. Notably, UAP Tower is currently the tallest building in the country at 33 storeys. Its execution has also seen the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority policy on heights of buildings in Upper hill area change from 36 meters to 360m. This coupled with enhanced plot ratios has seen the emergence of designs of 40 to 60 storey towers (yet to be built). “Our building codes and regulations are outdated and we have to refer to international best practice, and either the British or American codes.” James notes.
“I always wanted to be involved in design of projects that resonate with people’s welfare e.g. schools & hospitals. I especially appreciated rural projects away from Nairobi’s concrete jungle though I found most government led projects needed more documentation and processes that absent in the private sector. My career has been fueled by the incredible support and mentorship offered by our management team including the late Mutiso’s business shrewdness and client interaction, Tim’s financial prowess and David’s sensitivity to design,” James notes.
James work matched with TRIAD’s vision to build legendary architects led to his inaugural accolade at the prestigious commonwealth scholarship award in 1991, an award scheme aimed at creating a Commonwealth understanding within the Commonwealth countries. As a good will ambassador, he traveled to England with twelve other recipients of the scholarship to learn about the workings of the Commonwealth, they were hosted by the Queen as the head of the commonwealth and commissioned to go out to Commonwealth countries in the pacific to promote the ethos of the Association.
“TRIAD is amongst the few firms in the industry that has a definite succession plan. The partners span the four generations with an 8 to 10 year cycle. My appointment as a Director in the firm encouraged me to invest my time in the firm to date. Industry performance will be guided by individual recognition with the firm, the kind that will push them to become better in the field,” says James.
James passion for order, integrity and professionalism led to the certification of TRIAD as an ISO 9001-2008 certified company since 2001. His passion for building sustainable communities saw the launch of the TRIAD foundation in 2013 during the firm’s 50th Anniversary celebrations. The Foundation organizes annual golf tournament to raise funds to help in community projects. The beneficiaries have been the renovations of the Gertrude’s Children Hospital prayer room, Muthaiga Primary School ablution block. The TRIAD Foundation has also funded the renovation of Martin Luther Primary School’s classroom for the hearing impaired children.
To bring up capable, innovative and ground breaking architects of the future, James proposes a Government, Industry and Institutional partnership. Under this partnership, the institutions will open up to the industry players to mentor and critic the students, the government would support the instructions in course delivery and jobs creation through the Ministry of Infrastructure. Additionally, institutions could partner with practicing firms to instigate and implement research projects for the betterment of the entire architecture industry.
“Architecture as a field is definitely better more enjoyable and I dare say easier today especially with the inclusion of technology assisted design. During our time we had fewer schools, lecturers and even less practicing architects to mentor us. This has since changed; students have a pool of knowledge to draw from. My advice to upcoming architects, open up to opportunities today, utilize technology in a way that does not hinder your creativity and utilize the mentors available to you in the industry.” James says.
James’ works is shaped by advice he received during his university studies from Arch. Mehraz Ehsani who said “every line you draw is in three dimensions. It either represents a wall, a piece of glass or a window frame. There is not just a line in drawing. And every design you make should solve a problem. Does the need you meet come with an added advantage?”
James also remembers words of their landscape professor, Fredrick Ludigras. He said, “Every time you put up a building remember, you have changed the face of the earth. So are you improving it or are you destroying it?” Crowding buildings with poor infrastructure and lack of a sewer system is like creating a slum. Slums are not just buildings in mud, but also concrete buildings with no life. A building must also address environmental considerations of its location. A good design meets the requirements of the client and the needs of the user. Time, money and quality are key.”
After working for over 30 years at TRIAD, James at the prime of his career and his greatest desire in the next decade before retirement is to see TRIAD operate in the larger Africa and beyond delivering at international capacity. He sees international architects entrance into the market as a good challenge in raising the architectural standards in the country.
“Rising up the architectural industry in Kenya has required handwork, dedication and passion. I built this legacy alongside my wife, two children and two grandchildren. I am proud to have been present for my family’s growth even orchestrated the rise of TRIAD. I look forward to the future while celebrating the achievements I have under my belt, tomorrow will be better” James concludes.