The Karen Enkaji House – A 21st Century Interpretation of the traditional African architecture
Enkaji is a Maasai name for a house, traditionally built on a simple frame structure, the shape of a loaf, using materials like twigs, soil, cow dung and grass. The Enkaji’s frame was made of timber poles fixed directly into the ground. These were interwoven with smaller branches and twigs placed closely together to form a matrix. Hard wood from Oiti tree would be used, because it resisted termites (destructive insects) and grew in both highland and lowland areas. The Enkaji’s flat roof was overlaid with dried grass. Soil, cow dung and ash were mixed together to form a plaster for the interior and exterior of the house. Social setup of an Enkaji was organized around a central space leading to the cooking area, sleeping and storage among others. The entrance consisted of a short hallway, perhaps 6 feet long, which sharply turned into the main area of the home. A wood fire would be lit at the center of the main area for cooking. The fire would stay lit at all times to warm the home and prevent snakes from entering the house.
With a client that desired to re-interpret this traditional Maasai homestead in a contemporary 21stCentury architectural language, Otto Mruttu + Partners architects were offered a unique opportunity to infuse two seemingly polarized ideas. Deviating from the ordinary forms of Plantation and Victorian style of architecture in most of Nairobi’s modern residential projects, this design called for several precedents including study of the Maasai and traditional African architecture in response to time and place hugely inspired by the likes of Djenne Mosque in Mali, ancient Benin houses and closer home, the African Heritage house in Nairobi. The building was to be grounded in its time and place whilst honoring the client’s love for the Maasai & traditional African architecture. This unique request transformed what could have been a simple residential project into an award winning design solution.
Interestingly, most of the site discoveries were positive developments. For instance; while the trial holes on site had revealed that there were about two meters of black cotton soil on site, it was later found that the black cotton soil was only 1.5 meters. This allowed the contractor to use the traditional strip foundation system as opposed to the framed structural foundation with ground beams and hence reducing the number of columns that were initially required. Another positive development was that manually dug water well produced water at a depth of 30 meters and this meant that landscaping needs could be addressed economically.
Based on an in-depth study of the Maasai homestead amongst other case studies, the house takes a parabolic shape organized around a covered terrace as the focal point with centralism as the main concept borrowed from the traditional planning of the Maasai Enkaji. Initially, the stair case was designed as the main circulation space but mid way design stage, a semi-outdoor terrace was incorporated and hence became the central area of the building to which all the other spaces relate. The curved stare case connects the public spaces at the ground floor with the private spaces on the upper floor hence stands out in the vertical circulation of the house.
Other salient features incorporated in the design, symbolic of the ancient African architecture include use of threshold and circulation spaces as living areas as well as a recessed oblique entrance with a covered porch creating an inviting reception space as you access the building. Traditional Mali architecture is richly expressed by use of exposed longer than usual rafters echoing the exposed timber beams and framing openings with thick piers as in the traditional houses. The thick piers serve a dual purpose of framing the windows as well as encasing the rain water downpipes. Concrete tiles on the exposed timber rafters of the roof are symbolic of the traditional earthen poles from the elongated roof structure.
The low pitch butterfly roof allows the building to maintain its flat roof aesthetic, whilst harvesting the rain water through a central gutter. This feature roof also provided more space for the architect to work with, taking away the tinged high pitched roof design typical in most of the neighboring houses. Slit windows were incorporated in the design for the stair case area and the lavatories whilst large windows have been fitted in the rooms.
Traditional African architecture was a direct evocation of its physical environment, and took its style not from abstract aesthetic notions but from the basic need and image the building has to serve. Combined use of recessed defined curtain walling, openings framed by thick piers, cantilevers, and strong vertical and horizontal earthen textured facades give the building a very a contemporary 21st Century interpretation of traditional African architecture.
Structural work combined masonry and reinforced concrete columns, similar to the vertical timber posts used as structural supports in the Maasai Enkaji. Thermal glass has been used in four main facades and glazing on the windows. Some walls are plastered with earthy finishes reflective of the African mud architecture which is very distinct in the holistic design. Exposed natural stone has been incorporated to echo the natural unrendered look common in traditional African architecture. Similarly, exposed timber rafters have been used to mimic the exposed timber beams.
Just like Oiti tree would be used in Maasai Enkaji for its long lasting properties, the client had desired to use cedar cladding in certain areas of the building but he later learnt that building with cedar was illegal in Kenya. This is because the indigenous soft wood tree is no longer sustainable to harvest as timber in the country. Naivasha yellow stone was therefore used in place of cedar.
Granito and ceramic tiles have been used on the flooring in the wet and high traffic areas whilst mvule timber boarding is used in other areas. The roof structure is built using timber and clay tiles. Gypsum bulkheads with concealed colour changing LED tape lights have been used extensively throughout the house.
The unique cantilevered staircase was built in reinforced concrete and finished in mvule timber treads. Both the staircase risers and an adjacent feature wall are finished in Duracoat’s metallic Arsenal Antico textured effect paint.
Karen Enkaji house is luxuriously designed to modern green building standards incorporating sustainable use of materials, energy efficiency, BMS and rain water harvesting among others.
Large glazed facades are incorporated as a nod to the 21st century and a practical means to trap heat and prevent extremely cold night temperatures so as to provide comfortable ambient temperatures in the house. The main façades of the building face East and West, contrary to conventional planning in Nairobi where the larger side of a building is positioned to face North and South. This was intentionally done to facilitate passive thermal control, capturing and retaining sun heat leading to stable temperatures throughout the house. This was made possible by positioning of an external glazed curtain wall in front of ordinary masonry walling.
To counter excessive heat gain during extremely hot seasons, the semi-outdoor terrace space allows sufficient flow of air in and out of the building.
Rain water is harvested for domestic and external use into an underground storage of 144 cubic meters below the garage which collects 144,000 litres whilst the garden facing downpipes direct water to recharge the well used for gardening purposes.
The building uses solar power for water heating and exterior lighting. Photovoltaic panels have been mounted on the roof to tap solar energy, generating 1kVa of electricity capable of lighting all the external bulbs for at least 48 hours. The house utilizes energy efficient LED lighting with some of the rooms having colour changing atmospheric mood lighting. Notably, all the light fittings are energy efficient LED.
Smart building system has also been incorporated in the building remotely controlled in a computer program to monitor certain features in the house including lighting fixtures, audio visual, security and lawn irrigation among others. All these units are integrated into a computer system which allows for IP based remote control from one module using computerized devices such as laptops or mobile phones. The system is also controllable on site through the wall mounted switches. The technology also allows CCTV access of the property from a mobile phone.
Otto Mruttu + Partners architects was commissioned design, construction and fit out of the building in the year 2012. Design took fourteen months and the project was taken to site in September 2013. Construction was completed in December 2014 and the building officially handed over in February 2015.
Architect – Otto Mruttu + Partner Architects
Main Contractor – Clasico Builders
Quantity Surveyor – Costek Alma
Civil & Structural Engineer – Abba & Wandu Engineers
Electrical & Mechanical Engineers – Rex Consultants