Raised in England, Tim Vaulkhard is a typical English countryman. Over the past four and half decades, he has lived on his farm in Kiambu County. Now retired, Tim enjoys riding a horse around the farm on a weekend. You can also find him driving around with frequent stops checking on growth of the many indigenous trees he has recently added to the steep slopes of the farm. The Buildesign team was granted a personal tour of the farm which you can read about here. On a more relaxed weekday morning, he’ll be sipping tea in his farm office as he runs through schedules and the farm records. ‘I don’t fancy suburban living.’ he notes.
Tim’s interest with natural environments goes back many years. Growing up in rural England, Tim enjoyed tranquility surrounded by nature and hence the passion for the surroundings of his current home. His direction into the discipline of design was influenced by his mother who was an artist.
Upon completion of his architectural training at the University of Nottingham in England, Tim decided to travel. Though he’d no prior interest outside England, Tim found himself in Kenya for the first time in 1969, courtesy of the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – a British organization that sends skilled people to developing countries to work on projects that help the local community.
His first job was at the Ministry of Works in Kisumu; this was when David Mutiso was the chief architect. Later Tim came to Nairobi and was recruited by Braz Menezes becoming part of the team planning Buruburu. Upon completion of the contract, Tim decided to travel overland across Asia to England to advance his career. In the 1970s England was not an attractive place to pursue architecture and Kenya held happy memories for him. He received a job offer from Triad Architects and it took little to convince him to accept it. “The firm was in a bad shape. The founding partners, Graham McCullough, member number one of AAK and Amyas Connell, designer of Parliament building, were just retiring and so we had to reinvent.” Tim recalls.
In 1975, he championed the formation of the new Triad together with the late David Bristow and Daniel Mutiso. They became the partners in the new practice, kicking off with commissions to design the KPCU building and the Norfolk towers in Nairobi.
Tim has lived in Kenya and practiced in the same firm since then. “I didn’t need to change my job for new experiences because I got a new challenge every time a client came in.” Tim notes. He added that “with a very good succession plan, the firm has since groomed more partners and grown into one of the leading architectural practices in Kenya and the region”.
The former director at Triad largely devoted his part of the practice to projects that benefited lives of people in rural areas and projects outside Nairobi. “Buildings are not only about providing shelter but changing the lives of the people that use them. I just like development in areas where there is none and seeing the impact it has on the community. My satisfaction is not the big houses or estates in large suburbs, I’m proud of projects that could really help people and anyway they’re much more fun to do” Tim notes with a chuckle. “I might not be known around town for spectacular designs but it is pleasing to see the joy and transformation that the projects I work on bring in people’s lives,” adds Tim who is down to earth and very passionate about all his work. “Most architects claim projects as their own. They forget that it is the effort of the team, something that is very important in the delivery of quality projects. As an individual I don’t lay claim to projects because it all takes teamwork; client, designers and builders. I insist on teamwork because each consultant and builder contributes to the delivery of a project. Delivering a building is not a one man job” he clarifies. According to Tim’s old partner, David Bristow, architecture is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration and Tim lays claim to the perspiration bit.
In a career that spans nearly 50 years, it is difficult to pick out favourites but Garba Tula School, recognized as the best educational buildings since independence; Isiolo Hospital; Nairobi Business Park at the Race Course; the Nairobi National Museum; the ICRAF head quarters; the Moi University library, and the recently completed Cathedral in Kericho, winner of several international awards, are some of the projects that Tim is proud of. This was as the lead architect for the two thousand or so projects that Triad has undertaken over the last 45 years. He finds equal satisfaction in small dispensaries built in inhospitable areas such as the Kaisut desert or in remote parts of Southern Sudan. You might gather that Tim enjoys travelling.
Despite a lucrative career, the journey has not been without its challenges. “As all architects know work is not guaranteed every day. Half of an architect’s time is spent looking for work and hence continuity of work for architects is a major challenge that I have experienced over the years,” explains Tim. “I wish architects could give more time to their commissioned work.”
Architecture industry in Kenya
“I am disappointed just how badly architectural design services are procured in Kenya and the result is the poor quality of so many of our buildings. In many cases you find that reputation and quality doesn’t count in awarding a job. “I always say, as an architect, your reputation is as good as your last project” notes Tim, “but this doesn’t seem to count”. Poor designers appear to be rewarded by more work and the most deserving architects are left on the shelf. Societies reward is too many badly designed, uninspired and inefficient buildings.
Architects with poor track records end up getting jobs that should be entrusted to talented professionals with proven track records. The fascination with getting a low fee prevails without considering the risks of employing inexperienced architects. The regulatory bodies not only need to ensure that fair fees are paid but also reinforce the quality of the profession.
“Local architects can do much better and Kenyan buildings ought to be winning international prizes, yet few do. Design workshops and competition should be encouraged as well as international training and benchmarking to promote creativity and improve quality in the architectural profession in Kenya.”
He cites the fascination with selection of inappropriate materials and poor detailing. We do not need so much un-shaded glass in buildings in Kenya because we are in a tropical climate with high solar gain. We ignore the benefits of cross-ventilation and instead install expensive mechanical cooling systems to counter heat gain that should never find its way into a building. I urge architects to keep this in mind as they design fronted glass buildings.” Tim remarks
“Because it is cheap, it doesn’t need to be nasty. There are so many natural and affordable building materials in Kenya. We don’t need to use so much imported stuff.” Tim advises. He also adds that professionals must ensure they use materials that are suitable for the design of the building and consider the detailing of roof. “Don’t make a roof onto a “water tank”, and why do architects design roofs with so many hips, valleys and weak points?” he asserts.
The regulatory bodies like AAK and BORAQS needs to stiffen their rules and regulations in order to improve the quality and state of building in Kenya.” Tim notes. Do we ever strike off members of the profession for mistakes and poor conduct?
Planning of the Nairobi and our towns is being ruined by politics. Land grabbing is a major challenge that needs to be resolved if we are going to preserve public open space.” says Tim. He lamented the failure to take back the stolen land at Nairobi City Park into public ownership.
Good succession planning is important for the continuity of every practice to ensure that young architects obtain enough experience and can see their way to long term and fulfilling career. “A practical, smooth and efficient transition of leadership is something that we took seriously at TRIAD and it has enabled us emerge among the best architects in the country. Without a succession policy in place, there’s no allegiance or continuity. Young architects never have time to develop their skills before they are off to set up their own companies, often before they are ready to do so. Other architectural firms in Kenya should learn from this.” Tim advises. “There should also be some travel awards for young architects in order to motivate them to produce better quality architecture and learn from other cultures”, he adds.
In conclusion, Tim, who has always been driven by passion encourages young architects to be attentive to detail and quality in design and delivery. Once again, he emphasizes the importance of team work. “The only way to deliver quality projects on time is through team work, something that all architects should keep in mind.”
Now retired since 2014, the 71 year old is currently a consultant to TRIAD Architects where he also handles small pro bono works and some legacy projects. “Most projects that I have undertaken and will continue to do pro bono are those that impact on the lives of the community. In the near future, Tim hopes to also build his retirement house in Limuru, whist travelling and spending time with his family in other parts of the world.