Orthner, Orthner & Associates (OOA) is an Accra, Ghana-based leading provider of architectural services. The company prides itself in blending its African base and European origin to deliver futuristic, unique and green solutions to the rising housing market in Ghana. We had a discussion with the company’s directors, Martin and Rosemary Orthner and their teams.
The demand for housing, be it for residential, office or commercial use, in Africa continues to be a major handicap to economic development for a number of African countries.
Vibrant economic growth in the last 20 years in Ghana have played a part in boosting housing demand due to the rise in the proceeds from oil and increased foreign direct investment in the country, with the country’s economy registering more than 10% growth per annum over several years.
Even though the last few years have seen rising inflation, slowing economic growth, rising public debt and depreciating currency, which have tempered housing demand, the overall picture remains that Ghana’s housing problems persist.
The country’s Ministry of Water Resources Works and Housing’s reported in 2013 an estimated housing deficit of about 1.7 million houses.
It further stated that only about 40,000 housing units were being built annually, compared to an annual demand of about 100,000 units.
“There is a huge demand for housing in Ghana; it’s like there is a big hole that needs to be filled. There is a big need for affordable housing,” Ms. Akosua Oben’g, an architect at Orthner & Orthner Associates (OOA) informs us during our interview with the company.
“We have a significant role to play as the private sector to help bridge this gap. As a private company, we believe that we can contribute to changing the narrative about housing in Ghana, bringing in new concepts about design and environmental concepts that have not existed before in this market.
Of course the government must do more to deliver more abundant, affordable housing to its citizens,” she adds.
Bringing new perspectives to housing
“We have gained a reputation for our organization, attention to detail and a well-structured approach to projects,” Martin Orthner, OOA’s Managing Director says.
“We are proud of OOA as a brand which stands for responsible, sustainable design, creative use of local materials and workmanship to create outstanding modern, tropical designs in a short period of time,” he explains.
Established in 2000 in Austria and present in Ghana since 2006, OOA’s expertise covers the full spectrum of architectural services, from initial design concept through to planning, project management and environmental consulting.
The company prides itself in introducing innovative concepts to the country’s architectural landscape over the last six years it has operated in Ghana.
According to Rosemary Orthner, the company’s Director, the company is proud of its dual African-European heritage.
“The knowledge and experience of working in the two different cultures are key factors to our success and our ability to work with international clients and teams,” Rosemary explains.
The company has executed several projects with local and international partners including commercial, office and residential properties in Accra.
“Our company givesparticular care and emphasis to economical and efficient use of materials and resources: low energy and water consumption; water treatment systems; consideration of climatic conditions and the use of passive heating, shading and cooling techniques; natural ventilation and the use of solar energy are all integral parts of our efforts to meet the highest international standards of sustainable design,” says Martin.
He knows better, for Ghana sits within the hot and humid tropical rain forest region of West Africa. Abundant rainfall and lush green forests and abundant sunshine all year round provide a tropical paradise in the country. But for an architectural firm, how does the company take advantage of the local surrounding?
“The work we do is what tropical architecture is all about,” comments Akosua, explaining the company’s recent work with clients from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation and the Tesano Lofts, where OOA has, in partnership with its partners made abundant use of local materials like wood and energy saving initiatives that place its building designs a cut above all else in the industry.
Ghana’s tropical rain forest is home to abundant quantities of wood and is a well-known exporter of wood.
“It is sad that the knowledge we used to have on the use of wood in housing disappeared over the colonial period, when cement became king. We just don’t know how to use wood anymore.
We have deliberately incorporated wood into our building designs with fantastic results, albeit we have been forced to source for those with knowledge of wood in housing from Germany to help us,” explains Akosua.
Successfully executed IFC project
The skyline of Accra, the capital city of Ghana continues to change, with an increasing investor base taking their bet on a rising middle class in the country. Other major cities like Kumasi, Tema and Takoradi are not left behind.
OOA is proud of its contribution to this changing skyline through its work.
“The new IMF building in Accra has been a big one for us,” says Rosemary when we enquire which of their projects has generated the most buzz.
“That project really put our company on the map in Ghana, and provided an opportunity for us to deliver on some of the concepts we have always wanted to do in the country,” she adds.
Opened in 2013, the new IMF building in Accra is a 6-floor structure that has used the latest technology in design, environmental management, and water use and energy conservation.
A number of green initiatives put the building above the rest: it is the first building in Ghana to have a garden on the roof, on which grass grows throughout the year; is bathed with natural light all through the building; and uses wood claddings to keep the building cool.
“The green roof of the IFC building neutralizes the heat island effect of this building. Instead of the aluminium roof that reflects the heat, the green roof absorbs the heat from the sun, cooling the building in the process. The green roof also provides insulation to the roof at the same time,” says Akosua.
The building also echoes traditional Ghanaian buildings, with a central courtyard that has an imposing 90-year old tree, around which the building rises to the sky; with almost reddish colour that is common in Ghanaian villages.
The IFC building, in which the company worked with Co-Arc International and Arup, meets a key milestone: it is LEED certified.
LEED or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a rating system developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) to evaluate the environmental performance of a building and encourage market transformation towards sustainable design.
Rosemary explains that the problem with Ghana is that building standards are still quite low, but that with international clients like the IFC, they can use such opportunities to showcase world-class facilities to the local market, improving the quality of the sector in the process.
“Bringing up such buildings like the IMF building require meeting some standards, like the LEED which we incorporated into this building. We hope that with these newer buildings, newer technology and certifications, people will have a local reference point, using such buildings to decide on the type of housing they need. Without these prototypes, they would not know what they really want,” she concludes.
The wooden building appeal
A recent project by OOA is the on-going development of town houses on the outskirts of Accra called Tesano Lofts. “The Tesano Lofts project has reintroduced the significance of wood as a building material, especially to fulfill the high demands of residential buildings in tropical conditions,” states Martin.
Wood may not be your kind of material to build a high-class building but OOA is out to prove this in Ghana.
“We were lucky to find a client with access to wood, and who accepted us to work with the wood on his building. Normally consumers in Ghana think of wood as a material that is not durable and will not last or will rot.
We have shown that wood, which we have in Ghana in abundance, is a good and strong material that can with stand all the strains thrown its way,” explains Akosua.
According to Akosua, the Tesano buildings are completely wooden, save for the structure, which is in steel and concrete. The walls, floors and even the bathrooms are wooden. “Wood is a good material if used right, but another critical point to make is that the choice of the wood to use is also key.
You can see this in the communities living near water bodies like rivers, lakes or oceans, where the boats are made of wood, and used in water!! Using wood the right way and using the right wood is the secret to using wood in buildings,” she reiterates.
Despite the success OOA has had in the Tesano Lofts project, skeptics still abound.
“People come to us with their housing requirements and after we show them the Tesano Lofts project, they really appreciate the concept and the building. But whenever we ask most of them if they can have their own buildings in wood, they say an absolute No!! It will take us time to convince more people in Ghana to take this path,” says Akosua.
The company has also recently finished several assignments in Accra for Google, Oracle and Labadi Beach Hotel, one of the iconic hotels in Ghana.
Building capacities, changing mind sets
OOA is aware of the critical role the company plays in building up the capacity of its staff and the industry at large in the country.
With a total work force of 10, including 4 architects, and other projects staff, OOA strives to be the leader in its field by training and equipping its staff with the latest technology and skills.
“Our employees have always been a key factor to our success. Their full involvement in all projects from inception to completion is crucial for a successful and long lasting relationship. We are constantly involving the local creative personnel and artisans in all our design projects.
We are also constantly updating our office equipment and software skills, investing in employee training and visiting our international partners, suppliers and clients to keep up to date with international standards and technology,” says Martin.
OOA is also a proactive participant in national and international workshops, forums and symposia as well as lecture and round tables promoting sustainable use of building materials, energy efficiency in buildings in tropical zones and the design of sustainable cities.
The company is also involved in working with clients and communities to improve the use of urban spaces. “Accra is a rapidly growing city with a very young population, but public spaces are rare. Our designs are landmarks, giving public areas to the community, working towards a creative and walk able city for the people and the disabled community,” Martin informs us.
“We are also working with our customers to build smaller units and leave some space for other uses, not cover the whole space with the house. We explain to them that with smaller units, you earn less but you earn sooner hence reducing the risk of running out of money before the building is finished.
We are beginning to see a change in the local market; the younger generation is starting to ask us for smaller, more affordable homes’ Rosemary adds.
No power, no problem
While the power situation in Ghana over the past few years is well known, OOA has invested recently in a photovoltaic system, to overcome the unreliable power supply to ensure guaranteed uninterrupted power availability for its equipment and data protection at all times.
The company’s offices are 100% solar powered following the installation of a 4.5 kW photo voltaic system, comprising of 18 solar modules, solar and battery inverters and a 48 volt battery bank with storage capacity of 22 kWh.
The office is therefore 100% independent from the national grid, reducing its carbon footprint by 4.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year.
Opportunities abound but challenges remain
“With Ghana’s emerging market and economic growth, the high demand of housing, office and infrastructure developments, OOA is well positioned and prepared for a successful future,” says Martin.
The company is readying itself to meet the demand for mass housing and office blocks, individually designed projects, especially ones where quality is a major requirement, to meet the company’s key areas of strength, Martin explains.
“We are hoping that people continue to come to us, seeking good quality buildings. Having quality buildings in Ghana provides an educational forum to convince consumers that such buildings are actually possible in Ghana, despite their earlier thoughts that these can only be possible in Europe,” says Rosemary.
There are also challenges with meeting green initiatives like LEED in the country.
OOA, which is a member of the Ghana Green Building Council, believes that a lot of capacity building and creation of awareness must be boosted to encourage the desgn and building of more environmentally friendly buildings in Ghana.
“Public awareness of the importance of sustainable developments has to be increased tremendously.
The various institutes of building professionals and concerned citizens/organizations will have to take the lead by instituting award systems for energy efficient buildings.
Government will also need to take a lead role in providing the legislation, financial incentives and creating the necessary public awareness for there to be a change in the current building culture,” advices Martin.
“We cannot achieve LEED as high as we would want, because we cannot basically meet some requirements for lack of certain supplies in Africa. It is almost like we need a LEED system for Africa.
Some things are not just produced here, while LEED requires that some materials be locally sourced,” Rosemary says. Making it harder is also the lack of specialists in the local market to advice on LEED requirements.
But she is confident that with time, it will be much easier to adopt LEED requirements in Africa. There are various institutions developing a green rating for LEED, which fits to Ghana and West Africa, for example in Ghana, the Ghana Green Building Council she explains.
The future lies in Ghana
According to Rosemary, the future of OOA lies in Ghana.
“We would want to build more capacity for all our team and the company, and make a real difference to the community we are building for. Everything we build, we would like to provide adequate public space for example roads, parking, green areas, seating areas and a nice view of the city.
“Our focus is basically Ghana for now, we can work with partners in other countries, but we would like to remain in Ghana. We want to do our work well in Ghana to employ more young, female architects – making us more proud and with a greater influence on our society. Our aim is to employ more local architects, despite our company’s roots in Austria.
“With the Internet, a lot of people are now exposed to current trends in building designs and features. There is a generational change and experience by many customers out of the country has also improved our experience with them.
We really believe in the future of Ghana and are investing to meet rising demand for our services,” she concludes.