6 April 2012

Zambia: Local Institute of Architects - Benefits of Maintaining Properties

analysis

YOU are on your way for a visit to Botswana, having been cleared by the Zambian Immigration Department at Kazungula border post.

You have just disembarked from the pontoon and are now approaching the Botswana Immigration building. Then there it is, right in front of you screaming at you 'LITTERING NOT ALLOWED' (or something to that effect).

You search your memory database to check if you saw a similar sign board on the Zambian side but you draw a blank.

On your way back to Zambia, you indeed note that there is no such sign on the Zambian side but even in the absence of such a reciprocal sign reminding you about what should be obvious, the state of the roads, the amount of litter, the sudden change of attitude towards handling of litter and of course the television adverts (reminding you to wash your hands after using the toilet, etc) will confirm that you are indeed back home to mother ZED.

Yes, this is mother Zambia where taps in some homes have been leaking long enough to stain the bath tub and yet all that is required is to replace the rubber in the tap at a cost of about K1,000 (before currency rebasing).

Instead of effectively draining rain water, roof gutters are now growing plants and yet all that is required is removing the debris from the gutters and rain water down pipes.

The kitchen sinks do not drain properly because the gulley traps are blocked with pieces of nshima or pumpkin leaves!!

When one compares the ultimate cost of the damage caused by such lack of repair to the cost of repairing the initial defects, the disparity is just unbelievable.

Romantic

Architects normally play a major role in the moulding of the built environment and yet some laymen, and in order to justify their negligent attitude to property, have labelled architects as romanticists and dictators.

Romantic in the sense that architects are given to ideas of high artistic grandeur demanding unpractical levels of artistic beauty in our built environment.

Some say architects are dictators in their approach to the use and composition of architectural products.

After all, some architects do not just design houses but also design furniture to go into the house and tell clients how the furniture should be arranged.

It must be remembered and as was shown in one of the earlier articles under this column, that the environment you live in will have an influence on your physical and psychological behaviour.

Property

There is no building that has been designed to be self-cleaning and maintenance-free. A house is like a car if you want to get the maximum lifespan out of it and also maximise your rental returns you need to service it once in a while.

To apply the village approach to buildings in an urban setting may have some very serious consequences to the built environment.

The village thatched hut as seen in the Zambian rural areas evolved under an economic system of high labour inputs using natural materials locally available, and nearly non-existent capital injection.

The dwellings were also built for temporary use as was dictated by the subsistence economy of, say, shifting cultivation.

The maintenance implications of such a structure are significantly different from those of the more permanent and more capital intensive urban buildings.

The increased urban population as well as proximity of buildings to each other also requires a different approach to maintenance of buildings.

This coupled with consequences of rented and/or institutional buildings may give us a clue as to why most Zambian properties are so badly maintained.

Neglect of properties may be attributed to both the landlords and the tenants in varying degrees but there are four possible types of landlord/tenants as follows:

*Insensitive type

This is the type who cannot maintain any property whether it belongs to them or not.

This type assumes that the house is some kind of automatic self-cleaning vessel. This type has high levels of tolerance to dirt and inconvenience.

A leaking tap does not bother them as long as they can draw water from it. A filthy toilet does not register in their minds as long as they can use it.

This type cannot notice the difference between dusty and landscaped surroundings.

You can have a broken bottle in the middle of a room and everybody will just jump over it for the entire day.

If you have a property to rent, avoid at all costs from renting property to this category of clients.

*Conditionally sensitive type:

This is the type of tenants who claim that they can only maintain a property if it belongs to them. You have heard them say:

1. Why should I spend money planting flowers when I may be transferred any time (despite having stayed in the same house for years!!)

2. Or there is a maintenance unit which is supposed to replace these screws or bulbs

3. Or the toilets were like this when we moved in!!

Where possible, this type of tenants should be encouraged to own property or allocated low-cost housing whose maintenance costs may be low

*Sensitive type

This type will maintain any property whether it belongs to them or not and will ultimately add value to your property. They understand and appreciate a building as a living machine which requires service and appropriate repair once in a while. This type of tenants can be trusted with your property.

*Orphaned buildings

There is another category of properties which has no specific "owner" and whose maintenance is entrusted to some salaried stranger sometimes called the Estates or Properties Manager.

The qualifications of this "stranger" may vary from a procurement officer to a nursing officer at a hospital.

Buildings that may fall under this category include those belonging to Government, parastatal and institutional properties.

You will be told that an analysis of the institution's budget will reveal that repair and maintenance is not really a priority and that is why those lifts have not operated properly or that is why the broken glass panes have been replaced with card boards.

While it is true that some Estate Managers have managed to maintain their properties in a reasonable state, others have failed primarily because they do not understand how a building functions.

It does not puzzle them when they see plants growing on top of a roof which was not designed as a roof garden.

Lease Agreement

A lot of landlords get extremely excited at the prospect of a potential tenant who seems to answer their financial dreams but they make very little effort to seriously scrutinise their would-be tenants.

A number of them have lived to regret the moment they appended their signature to the Lease Agreement.

In order to protect your investment ensure that the lease agreement you sign includes, apart from the usual standard ones, clauses to cover the following:

1. Family size: Facilities in a building are designed to cater for certain numbers of people.

The size of a septic tank/soakaway system, for instance, is related to a maximum expected number of occupants and so is the number of sanitary fittings and storage space.

The size of bedrooms and other spaces are also related to a limited number of occupants reasonably expected to use the available space. This is for health and functional reasons.

When these design numbers are consistently and significantly exceeded, one should expect a tremendous increase in the wear and tear of the building elements and, consequently, high maintenance or repair costs.

Ensure the lease agreement sets a limit as to how many persons can occupy or use your building. Do not expect a house occupied by a family of three to be in the same state as one occupied by the entire clan.

2. Inventory: During new occupation of your building ensure to carry out an inventory of the state of each and every room including the surrounding open space.

Again carry out a similar inventory when your tenant vacates your building and also ensure that the lease agreement states obligations of the parties in this regard.

This avoids or minimises the acrimony that usually follows on vacation as far as undertaking repairs is concerned.

It is also easier to agree, especially many years later with possibly different persons, on the extent of dilapidation if there is a signed record of the inventory taken at the time of occupation.

If you do not do this you will remain with repair works whose cost may wipe away all your rental earnings.

3. Regular inspection: Even where you have allowed for the recording of inventories it is extremely important that you insert in the lease agreement a clause that allows you as the landlord or indeed your agent to make inspection of the state of the building at reasonable intervals and hours.

This enables you to bring to the attention of the tenant certain repairs that may require his attention before they accumulate to levels where the cost of repairs may be prohibitive.

What may have started off as your "dream" tenant may actually turn out to be your nightmare, which you may find difficult to recover from.

Epilogue

In order to ensure that your properties remain in a good state of repair, attract better rentals and promote a good and healthy environment.

Remember as you maintain your building that:

A. It is cheaper to repaint a house when you only need one coat of paint; postponement may mean two coats of paint at twice the initial cost of a tin of paint.

B. You must understand and appreciate how a building functions, how storm water is kept away from the building perimeter, the consequences of planting flowers and shrubs around the foundations of a building, how waste water is drained from sinks and so on.

A person who has been using a pit latrine all his life may initially not appreciate or indeed understand how a waterborne toilet functions.

C. You need to identify and appreciate the artistic values enshrined into the building fabric and direct your maintenance efforts towards enhancing those qualities.

Renovations and extensions to an existing building should be made with full awareness of the salient existing features of the building.

A green pair of trousers with a red patch stitched together with a pink thread of cotton is visually irritating because there is no unifying element to bring visual harmony to the composition.

The same is true for maintenance or renovation works which is undertaken haphazardly to an existing building.

D. Lastly, a building has grown from the ground and is firmly attached to it and is part of the surrounding area.

You should therefore maintain the building as well as the surrounding area.

May be, just may be one day we may also proudly mount that 'NO LITTER ALLOWED' sign at our borders to remind our visitors of how proud we are of the built environment we live in.

(The author is chairperson of the Zambia Institute of Architects - Copperbelt Chapter)

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