Building in Rwanda


Building in Rwanda

By Katherine Sullivan

Many aspire not just to own a home, but to build their dream house. A daunting task that can be worth the result if done correctly.

To Build or Not to Build?

Before making the commitment to constructing your own house, know what you are getting into. Home construction is a long, expensive, and time-consuming process, and for some prospective homeowners, it may be more sensible to purchase an already built home.

Eudes Kayumba, Managing Director of the architectural and estate management firm Landmark Studio, stresses that no one should go into the home construction process without the proper knowledge, time, and money to spend on the project. Far too many building projects are abandoned partway through construction, or are finished only to be auctioned off. Factors like research into the master plan, understanding unexpected costs, and the stress of building are all part of the equation

For those ready to take on the challenge, there are many persuasive reasons to construct a home in Rwanda. The current state of the housing market in Kigali drives most to build their own homes, with a considerable housing bubble pricing most people out of the market.

“Prices are too high to buy a house. We can nearly build you two houses for the price it costs to buy one house”, says Kayumba.

But rents and housing prices are slowly coming down. Beatrice Chenge, head of mortgages at KCB, echoes the sentiments of Kayumba and other industry professionals; “Homes are expensive and salaries too low. As more people build their own houses, we’ll see the prices drop substantially”.

Of course, in addition to economic and financial reasons, there is also the issue of personal taste and customization. Designing a brand new house is the only way to ensure it will fit your unique needs and tastes.

Where to Start

We all have a vision of our dream home in our heads, but before you get too carried with your big ideas, the very first thing a prospective homebuilder should do is go to the bank.

Whether you already own land or are looking for the perfect plot, mortgage agents will do a preliminary analysis of your finances to determine what kind of funding is available to you.

The pre-approval process will give you a feel for what kind of home you can begin to design. A recalibration of expectations may be necessary, but knowing whether you can afford a 10-bedroom mansion or a two-bedroom bungalow is key to beginning the design process.

Your financial agent will work closely with you throughout the project. Keeping the bank informed on the progress of your project at every step is crucial. Financing is released to the client in tranches, so the client and the bank can ensure that design and construction are progressing on track and within budget. Surprises in construction are a given, so a 10-15% contingency is usually built into designs for any unexpected costs that may arise.

Check Zoning Before You Buy or Build

With the Kigali city master plan in implementation, certain neighborhoods are zoned for specific types of buildings. Each has been zoned for a specific purpose, and therefore requires certain elements to be included in the design. If you can’t afford to build a six-story high rise, don’t buy in a neighborhood that is zoned for it. The master plan for Kigali city is available to access online.

This country is rapidly changing. While the neighborhood you choose for your dream home may look ideal today, in five years, it could be a shopping center, office park, or protected wetlands. The master plan will reveal all of this.

Mupende reminds landowners that while some regulations may seem arbitrary, there is a method to the madness; “Each and every activity has a specific area designated for it and there’s a purpose for it. With every area there is infrastructure that comes with it and the consolidation and clustering of people around this activity has already been thought through.”

“We’ve learned a lot (in this office) since we started”, admits Mupende. “We used to have regulations but not necessarily know why they were there. Now we’ve learned, as have the clients, why certain things are in place. We now have the practical knowledge and understand things like building placement, wind flow, etcetera. We’ve learned how much the little things matter,” she says, reiterating the importance of taking into account unique social, technical, and environmental concerns before building.

Getting What You Designed

Once you have your plot, next is to engage a registered architect or engineer that knows the local regulations, says Lillian Uwanziga Mupende, Director of Urban Planning and Construction at the One Stop Center. Through the completely online system, your architect or engineer will submit their final blueprints and other necessary documents, securing approval. The Center’s engineers, architects, and policy makers weigh in on the legality and feasibility of your project, and your architect will balance the feedback from the center with your wishes.

“When you are looking for your home, it is a very self engaging activity. I would compare it with looking for a partner, it is something you are going to spend the rest of your life with,” says Kayumba.  

With the practical concerns of financing and zoning taken care, the bulk of a homebuilder’s time and energy is spent working closely with their chosen architect to achieve their desired result.

“I think a lot of people have this idea that working with an architect is nonessential, that it’s a luxury”, explains Bruce Engel, a Rwanda-based architect and designer. “But when people try to build on their own, there’s wasted space, it’s not safe, and it often needs to be redesigned.”

The earlier you begin working with an architect, the better. Both Kayumba and Engel agree that it is far easier to help shape a person’s idea of a home rather than fixing something that has already been started.

“I like to come in at the point where it’s my job to translate a dream into the physicality. I’d rather my clients say how a room feels and how they want to use it than showing me a drawing. For me it’s easier to work with the abstractions”, explains Engel.

The architect is tasked with balancing many forces: time, money, the dreams of the client, technical feasibility, environmental concerns, personal aesthetic, and building regulations all weigh in on the final design.

As the client, it can be hard to give up some control of the design process, but it’s important to remember that architects, as professionals, have your best interests at heart. “As an architect, you know better what the client wants than they do. You know how a design will work, but you have to establish trust, and the client has to relinquish some control”, says Engel.

Engel reminds us that although the final blueprints look like “just a drawing”, it takes the architect hundreds of iterations to get to that final product. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will your dream home. The design process, depending on the circumstances, can take anywhere from three weeks to upwards of six months.

Some of the most exciting features of a home—those that really turn it from a house to home—are the finishing touches. While these details should be factored into the design from the beginning, the house infrastructure and other “necessities” should always be built first. If the money or the time runs out, at least you have a roof over your head, and a blank canvas on which to leave your mark.