Growth Curve: Kenya Guesthouse by Mlkk Studio

Mlkk Studio retrofits a disused Kenyan guesthouse with the hopes of galvanizing its community and celebrating its rich cultural heritage

Interview Miguel Llona, with Mel Patrick Kasingsing
Images Mlkk Studio

Kenya Guesthouse

Completed: 2023
Area: 380 sqm
Location: Shelly Beach, Kenya
Scope: Concept, design development, tender drawings, construction administration
Typology: Hospitality

Project description
Edited for brevity

This Kenyan guesthouse is situated on Shelly Beach and has direct access to the waterfront. Despite this fantastic accessibility to the ocean, the site has been mainly abandoned due to security issues. We hope the project can provide a way to bring locals and visitors back to this neighborhood.

We have decided to keep the existing structure on site, which was also used as a guesthouse. It is an act to honor the history of the area and as a gesture to continue its culture. A structural addition will be built on top of the original building, introducing one more floor level. We do not seek to hide the old but celebrate and respect it. The existing structure will be retained and made good, while the new façade will make use of local timber, mikoko poles.

By retrofitting the building with our new design, we hope to bring passive design approaches to Kenya, which are much needed in this tropical wet and dry climate, and in an area where electricity is not stable. We have incorporated several passive design strategies like shading and tilting the roof towards the summer sun and receiving prevailing winds to encourage cross ventilation throughout the building. We also introduced extra high-level windows to ensure hot air could escape the building envelope, provided insulated walls and roofing, and intentionally lowered the building heat capacity by using thinner bricks than the usual coral stone.

Besides environmental considerations, we hope the project can also be an example of cultural sustainability. In Kenya, there are more than 40 different ethnic groups, and we want to take celebrate this cultural diversity in the design of the guest house. We have introduced feature walls that showcase traditional patterns and motifs in each of the rooms, dining hall, and living rooms. These feature wall elements will hopefully be manufactured by the locals to facilitate their participation in the project.

The interview

Let’s start with the story of how you came about this project. What is it about this project that made you want to take it on? What attracted you to this project?

The project was initiated by an Asian charity organization focused on alleviating poverty in developing African countries. The organization had long been lining up a project to do something for the poor in Mombasa of Kenya, and the land was made available to them in 2018. They reached out to us because of our Music School Project in Myanmar, and they needed planners and architects with similar visions to join their team. The site is right next to the area where the poorest live in Mombasa and is an excellent opportunity to realize their mission.

What drew our interest in the project was the complexity of the location. The land is right along the coast and is geographically perfect for a building project. It has a picturesque sea view towards the Indian Ocean, not to mention a generous site area with rows of spreading palm trees. 

However, behind the attractive topography character is a notorious and historically problematic regional background. Known for a tragic event involving a violent political/ethical attack on foreigners in the late 1990s, the region is still suffering from the event’s long-lasting impact, including its lack of security, inadequate facilities, and high crime rate. Many families, mostly the poor, have to live in the region of its affordability in housing and proximity to the central business district. The result is, despite being right next to Mombasa’s city center and the vibrant tourist areas, the region grew into what is now the poorest constituency in Mombasa. 

Please describe the history and culture of the area that you want to honor by keeping the existing structure. How do locals treat the site? What is its social and cultural significance? Is there a sense of place that you wanted to retain?

The project site is one of the few plots of land that belongs to an International NGO who have served coastal Kenya for over a century, with a guesthouse used to host foreign volunteers who came to serve the community.  Due to the lack of funding, the land and guesthouse were left vacant and unmaintained after the service project concluded and the volunteers retrieved.

With its serving mission, the guesthouse is a basic, one-story building, similar to other dwellings you can find around the area. The NGO contributed a lot to the neighborhood. The work they did lay a solid foundation for the organization coming after. Given such history, the land and the building are significant to the community and the organizing partner. In the conceptual design stage, we decided to retain the past by keeping the guest house as part of the redevelopment design to honor the NGO’s history and those who came before to serve in the community. Hopefully, it will become an inspiring motivation for those who come after to continue the good deed.

Let’s discuss the topography and climate of the area. What were your observations regarding the topography and climate that influenced your decisions on the design of the guesthouse?

Topographically, the land gently slopes eastward towards the Indian Ocean. The sloping is unidirectional and uniform with about an 11-meter elevation difference. Sandstone and coral stone are two major geotechnical formations along the coastline.

Being close to the equator, the climate of Mombasa is tropical. Even in the cooler season, from June to September, the temperature stays around 30C. Annual precipitation is about 1070 millimeters, splitting into two seasons, one from April to June and another from October to November.  High temperature and humidity play a major role in shaping the environmental design consideration of the project.

During our site visit in April, we had a first-hand experience of the heat. The typical houses there have unusually thick walls made of local coral stone and small windows, so heat is trapped indoors. The wall was emitting heat during the night, resulting in a much higher indoor temperature than outdoor. 

Heat is the major issue we need to take care of, especially for the guests who will stay in the guesthouse and are not familiar with the weather. To alleviate the issue, we brought in passive design strategies such as shading and cross ventilation. We also used a much lighter wall construction to minimize trapped heat. The building form is also designed to speak with the siting which has a big opening towards the beachside and corresponds to the local climate to facilitate cross-ventilation. These approaches are hopefully appealing once you enter the space, regardless of where you are coming from.

Describe the state of the existing structure. Apart from retaining the history and culture of the area, what were your other reasons for keeping the structure? Was it still architecturally stable, were there unique materials used that you wanted to retain? How old was the structure before you rehabilitated it, and how was it used before?

The one-story existing building is built over 50 years ago and previously functioned as a three-apartment guesthouse, each apartment partitioned into two individuals’ bedrooms with shared pantry and bathrooms. Its existing structure is a masonry system built on a rafted reinforced concrete foundation. The masonry structural walls and internal partitions were built in coral stone block, which is a widely popular local building material due to its coastal stone formation, so supply is abundant and affordable. 

To verify the stability of the existing structure, we engaged a local structural engineer to evaluate its condition; the masonry structure is sound and in good condition for reuse. 

Another reason to retain the ground floor structure is for cost-saving benefits. There are savings on material, time, and labor costs to build on the existing structure, which makes good sense for a charity project like ours since the budget is limited. 

In the project writeup, it was said that Mikoko poles are the main material for the additional structure on top of the existing one. What is the significance of this material? What are the properties that make it the perfect material in the tropical climate it’s in? Would it be able to withstand extreme weather?

Mikoko is another name for Kenya’s coastal mangrove. Mikoko wood is generally dense, combining good appearance with the strength, relatively easy workability, and resistance to rot, insect, and marine deterioration. These properties make the Mikoko timber ideal for facade cladding material for a coastal project that demands strong resistance to coastal weathering.   

Mikoko wood has a long history as a building material in Kenya, given its affordability and abundance. To ensure the material source is environmentally responsible, the local team identified and procured the wood from a certified sustainable source of plantation in the region. 

When it comes to projects that aim to revitalize a locality by attracting locals and visitors, there is a danger of creating a design that mostly appeals to tourists while alienating the locals. How were you able to address this problem? Is the project aimed more toward locals or tourists?

Something we haven’t touched on is the long-term vision of the organization. The short-term goal is for the guesthouse to become an initial base, offering the local community vocational training related to the hospitality sector, such as Guesthouse Management, Catering, and Food & Beverage Business. It will be followed by a phase two development that involves setting up a community center on the adjacent land, which will offer different types of vocational training.  This will become their community base to empower those below the poverty line and equip them with skills that can improve their living. 

With this socio-economic vision in mind, as you described, the architectural design should revitalize a locality so the locals would feel welcomed.  The design needs to be approachable to the community in need. The appearance should speak to the locals. Visually, the building form takes reference from the surrounding neighborhoods.  It is a simple single-sided pitched roof, and we are conscious of avoiding any extravagant material. Besides, the building deliberately makes most of the common area visible to the public. For example, the 27-meter-long common balcony on the upper floor is positioned to view the public area so the locals can get a glimpse of what’s happening inside. Secondly, on the site perimeter, the design avoids an enormous fence wall blocking the views from inside and outside. This gesture signifies a huge difference from the nearby private luxury hotel complex, where the buildings are completely shielded from the locals. Thirdly, we used local mikoko timber on the building envelope as the featured claddings. On the building facade, there would be wall patterning with regional tribal patterns, something the locals can connect to.

Aside from the architectural hardware mentioned above, community engagement is also essential to make the project sustainable, as we would need support from both sides. It is vital to have the locals involved early on and be part of the project to have a sense of ownership. The organization has also sent a team to work with the locals on site and build trust with the local community to ensure the project can succeed.

Was there an effort to involve the community in the design of the project? If yes, what were the steps taken to involve them? What is the effect that you expect this community involvement to have on the locals?

Engaging the community is essential throughout the entire process because that allows the design to cater to the neighborhood’s real needs. Early-stage engagement also helps the community feel part of the team, building a sense of belonging in the overall vision. 

With the area’s political and historical tensions and poverty always a sensitive topic for Mombasa County, we believe an open community discussion would be impractical and might even backfire.  Instead, we decided to engage the neighboring dweller (Peter’s family), and this family eventually became our local connector/ambassador. He brought his friends, students, and families around. By word of mouth and personal connection, we met up with many local families. We discussed our visions in these meetings and listened to their concerns. It was an exciting experience compared to having planned/organized community workshops; these informal home visits or coffee meetups seem informative and valuable in our circumstances.

The project is currently in tendering and statutory application stage, and we make sure to hire local instead of foreign consultants. More importantly, the organization presently stationed a few volunteers to live at the site. These volunteers are now our eyes and ears, providing valuable feedback on reliable first-hand knowledge about the site and the community.  

Soon, when entering the construction stage, we expect to hire the local builders and villagers to produce the feature elements (furniture/ prints with traditional graphics). After the completion, the building is expected to be maintained by the locals.  

Considering that a new structure will be built on top of the existing one, this must be a project that poses numerous challenges in the design and construction process. Can you enumerate these challenges, and how you were able to find solutions for them? What were the alterations (major and minor) made to the existing structure, in order to accommodate the new one?

The one-storey original building is a simple masonry structure sitting on a rafted reinforced concrete foundation. Since the masonry walls were designed only to support the lightweight roofing, an additional structural system would be needed to support the new storey. We discussed two possible ways: to reinforce the existing masonry walls (i.e. thickening the existing walls to support the upper storey). The other option is introducing an independent columns system to support the upper floor. 

Reinforcement of the existing masonry walls would involve structural modification, which required more skilful professional workers. This might sway the project away from the organization’s goal to train and hire the nearby local workers for the construction who are struggling for a living. Despite keeping the masonry wall system that could preserve the structural concept, it is a clear decision to move towards the second option to give way for a better benefit to the community.

Regarding the spatial programming, what were the changes you made to the layout of the existing structure? How did this improve the original layout? Please enumerate the main areas of the existing structure as well.

The layout of the original guesthouse is a long linear building partitioned into three two-bedroom apartments. It was designed to suit a more extended stay in groups or as a family. The original apartment was self-contained with its pantry and bathroom.

For the new retrofit, the main modification is the spatial function of the middle apartment, which would be converted into a centralized multifunctional communal space, interchangeable for different functions such as dining room, event gathering space and even a small gallery. This communal area would have a double-height volume opening up to the newly built upper storey, with a staircase connecting the existing to the new addition upstairs. This gathering space in the heart of the building with a high ceiling encourages visitors to gather and interact.

With our goal of keeping all existing masonry walls, we reconfigured the layout so that the partition apartments are connected to and enter through the central communal space. Each bedroom of the original apartment is converted into a separate ensuite guestroom with its bathroom added. The new guesthouse will adopt the hotel/hostel model instead of an individual renting out an apartment like before.

For the new structure, what were the spaces that you wanted it to have? Does it merely serve as an extension of the layout of the existing structure? What is the purpose of the open-air stairs and balconies located on opposite sides of this floor?

Programmatically, the newly added upper storey shared similar functions as the lower storey, ensuite guestroom and communal area. The middle section of the linear building is where the old and new building meets. The multipurpose communal zone opened up into a double-height volume. The central staircases finished with cultural and historical artefacts led users to ascend to the new storey.

Both long ends of the upper storeys are recessed with shaded balconies opening outwards, and each end functions differently. Individual balconies are independently connected to its guestrooms on the seaward side to offer a quiet and picturesque sea view of the Indian Ocean. The leeward side is one huge continuous balcony with long steps as seating for viewing the inner landscaping and garden. This area serves as a semi-private communal space where the guests could hold casual meetings, talks or sharing, which are much needed for volunteering/visitors to regroup or debrief after a long day of services. •

How does this project align with your sustainability goals as a firm? How does this project promote cultural sustainability, as you mentioned in your writeup?

This is our long-standing belief and vision on architectural practices to be able to provide solutions to significant problems. When addressing public, cultural, and environmentally sustainable issues through architecture projects, many difficulties naturally come along. Architects often do not encounter these issues in conventional client-commissioned architectural projects, not to mention to be adequately equipped or trained. For our studio, the past six years of designing and constructing these types of projects have allowed us to accumulate a lot of valuable learnings.

In a socially-driven project, architecture differs from just a building because it takes a step further to make comfortability, aesthetic, communal, and environmental sustainability its non-negotiables. The sensibility of these invisible/ unmeasurable/ intangible matters yet important attributes allows architects to fill in an essential seat within the team of engineers and builders in socially conscious design.

Architectural knowledge comes into play in how we try to make more out of less on every decision we make along the way. For this project,  we’re not building an entirely new building that can attract tourists. We decided to take a more difficult path to keep the existing structure and introduce this idea of sustainability to the neighborhood where abandoned buildings are plentiful. We also present design features to celebrate their traditional graphics and craftsmanship. These respectful gestures will hopefully pose a different angle to the visitors and locals on how to embrace their culture and history. It will also encourage them to feel that the building belongs to their community.

Were there any struggles when it came to asking local tribes/ethnic groups to be part of the project? Did you curate the artwork/graphics that could be put in the guesthouse?

The intent of using local tribes/ ethnic groups’ inspired patterns is not merely an aesthetic reason. All these pattern artworks would be designed through a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional regional tribal patterns.  These fabrics would be made through basic weaving or cross-stitching; we make sure it is something that the locals are already familiar with that we could hire the families in the community to produce. We learned this community empowerment model from another Indian project we were involved. Women in the community are engaged in learning and producing custom fabric; the earnings will provide extra financial support to their families, empower community women, and introduce a sense of belonging to this foreigner-established project. 

The guests could experience these products first-hand during their stay and purchase the new products at the end of their stay. So essentially, the guesthouses serve as a genuine showroom for these products, and the underprivileged group aided behind. 

Apart from including artwork and graphics from the different ethnic groups within the region, what are other cultural elements integrated into the project that would give it a local flavor, one that the locals would truly embrace?

The artwork, graphic patterns, and even the façade material Mikoko pole are the tangible elements unique to their culture and background, which the locals can easily relate to. However, we believe the intangible factors are as important. Through continuous social engagements and collaborations, as mentioned above, we hope these experiences will cultivate a sense of belonging to the project which the locals will truly embrace.

How has the community responded to your design of the guesthouse? What is their feedback, and what did you take away from this feedback of theirs?

Most of the comments we received during our small group meet-ups with locals are often positive and anticipative. Some feedback is about everyday cultural norms which could directly inform the design layout, such as having the kitchen separate from the dwelling unit as an appreciative gesture for hosting guests rather than sharing the same unit, so we converted another existing building plot as a catering and services unit.

Some opinions are related to a more profound social concern; these concerns might not sound like a design comment at first but could be powerfully responded to through an architectural method. For example, we spent some time with three young adults who recently graduated from college. One of them studied graphic design and photography, and he shared their struggle with the lack of audience, markets, and opportunities in their reachable class from this region of Kenya. Digital design and photography are just a few of the many disciplines facing this issue. This story impacted our design, especially on programming and furnishing design – the central communal area incorporated a wall gallery and exhibition for showcasing local works and displaying products, artifacts, or other local merchandise. 

Apart from the community response, it is also interesting to mention the interaction with the local consultant. They seem to understand the hot climate issue they have and also understand there are ways to improve it, they just aren’t commonly practiced.  It’s fun to exchange ideas and get them motivated using elements like insulation and passive design strategies.

Another suggestion is from our Building Services Engineer who lives in the region. The site does not connect to the municipal water main, so all water will be purchased and delivered to the site by the water trunk. To cater to this, our design included a rainwater collection system which we thought was already pretty comprehensive as a small-scale guesthouse. Our engineer shared local insights on reducing the dependence on purchasing water, and rainwater collection won’t be enough due to the split rain season. After that, we included extra water storage tanks and installed a biodigester system to filter used grey water for irrigation. This sharing of local wisdom is valuable and essential to social-oriented and environmentally responsible projects. •

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