Since 2009, Ghana’s population has been increasing more than two percent year-over-year. The country’s capital city, Accra, is among the ranks of Africa’s fastest growing cities and it is projected that by 2035, the city’s current population of more than 2.5 million habitants will increase by at least a million, bringing the population total to roughly 3.5 million.
The rapid growth has added strain to an already burdened housing market and is challenging architects and urban planners to find a way to provide desperately needed housing in a booming city. And while affordable housing projects in Accra, Ghana have historically faced issues when it comes to actually being accessible and of good quality, Orthner Orthner & Associates (OOA) are setting new standards as to what the city’s affordable housing stock could and should look like, while putting sustainability at the forefront of their designs.
OOA was founded by husband and wife duo Martin and Rosemary Orthner in 2003 in Austria, where the couple met while both studying architecture at the University of Technology in Graz, Austria. Prior to his architectural training, Martin Orthner studied civil engineering where he learned masonry, carpentry, plumbing, roofing and many other building trades. Similarly, Rosemary Orthner grew up around construction since her family owned and operated a construction company in Ghana.
After working in Austria for five years and garnering 15 residential projects under their belt, Martin and Rosemary decided to move their firm to Ghana– where Rosemary was born and raised. The firm is responsible for nearly a dozen commercial and residential projects in Accra, and have gained a reputation for their dedication to sustainability and utilization of local materials within their designs.
One of OOA’s first big contracts in Ghana was a collaboration with South African architectural firm Co-Arc International to renovate Accra’s dated Labadi Beach Hotel. At the time, OOA didn’t have any experience working on large-scale commercial projects, however, Co-Arc was in need of a local partner and found themselves impressed with OOA’s residential profile for the Swiss Embassy, as well as the shared common values when it came to quality.
The once five-star, 104-room hotel was completely refurbished to reflect five-star accommodation standards and allowed OOA to design a new contemporary wing built with traditional materials, like wood shingle roofs and timber detailing, which speak to a classic modern Ghanaian aesthetic. The project was completed in 2010.
“We successfully completed the Labadi Beach Hotel project and, in the meantime, won the tender for the new IFC/World Bank Headquarters in Accra, together with Co-Arc and Arup,” says Martin.
The IFC/World Bank Headquarters, located along Independence Avenue in Accra, was a project that allowed OOA to design a “world-class” office facility that would be both environmentally sustainable and contemporary, all while respecting local building traditions. OOA aimed to design the building to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (better known as LEED) standards and though it is not LEED-certified, it does meet many of the requirements.
“Our project was fully designed to LEED principles, but LEED doesn’t consider our infrastructure and development status where we have to import many items and face many restrictions for what is locally available,” explained Martin. “So at the end, our building was designed to LEED requirements, but the client opted to not go through the certification process. Nevertheless, IFC introduced their own green building certification tool, called ‘EDGE,’ and we were the first architectural firm to partner with them here in Ghana.”
In 2019, the IFC/World Bank Headquarters received the EDGE Certificate for its outstanding green building measures. Some of the project’s highlights include a green roof, water harvesting and recycling systems, multiple courtyards, and a shading screen wall that forms a contemporary interpretation of traditional Ghanaian Kente Weaving culture over the four-story structure.
Part of the firm’s success relies heavily on knowing when to decline projects that don’t align with their ethics and working around issues involving readily available supplies in Ghana.
“When it comes to building with local materials like wood and earth, the biggest challenge in Ghana is always finding a reliable source that can deliver large quantities of materials over an extended period of time,” explains Martin Orthner. “We only use sustainable wood from certified sawmills in Ghana, but they don’t always have all species readily available or cut and dried the way we want it. So sometimes you must wait for a certain batch of wood for several months, or seek other solutions, other sources.”
Modern building practices in Ghana sort of disregard the idea of relying on wood, however, OOA regularly uses wood as a building material, proving that it is both beautiful and practical. “Kusia and Odum are wood species that are very good building elements,” says Martin. “Kusia is very good for deckings and Odum is used for Ghana’s famous canoes, so as you can imagine, that makes it very hard to get.”
Essentially, all hardwood species have specific purposes that all depend on the design, but OOA doesn’t shy away from any of them. The key is knowing what works and what does not, in terms of certain building aspects, and also knowing how to work with what is available. For instance, the Dahoma wood species can be a great building material but it is not good for doors and window frames since it has a tendency to bend over time. These are the kind of details that OOA prioritizes when crafting developments.
For their sustainable real estate development, The SAX in Tesano, Accra, OOA tapped Samartex, one of Ghana’s leading sustainable and socially responsible wood processing companies to provide the materials for the project’s six townhouses. The building’s designs reinforce the significance of wood as a building material in tropical settings and also called for local artisans in construction that were trained by specialists from Germany. All walls are multilayer timber frame walls with an open wooden batten façade and a second sun shading layer made from steel wood and glass.
Other features at SAX include waste water treatment, solar water heating, rooftop terraces, origami wooden stairs, heat insulated wall and roof structures, and a small public park with benches and indigenous plants. Each of the townhouses are comprised of 2-3 bedroom units sprawled over three floors.
With Legon City Lofts, OOA got the unique opportunity to not only design the project, but also to develop it. “We had the opportunity to show what we think is a real sustainable development, at least with what is available in Ghana,” said Martin. With full control, the firm opted to create four loft-style residences that relied on materials like rammed earth and sustainable hardwood that was sourced locally. The intention was to create one of the first sustainable real estate developments in Ghana that was also affordable. “Our philosophy was to create something really outstanding and sustainable, but affordable to rent, at least for the same market price as other houses in the neighborhood,” Martin explains.
With an emphasis and reputation for impeccable detailing, OOA often works one-to-one with building site workers to bring their designs to life. This was the case with Legon City Lofts, where the team actually worked on site with the builders and drew their designs on walls, floors, or wherever needed to bring a greater understanding to what the firm was trying to achieve.
The resulting townhouses feature self-shading exteriors with overhangs, roof projections and screens that protect the facades from direct sunlight while encouraging sufficient day lighting; LED lighting and low energy consuming electrical devices; EcoSmart showers that save 60 percent of water usually lost during showering, and a Solar Photovoltaic system that allow the homes to generate their own energy from the sun. Not to mention the landscaped garden areas, swimming pool, sauna, and gym facilities. Additionally, the buildings cover no more than 40 percent of the plot of land as a way of preserving the natural environment and vegetation.
Legon City Lofts turned out to be very successful and in 2019, it was awarded the best
Residential Development at the City Construction and Property Awards by Image Consortium. “We have so many inquiries and actually need more units,” says Martin. “People recognize the quality and the positive energy the development has and the tenants are very satisfied.”
OOA is working to expand its profile of affordable housing in Ghana, but this doesn’t come without challenges. According to Martin, the local government is responsible for providing the necessary infrastructure and assisting with land acquisition to make it easier to build affordable housing in Ghana. However, this isn’t happening at the level needed to resolve the country’s affordable housing deficit.
On a current affordable house design that OOA is working on, the firm has to buy plots of land on the outskirts of Accra, bring their own electricity to the site and create the infrastructure to support it, deal with a lack of access to water, and even deal with land guards constantly demanding money. “All these additional things we had to take care of, cost at the end more money than the actual house itself,” stated Martin.
Ultimately, the firm is hoping to land an affordable project that expands beyond single-family residences and ventures into the zone of a “multi-level compact living development,” or in simpler terms, an apartment building, ideally at the center of Accra. If such an opportunity were to present itself, OOA already has a goal in mind: to complete the space with “a lot of sustainable, local materials and clever architectural solutions” that tenants would be proud to live in.
OOA has many other projects that they have successfully executed and in 2016, the firm named Ghanaian architect and CNN Africa’s “rising star” Akosua Obeng as one of its partners. One of OOA’s most recent projects includes the new IT Training Centre in Tema, Ghana for the Ghana Revenue Authority. OOA & German consultancy GOPA Infra won the tender to design and construct the new building in 2019 and its design seeks to improve the quality of IT training by improving the learning environment both in a single location and across the regions through e-learning. There are also plans for a large-scale commercial project in Roman Ridge, Accra and a maternity clinic named the Mallam Atta Clinic that is a pro bono project.
“For every project, we do our best to treat it with a lot of responsibility. Maybe that’s why we only take on a very limited number of projects– to be sure we can put as much effort into each one as possible,” declared Martin.