Opinion: High cost of constructing buildings in Ghana, time to rethink construction

By Frank Arko-Tharkor

I was in Ghana recently and had dinner with a vice chancellor of one of the Universities in Ghana, a man I have known for about 25 years and a man who has always been engineering and construction biased, passionate about his profession. During the discourse this topic ensued; why are we still constructing buildings the same way we have both known how? Why do we still use heavy blocks for non-load bearing walls? Why do we cast concrete over all the walls at lintel level and reinforce the same? Why?

We laughed, shrugged shoulders and tucked in the chicken thighs and khebabs being served. I suppose you’re right, and frankly we haven’t really explored and researched this area to the fullest to cost engineer it, he blurted out. The conversation concluded by suggesting perhaps we should ask his engineering and construction students to carry out a dissertation on the cost effectiveness of the existing construction methods currently employed in Ghana versus lean construction where we deliberately cut out unwanted construction expense. Use indigenous lightweight materials for non-load bearing walls. What will be the life span of such lean constructed buildings in Ghana? I’ll be happy to sponsor such a dissertation, I concluded.

History of building construction in Ghana emanated from three typical traditional types of buildings: The Atakpame, the wattle and daub wall, and the wall from sundried bricks.

Modern day construction methods have eliminated these types of basic construction and transposed ourselves to a totally alien trajectory of so called modern construction methods where we build fortresses and buildings akin to castles to imprison ourselves. It’s time to rethink construction.

It’s time to rethink construction when we use the same 100mm x 225mm x 400mm blocks to construct both internal walls, outer walls and worse of all fence walls.

It’s time to rethink construction when we still construct high rise buildings with the same materials for the ground floors as well as for the 10th floors. The durability of the building is in its weight and materials. You may have a life span of say 100 years in it but during this time are we checking the differential settlement and effect on the land. The landlord may have been long dead and gone but future residents face the brunt of this unnecessary loading.

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We have, since the evolution of buildings from the Atakpame days to current day not researched into the whys of what we do what we do. We construct the way we construct because that’s how we have been taught and that’s how our fathers did it, and the researches carried out at the KNUSTs, The former Polytechnics (Now technical Universities) lie in waste gathering dusts as having already served its purpose as an academic document. The translation from academic work to practicality on the ground is practically impossible, the conduit is just not there and we don’t care. It’s time to rethink construction.

On 18th May, 2017 Ghana Real Estates Developers Association were quoted as saying “its analysis points to the fact that lower income earners within the country may never benefit from government’s affordable housing project. According to GREDA, current conditions and systems prevailing within the country do not favour lower income earners who dream of owning a house”. It’s true the average Ghanaian cannot afford a 3 bedroom house on their own. And if the mortgage market picks up and gives people mortgages which they’re unable to afford due to lower income levels, the ultimate crunch is what we saw in 2007 credit crunch which hit the western economy. The current Ghanaian system of cash society favours us all and any movement into a credit society has its pit falls which culturally and systemically we are not prepared for. Let’s not mend that which isn’t broken.

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I’ll recommend we look at the evolution of building construction and affordable housing in the following countries and culturally appropriate this in our Ghanaian concept.

The Chinese affordable housing model

Low cost housing in China uses indigenous materials. They have investigated the proper ways of using local materials for housing throughout the country in order to save construction costs and fully exploit local resources. How did we in Ghana evolve from the Atakpames, the wattle and daub walls, and the wall from sundried bricks? We did a 360 degree turnaround and threw the 1000 year old traditional construction methods away and employed the methods used in other western countries where they didn’t have the type of soil we had to build our houses. It’s time to rethink construction.

The Singaporean affordable housing model

Singapore went from one of the world’s worst housing shortage to 80% – 90% of Singaporeans living in Government built flats. If the government of Singapore was building the type of buildings i.e the SSNIT flats, and other high rises you find in the cities for its citizens, it just couldn’t afford 80% – 90% of citizens living in properties constructed by government.

Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB) was formed in 1960 and replaced the City Planning Agency formed by the British colonialists. Juxtapose this to the system we have in Ghana, the Town and Country Planning Department (TCPD) was established in 1945 by the British colonialists and charged with the responsibility of planning and management of growth and development of cities, towns and villages in the country. What is their achievement so far? Your guess is as good as mine.

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The Singapore Construction Industry Training Institute (CITI) has come up with innovative ideas to construct affordable housing scheme for its citizenry. It’s a win-win situation for the government as well the citizens. It’s time for Ghana to rethink construction we cannot afford to have the same old mindset and expect to use that to create an affordable housing scheme for all.It hasn’t worked and it’ll not work.

Kenya is doing something different. Nairobi skyline is rapidly growing and unable to meet a growing demand for housing so they’re rethinking.

If others have done it, we can do it too. Institutions like Town and Country Planning should have a national policy which transcends change of government and be pursued vigorously to provide the needed housing schemes for the Ghanaian.

Individuals who want to build houses need to be creative with their architects and challenge their engineers to construct and cost engineer their buildings.

Let us work to explore alternative design methods in which our indigenous materials and its constraints can positively and creatively inform our construction projects. Let our institutions modernise, let’s modernise using our own indigenous technologies, indigenous materials, improve its durability and strength and tap into our own resources.

Let’s ask why for it is time to rethink construction.


The author is a professional Chartered Quantity Surveyor. He heads the Commercial Management function for Railway Track Delivery and with over 15 years’ experience in the UK Construction and Railway industry. He holds MSc in Construction Management from Birmingham University and MSc in Construction Law from University of West of England. He is passionate about transparency in Public Procurement, Risks and Opportunity Management, and maximising margin/profit in Construction projects. Contact Frank.arkotharkor@yahoo.com



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