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Tuesday 30, May 2017 by Matthew Amlôt

Building the future: A4AC

Banker Africa spoke with Anton Bouwer and John Saaiman, two of the three Directors and Co-Founders of Architecture For A Change, a South African start-up.

Architecture For A Change (A4AC) began five years ago as a project by three architectural graduates from the University of Johannesburg, Anton Bouwer, Dirk Coetser and John Saaiman where work involving engagement with the community took centre state.

“Post-graduation the three of us decided to get together and form something small with a focus on work similar to community work and that’s also where the name spawned from, Architecture For A Change,” said Bouwer.

The firm offers a full turnkey service in their container designs, from design, manufacturing to implementation. Bouwer commented, “There isn’t an inch of the container that we don’t know what has happened or wasn’t designed by us and that’s a nice thing because if anything does go wrong we usually know exactly what the problem is. We chose a different avenue of architecture, we’re trying to implement what we design and it led to us being almost manufacturing architects.”

A4AC can design a unit fit for almost any purpose from commercial designs for a coffee shop or a bank, to residential units or community projects such as schools or low cost housing.

Having worked together on a year on this project, the trio saw their idea transforming into something that could become a viable business model. The company now involved in both residential and corporate work in addition to their outreach work in rural communities. Bouwer added, “It spawned from an idea to produce change through architecture and it has since snowballed into this company which we’ve been running now for five years.”

Despite being formed with the idea of effecting change in rural communities, this kind of work is not without its challenges. Often work in rural communities involves working with limited funds, according to Bouwer, meaning that often for A4AC there is a limit to the investment the company can expect to receive for these projects. This is one of the reasons that A4AC is currently trying to push their commercial side. Ideally the company would be have a portfolio of 40 per cent commercial, 30 per cent residential and 30 per cent community orientated but currently the A4AC isn’t always able to choose exactly what type of project to pursue.

“There’s months on end where we do three to four projects in a row which are just commercial and then we’ll do five projects that are just rural work,” said Bouwer. “At this point we are not fortunate enough to choose what happens where, it’s just as the projects come in we decide to take it or not then we go with it.”

There are two key reasons why the kind of mobile designs that A4AC offers have a place in South Africa noted Bouwer. The first of which is the often complex issues surrounding building on land which is often owned by one or another tribe, meaning that the company or institution looking to build does not own the site that they are planning to build on. Further to this is the issue that a lot of newer outreach sites, such as the developments that A4AC have worked with First National Bank (FNB) on, are in areas in which the bank does not necessarily know are viable.

“FNB as a bank can’t invest a huge amount of money to build a branch and find in a year or two find it doesn’t work and then they lose the building in an investment sense along with the physically built infrastructure,” added Bouwer. “So that’s when we approached them with the idea of doing a mobile solution. With budgets being tight we decided the easiest solution was to retrofit a 12 metre container because the transportation and logistics infrastructure is already in place, making the offloading and movement of the unit more viable, cheaper and cost-effective.”

A key component of the company’s success with its mobile solutions has been offering the cost reduction A4AC can provide by developing the project offsite before final delivery, added Saaiman. Producing something on site is expensive, and the company’s production model allows much of these costs to be avoided.

“We look at with all our projects to make a solution that actually gets manufactured in a factory and then the time on site is cut on hopefully by about 70 per cent, which allows us to do a better quality project at a faster rate,” said Saaiman.

A4AC has currently completed its fourth project in partnership with FNB over the past the year, roughly one every three months. The partnership was born out of the success A4AC had with the production of a small coffee shop unit with a company called Roast Republic, it became the company’s proof of concept that a mobile unit built in a container was a viable solution.

Overall though, the biggest challenge that A4AC is facing revolves around the company’s branding. Bouwer describes that the company’s name ‘Architecture For A Change’ has meant that it has often been considered as a non-profit organisation, which brings a certain corporate stigma.

“There’s a bit of stigma surrounding [non-profit work] but it was at the core of why we started the company in the first place, so it’s not something that we can discard. So one of the biggest challenges I would say is that there is a stigma surrounding the kind of work we do, although it’s not our main focus people assume it is.”

However, the company’s work with FNB has provided a link between corporates and the type of work that A4AC does. Bouwer foresees that this could open other corporates to the avenues of possibility that exist using A4AC’s mobile architectural model.

When asked about where the company will be in a year, Bouwer said, “Ideally on the manufacturing side we would like to see in a year’s time us pushing out more of the FNB units client and maybe trying to, not moving away from, but limit our manufacturing side and obviously increase our commercial architectural side more and hopefully this is a catalyst for that.”

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