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A Lagos Townhouse Post Covid-19

July 17, 2021

In transforming their Lagos townhouse, Jeffrey and Olayinka set down some ideas on how the recent lockdowns and pandemic have influenced their thoughts about domestic space in Lagos.

A Lagos Townhouse Post Covid-19

[Written by: Olayinka Dosekun-Adjei and Jeffrey Adjei of Studio Contra]

During the mandatory lockdowns of 2020, as a result of the spread of Covid-19 through Lagos and the rest of the world, people across the world became intimately acquainted with our homes and the people with whom we share them. With more time spent at home in 2020 than at any other period in recent history, we now know almost everything about our individual domestic spaces; whether they feel large or small, clean or cluttered, bright or dimly lit. Many of us may have been forced to ask ourselves how satisfied we really are with our spaces of habitation and cohabitation. 

In Lagos, although the state-wide lockdown was lifted after 2-months, many of those working in the knowledge economy who are able to do so remotely will remain at home either full time or part-time for the foreseeable future. Working from home is here to stay because as a society our relationship to home has fundamentally changed. ‘Home’ is no longer simply a place to lay one's heads and spend the weekends. Instead, entire lives have been readjusted to orbit around this single place which now serves as office, gym, movie theatre, place of worship, classroom, restaurant and so much more - a host to a multitude of activities at the same time, for several people, and at all times of day. This seemingly short-lived change in how we view and interact with domestic spaces is more likely than not to last long, even after the current health crisis passes.

As architects who happen to live in a home which we co-designed and renovated, the words of the poet Philip Larkin, “ we live measures our own nature” have come to mind many times over the past year or so. The places in which we spend the most time for better or worse tend to shape our thoughts, habits and lives, and so we must acknowledge that ‘home’ has a profound psychological impact on us.   

Jeffrey Adjei and I live in a 4-bedroom terrace house in Ikoyi which was renovated at the end of 2019, before any of us had heard of Covid-19 or could imagine the impact it would have on the globe. Since then, we have had ample opportunity to reflect on the changes we made to the house and to identify design decisions which, upon reflection, stand out now as particularly apt or prescient in light of the pandemic that was awaiting us. Indeed, confronting the limitations and opportunities of our own home has had a significant impact on how we design for clients. We have put together our thoughts in what we hope will be useful and affordable guidelines for designing or reconfiguring other homes in Lagos post-Covid-19.

Conceptual collage rendition of our Lagos townhouse

1. Openness, Natural Illumination and Ventilation

Our townhouse is tall and narrow with rooms distributed over three floors (ground, first and second), as well as a half floor and roof space at the very top (the third floor). When we first moved in, each room was a distinct and walled space and each floor separate from the other (connected only by a staircase). One of the most important considerations for us was to create more openness in the house both horizontally and vertically; the aim being to encourage the penetration of natural light into every part of the interior, by reducing the interruption caused by solid opaque walls and creating openness and dialogue between different floor levels.

We removed the kitchen door, eliminated the traditional kitchen store, replaced it with a generous pantry cabinet, and opened up a wide portal between the kitchen and dining area to link these two spaces; allowing air and light through from one space to another. As a result, the house is now able to breathe and cross-ventilate naturally. Cooking and dish-washing areas were relocated from the centre of the kitchen to the rear (near the kitchen exterior window), and an extractor hood mounted over the cooker to minimize the smell of food being prepared that reaches the living spaces. As a result of these changes, air currents can now be felt between the kitchen window and the living room rear terrace glazing, and light rebounds freely from pale grey tiles, white walls and ceilings, across and throughout the bright and airy ground floor space.

During the long days of quarantine, the extra sunlight and fresh air in the house contributed immensely to day-time comfort, through many mornings and afternoons without electricity. We found that we could rely entirely on the comfort of natural illumination and ventilation during the day (aided by inverter battery-powered ceiling fans rather than energy intensive air conditioning), right up until the evening and after sunset.

An open plan kitchen looking onto the dining and living room spaces beyond allows light and air right through the house

The kitchen can be enlarged by doing away with the traditional 'store' and replacing it with a custom piece of pantry joinery

2. Maximizing Available Space

Embracing a more open plan by selectively removing unnecessary walls is one obvious strategy to make an interior space feel larger; but increasing the usable floor area by reconfiguration and/or strategic physical extension is another effective one.

At all times of day, the kitchen is the heart of many homes; a fond and familiar location for reading the news, afternoon and midnight snacks, impromptu family gatherings and conversations. Knowing that we would be spending a great deal of time in ours, it is a space we chose to completely re-arrange and re-design. We started by demolishing all existing subdivisions so there would be one large space; we eliminated the store and replaced it with a large pantry cupboard designed with storage shelves and compartments for all our water, dry food, yams, potatoes, rice, and spice jars. In doing so, we reclaimed almost four square meters of space for the main kitchen.

The new kitchen opens up to the dining area through a breakfast bar portal. To avoid cooking smells making their way into the dining and living areas, we positioned the sink,  prep area, hob and oven by the kitchen window at the far end, away from the dining and living spaces, and installed a hood extractor over the hob as well as a wall-mounted air extractor for additional ventilation.

The second opportunity we found to maximize the existing interior space was to create a side extension to the living room projecting into the garden. This new room on the ground floor proved invaluable under quarantine conditions, serving as a separate space for activities of all kinds (reading, exercising, video creation, gaming and television watching), while the new terrace above it overlooks the garden and provides some outdoor space for the first floor.

change in the colour of the floor tiles acts as a minimal division between spaces and signals a change in function between one area of the house and another

3.Privacy vs Openness, Acoustic Separation and Visual Connection

We have chosen to embrace the open plan with minimal separation between spaces; it works for us. However, the open plan spatial lifestyle may not be well suited to every circumstance. Privacy and acoustic separation are often crucial during cohabitation and especially under quarantine conditions when we are together all day. One person may be working and require silence, while another is on a loud call, listening to music, watching television or exercising in another part of the house.

In other instances, visual separation is needed while acoustic separation is not. Distinguishing between these scenarios is a useful mechanism for designing how adjacent and interconnected spaces can be divided whether with solid walls and doors, or simply with architraves, screens and greenery.

View through staircase screen of light from skylight atrium

4. Existence Minimum

We may get bored of our own possessions when forced to look at them every day; rearrange them, sift through them and clean around or under them. Lockdown has given us all a chance to re-evaluate our lives more holistically and in a new light, appreciating and being grateful for what we deem precious and valuable to maintain, and purging what we have come to realise is unnecessary, unproductive or harmful. This psychological exercise could be extended to our physical spaces. How do the objects, furniture and ‘things’ around us serve our interests and goals? Would they be missed if they were removed from view, thrown out or given away? Perhaps not.

Leveraging this idea, we considered the ‘micro-apartment’ or ‘tiny house’ movement currently gaining popularity across some of the world’s major cities. These small homes, often less than 30 square meters in total, find ways to make the most of their available space by reducing ‘visual noise’ and getting back to basics - emphasising only the essentials. In our renovated house, we seized every opportunity to build in clever storage solutions and hidden compartments; offering space to hide away extra possessions and de-clutter, such as in Brad Swartz’ ingeniously designed micro-apartment in Sydney, ‘Boneca’.

Reducing visual clutter in every room has been a priority

5. Connection to Nature

Our mental health relies, whether consciously or subconsciously, on some connection to the natural environment - ranging from real sunlight to cleaner air and proximity to greenery. In a concrete jungle such as Lagos, access to private green space is a luxury that is out of reach for most families. Intensified levels of cabin fever as well as pandemic anxieties around fresh air and hygiene have re-emphasised the need for architects and property developers in Nigeria to pay much more attention to the human need for clean air and escape from the indoors. The commercial and residential projects of Vietnamese contemporary architects, Vo Trong Nghia, show how it is possible for even buildings in dense cities to embrace nature by incorporating lush, verdant balconies, hanging plants, creepers, green walls, accessible green roofs and terrace spaces.

In our own home, we strengthened this connection to greenery by creating an indoor garden which divides the dining area from the sitting area. By breaking through a small 5 square meter area of all floors, right through the ground slab and to the soil below, we were able to generate a modest green atrium; a tiny landscape consisting of a small tree, shrubs and flowers lit by the newly installed skylight in the roof. Likewise, potted plants are scattered throughout the rest of the house on other floors as well as on the terraces and rooftop and collapsible mosquito netting was installed in every window so that unobstructed views can be enjoyed when windows are closed.

We created a small interior garden directly below the new skylight atrium

Indoor greenery helps with natural freshness and evaporative cooling

We have emerged from the brief and unusual confinement of 2020 with positive new ideas and motivations to influence domestic spaces in Lagos with changes that will comfort, nurture and inspire us within our homes.

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