Graeme Reid and Henry Musangi run Tilisi Development Company with good humour, something of flair and combined experience of 50 years.
Mr Reid, the chief executive since last year, and Mr Musangi, the chief architect, have worked at Tilisi for more than a decade, forging a robust bond that has steered the development company to its current successes.
Mr Reid is a trained human rights lawyer who had worked with civic movements on housing in South Africa before coming to Kenya in 2010. He settled in the country a year later.
“In the private sector, my work has focused on mixed-use mixed-income developments, which is why I came to Kenya,” he says.
Before coming on board full-time last year, Mr Reid had consulted for Tilisi on infrastructure delivery and urban management for 10 years. Previously, he had worked at Centum-owned Two Rivers.
Mr Musangi, the consulting urban designer and lead architect at Tilisi, has worked at, among other major projects, Tatu City. His domain is not only architecture but also urban design and master planning.
“In many ways, it is a unique speciality that requires you to think as an architect but also to determine how to set up land, how to apportion it and put it to use based on the experience you envision as the developer,” explains the graduate of the University of Tennessee.
When the pair came on board, Tilisi, then called Buxton Farm, was an expanse of brush, farms, hills, and valleys.
After heavy work on the site for more than 10 years, the uneven topography has been replaced by Tarmac roads, trim lawns, and stylish, modern apartments.
On departure from standalone homes on owner’s land to communal living in villas, Mr Musangi says Kenyans are realising that ‘‘there are many ways to live’’ and live comfortably ‘‘with a sense of home and community.”
The market is also evolving.
“Fifty percent of our buyers are homeowners and the other 50 percent are buying for investment purposes. For buyers aged 55 and older, they are looking for retirement homes. The rest are aged between 40 and 55,” Mr Reid says.
Mr Musangi says Kenya’s real estate market is experiencing growing demand for middle-income and low-income housing.
‘‘Kenyans are ready to buy at the right price. They will not ask for the traditional 300 square metres. They are content with between 80 and 100 square metres that is equally livable as long as it is good quality and built in a quality environment,” he adds.
The typology, he says, is determined by how much can be fit within the available land. ‘‘It is also determined by accessibility by a wide range of people across different income streams. The idea is to design for flexibility and diversity.”
On amenities, Mr Reid adds that sometimes “you do not need everything in your garden. You could walk down the road in your estate and enjoy the greenery in communal parks.”
With developments such as Tilisi coming up, land prices in Tigoni, Limuru, and Sigona have been arching upwards, with an acre of an unserviced plot now selling at Sh30 million against less than Sh10 million a decade ago.
Mr Reid notes that investment in an environment like this requires “patient capital” that takes time and planning, arguing: “This is the impact of good development. Buyers do not incur extra charges for connectivity to water, sewer and power networks.”
The executive says with Tilisi, the design brief visualised the property as a 15-minute circuit.
‘‘A place people could walk or ride and experience the different views the property offers,’’ Mr Reid recalls.
The owners also wanted a property that could easily be integrated into the local geography and community as a suburb. To do this, Tilisi offers ways that connect to the broader community.
‘‘Ultimately, there will be a hospital and retail outlets that serve everyone. It is not a gated community,” Musangi says.
Within the property are a manufacturing company, an upcoming school, and an e-bike assembly plant.
Besides offering a housing solution, Mr Reid says Tilisi wanted to solve challenges that most city neighbourhoods in the world face today: development uncertainty, congestion, water shortage, and power unreliability.
“You buy a piece of land in, say, Lavington, and put up a home. Before you know it, there is a multistorey apartment block right next to it. We wanted to demonstrate that a model that [promotes order] is doable.’’
Tilisi has a master plan and a design review committee that assesses all proposals to put up structures on the property based on established guidelines.
‘‘Before you put up homes, for instance, you know how your neighbours will use their parcel,” Mr Reid says. This ensures uniformity and compatible use for order.
Mr Musangi notes that the rigour that characterised municipal management in Kenya four decades ago has faded, owing largely to corruption. The result has been chaotic urban areas devoid of proper zoning.
“It is for urban areas to evolve. They cannot remain static. But even as they evolve, this has to happen in a controlled, intentional way that allows compatible and predictable use,’’ the architect says.
He observes that it is important that ‘‘we go back to these principles of order.’’
While it has put up these facilities and greened the estate by planting grass and more than 1,000 trees, the property has also benefitted from the extensive road network by the government.
“Part of the reason a section of our investment is (93 percent) sold out is the connectivity. We effectively have a ring road around us that connects to other areas,” the chief executive says.
In future, the property intends to buy power in bulk and commission a distributor to sell it to different users in the estate.
Mr Musangi says he has remained on the project for a long because of ‘‘the changing dynamics that influence demand for housing. He hopes to replicate ‘‘the same standards of urban design and management practices’’ in the public sector.
Already, he and other architects have a working partnership with Kisumu County to develop progressive guidelines for urban planning.