Whichever way you look, something is likely to capture your attention, be it the magnificent towers of the CBD, the new blocks towering over Upper Hill, or the backdrops of Ngong Hills to the south, Mua Hills to the east, or Mt Kenya to the north.
If you were to climb to the city’s highest point with a camera, therefore, you would be spoilt for choice. Celebrated photographer Mutua Matheka has done it before, and his pictures are phenomenal.
For a long time the government-owned Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) held the crown of the tallest man-made structure in Nairobi and the wider East and Central Africa after it was completed in 1978.
A trip to Nairobi, therefore, was considered incomplete if a visitor did not have a picture taken with the iconic building behind him or her, or one with the city’s horizon in the background as you scream from the helipad of this iconic structure.
In 2000, however, KICC watched helplessly from its concrete tether as Times Tower slowly rose above it, effectively ending its reign as the region’s testament to the brilliance of architecture.
But, whereas Times Tower beat KICC in sheer height — it towers 140 metres above Nairobi — it failed to outclass it in terms of architectural design, and so the convention centre remains Nairobi’s most preferred image on postcards.
These two buildings have remained the official landmarks of Nairobi for the last 14 years. When Times Tower was officially crowned the region’s tallest man-made structure in May 2000, many had hoped that the government would go on with its spending spree and put up more skyscrapers, but the rate of economic growth slowed down, pushing the Treasury out of the race to conquer skies.
The government, however, left the stage with its head held high; it had not only established a huge presence in the CBD, but also owned the tallest buildings in the land, in the names of Times Tower, KICC and Teleposta Towers, in that order.
The private sector stepped into the field with gusto, and earlier this week it toppled the government from its towering pedestal. On Monday, construction workers were doing final preparations for the topping up ceremony, expected to take place next week, for the magnificent UAP Towers in Upper Hill.
In construction parlance, topping up is a rite carried out when the last beam or its equivalent is placed atop a structure. It signals the end of the construction period and ushers in the finishing stage, during which most mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems are fitted.
Officially, this means that the KICC has been relegated further into third place among the tallest skyscrapers in the country as UAP Towers makes an entry into the league of iconic landmarks of Nairobi.
Standing 31 floors, the structure is seven floors shorter than Times Tower and two levels higher than KICC. But, despite its leaner muscle in the levels category, it beats all Nairobi’s offers to become the new king of the sky because of the higher elevation of its site.
This record was previously held by the 16-storey Rahimtulla Tower, — also known as Rahimtulla Trust Building — which, because of its strategic Upper Hill location, towered over the rest of the city, giving one unobstructed views of the entire metropolis.
Jackson Theuri, the UAP Insurance Chief Financial Officer, is an ecstatic man. He has watched the tower grow slowly from the ground as cranes kept piling on the concrete, and now says the new building “is the only structure in the city centre that is visible from the runway at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport”, and that “it is expected to remain that way for a long time to come”.
Still within Upper Hill, construction is being hastened for the 31-storey Britam Towers, also expected to be completed next year, and hot on its heels along 3rd Ngong Avenue is the 33-storey, all-glass-exterior King’s Prism tower — the reason for the name is clear as the structure looks like five prisms stacked on top of one another.
At the city centre, the construction of the Sh7 billion, 40-floor Hazina Trade Centre is in high gear as an all-out war for honours in an industry where size matters gains momentum.
And it is not just about size, the architectural designs of these iconic buildings are pushing the boundaries, with emphasis on energy-saving characteristics and visual appeal.
Both UAP Towers and King’s Prism will have intelligent light control systems that will enable lights to switch themselves on when someone enters a room and off when they leave, for instance.
Also, the all-glass walls of King’s Prism will minimise the need to switch on lights during the day, saving a considerable amount of electricity. Wind flow was considered when designing the UAP Tower, which would enable it to have natural air conditioning.
Its close competitor, Britam Towers, will have wind turbines to generate power for some parts of the building while Hazina Towers will have vegetated roof terraces and a helipad.
Currently, Nairobi has only 12 buildings that tower more than 80 metres, but this number is expected to rise to 18 by the year 2016, when six more buildings are expected to join the roll of honour.
These are Hazina Towers, Britam Towers, Kings Prism, UAP Towers, Le Mac, KCB Plaza and CTDLT Towers.
But why the sudden clamour for skyscrapers in the capital? Experts say this is a sign of a maturing real estate industry, and that Nairobi is also asserting itself as a financial hub in the region.
“What has been happening in the past is sprawling as the city expanded its boundaries to neighbouring counties to compensate for lack of land, but it appears that Nairobi’s real estate industry is finally maturing,” says Robert Yawe, a financial analyst and real estate consultant at Quadrant Shift Africa.
He says the high cost of land is one of the factors that have pushed developers to construct super tall structures as land is a major component of the overall construction costs of any building, adding that the ownership of these new kings of the sky by financial institutions has been necessitated by the desire to diversify their incomes and increase their assets.
“If you look at the new structures coming up, most of them are owned by insurance firms, which also shows that the financial market is growing and, in the spirit of competition, it is only natural that firms which are making a lot of money use it to get more,” he explains.
And, while it may alarm some investment consultants that these firms are pumping their billions into the real estate sector, in a real sense these are unlikely to dent the pockets of the organisations.
For instance, Britam has an asset base of Sh25 billion in Kenya, and by the end of 2012 NSSF, the owners of Hazina Towers, had a portfolio of Sh121.5 billion.
Mr Theuri, the UAP CFO, agrees, adding that the insurer chose to break ground at Upper Hill because, as a result of good connectivity and infrastructure, Nairobi is witnessing an upsurge of multinationals, “which has in turn exerted a lot of pressure” on the market to put up modern office blocks that can serve as regional headquarters.
“We realised that there was a shortage of Grade A office accommodation and decided to enter the real estate industry,” he adds.
A report released last year by Mentor Management, a real estate firm, showed that companies were willing to pay double the market rate of $0.7 per square foot charged by a majority of developers at the city centre in order to relocate to city suburbs like Upper Hill and Westlands.
The report cited insecurity, traffic congestion and lack of adequate parking space within the city centre as one of the main reasons why firms would wish to relocate.
And the exodus is already happening. Some of the firms that have moved from the city centre are the Nairobi Stock Exchange, Barclays Bank, Equity Bank, Standard Chartered and Commercial Bank of Africa.
British oil giant Tullow Oil snubbed the city centre when it was setting up in Nairobi, opting to instead settle on West End Towers along Waiyaki Way.
Those currently planning to move out include Kenya Commercial Bank, which is expected to move from Kencom to its 20-storey KCB Plaza in Upper Hill.
The report also projected that Upper Hill and Westlands will contribute 70 per cent of the 1.7 million square feet of office space that will come into the market annually over the next two years.
To match this increased demand for office space, developers keen on cashing in are constructing taller buildings to serve as office blocks in areas that were once residential areas but are close to the city centre.
“With the high cost of land in Nairobi, you have only two options; either you increase the rent — which would mean a lower occupancy rate — or you increase the number of floors, hence the inclination to go vertical,” says Anthony Kinja, a real estate consultant at Wealth Inc Realtors.
Areas affected by this sudden demand for office space outside the city centre are Upper Hill, Westlands and Kilimani, a fact that Mr Kinja argues is a normal evolution process for a growing city.
“Nairobi has previously underutilised its land resource, because a place like Kilimani, which is just three kilometres from the CBD, has until recently been occupied by families living on half-acre plots, so it is natural that offices take over that space as the economy grows,” he says.
Kinja argues that although some developers would love to construct new skyscrapers at the city centre to compete with the ones already there, there is currently no space available for such an undertaking.
“The higher you build, the wider your base should be,” he explains. “It would be uneconomical to construct a skyscraper in the city centre where the average size of a plot is an eighth of an acre, which on Moi Avenue costs around Sh500 million.”