Seventy-six-year-old Jim Archer is a successful architect and the founding partner of Planning Systems Services, an architectural firm that is responsible for designing some of the most elegant buildings in Nairobi. Jim is also the brain behind the Community Cooker designed to turn rubbish into safe, clean and cheap energy. Jim, who deems hard work and creativity to be key to success, walks ESTHER KIRAGU through the journey of his life as an architect and philanthropist.
The first thing I notice in Jim Archer’s offices on Lower Kabete Road in Nairobi are beautiful models and architectural sketches displayed on the corridors of this elegant, but old, stone house standing on neatly manicured gardens with huge mature trees, a welcoming waterfall and scrap metal sculptures. This must be one of the few remaining houses from the colonial era and you can tell the additions done to accommodate PLANNING’S 70 plus workers ensured the original design and character remained.
Jim’s office is typical of an architect’s office – sketches, designs, pencils, rolled papers, sheets of drawing papers, and wall hangings related to his work. I spot a photograph of Nairobi’s skyline featuring some of the city centre’s high-rise buildings on one of the walls and can’t take my eyes off it.
“Some of these buildings are my work,” Jim tells me when he notices my eyes glued to the photograph. Jim and PLANNING are responsible for designing some of the most prestigious buildings in Nairobi including the I&M Bank, Lonrho House, Rahimtulla Towers, Braeburn and Starehe Schools, among many others. I am looking forward to this interview, which I primarily requested to understand Jim’s work as an architect and also the designer of the award-winning Community Cooker.
“I was born in this room, which I now use as my office,” he starts off the interview. I raise my eyebrows and he goes on to explain that his firm – Planning Systems Services – sits on a piece of land once owned by his parents and they lived in the house where his offices are.
Jim and PLANNING are responsible for designing some of the most prestigious buildings in Nairobi including the I&M Bank, Lonrho House, Rahimtulla Towers, Braeburn and Starehe Schools, among many others.
Although the piece of land went out of his parents’ ownership at some point, Jim and his architect partner, Trevor Andrews, bought it back 35 years ago with the sole purpose of making it home to their architectural firm. They preserved Jim’s parents’ house, complete with the original floorboards.
Jim says his father, the late Howard Archer, a renowned architect, inspired him to follow in his career. His late father designed some landmark buildings in Nairobi including The City Hall, The Kenya Railways Headquarters, The National Archives, The Nairobi Law Courts, All Saints Cathedral and some other 36 churches in Kenya, amongst many other prestigious projects.
Like father, like son…
“As a young boy, dad often took me on site visits to buildings under construction that he had designed. As I stood among the artisans chipping stones and cutting wood, I would smell the sawdust and this gave me the conviction that being an architect was the best life I would want for myself,” Jim says.
Upon completing primary school at Nairobi Primary School, he enrolled at the Prince of Wales School, now Nairobi School, for his secondary education after which he was admitted to the Oxford School of Architecture in the UK from which he graduated with a First Class Honours in 1960. Ironically, despite being a Kenyan of British descendant, this was the first time for Jim to visit Britain and he recalls the first year in the UK being particularly difficult.
“Despite the initial difficulties in adjusting to a new country without my family, I adapted quickly and the next five years at the School of Architecture turned out to be very memorable,” says Jim.
He did so well in school that his final year portfolio and thesis design were selected by the Royal Institute of British Architects as one of five UK architectural students’ work to represent British schools of architecture for the exhibition tour of the Commonwealth. This presented an enormous opportunity for Jim to showcase his work after graduation.
His late father designed some landmark buildings in Nairobi including The City Hall, The Kenya Railways Headquarters, The National Archives, The Nairobi Law Courts, All Saints Cathedral and some other 36 churches in Kenya
He began his professional experience in London with the then well-known and respected practice of Norman and Dawbarn who offered him a position in their new Wolverhampton office.
“My first job was not as an architect. It entailed washing the floors and moving in desks and drawing tables. This down-to-earth experience was useful because it helped me gain valuable hands-on skills. My first real architectural working experience with the firm involved modifications and improvements of amazingly primitive Victorian factories, as well as designing, detailing and site supervision of five schools in the Midlands of England,” Jim explains the genesis of his architecture career.
Fleeing a country…
At the end of 1961 Jim returned to Nairobi to take up a position as a project architect in his father’s practice, at that time known as Cobb Archer and Scammell. His responsibilities included designing and supervising the Commonwealth Development Corporation headquarters on the then Government Road, now Moi Avenue. He also designed the UK funded Veterinary Preclinical School for the University of Nairobi at the Chiromo Campus.
Shortly after independence, investment confidence was low in Kenya and contract opportunities were few. So when an opportunity arose in Kampala, Uganda, Jim took it up because at the time investment confidence was rapidly growing in Uganda.
I managed to secure jobs for all my staff outside Uganda before fleeing the country in 1972 at a very short notice. I left ten years of investments behind and landed at Heathrow Airport in London with what my family were able to carry in their hands and five British shillings, just enough to make a call to a friend,
During his time in Uganda he was responsible for many buildings including Kampala City Hall and Town Council Offices and the National Insurance Headquarters, amongst many others.
“Eight of the ten years I worked in Uganda were very happy years until Milton Obote was overthrown by the dictator, Idi Amin, in a military coup. This destabilised Uganda’s vibrant and stable economy. The violence and instability that followed made me realise I could no longer continue to live in Kampala.
I managed to secure jobs for all my staff outside Uganda before fleeing the country in 1972 at a very short notice. I left ten years of investments behind and landed at Heathrow Airport in London with what my family were able to carry in their hands and five British shillings, just enough to make a call to a friend,” Jim explains the unhappy ending of his stay in Uganda.
Starting all over again…
He was incredibly fortunate to get a partnership in a commercial oriented Manchester architectural practice. Although the job was very well paying and he gained valuable experience, he didn’t find it fun. After a lot of soul searching Jim applied for a position as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. He was selected from 250 applicants due to his proven practical experience.
This saw him and his family return to Kenya in 1975. His professional attitude to his work not long afterwards, got him elected chairman of the Board of Professional Practice Examiners. The lecturing job, to begin with, earned him Ksh 4000 a month, which he says couldn’t provide his family both bread and butter.
“With the approval and support of the vice-chancellor of the university at the time, I set up a small architectural private practice that I ran in the evenings and weekends to earn some extra cash. In return, I would engage architectural students during the holidays to enable them gain hands on experience,” Jim recalls how his architectural firm started.
With time, he got bigger projects and doing the two jobs became too demanding. He invited Trevor Andrews, already in private practice in Nairobi, to join him in a partnership that saw the establishment of Planning Systems Services in 1978. Their offices were housed on the balcony of a car repair workshop in Nairobi’s industrial area. “The rent for the workshop was cheap and at the time we couldn’t afford anything better,” he explains.
Rewards of hard work…
Jim and Trevor’s first big break was winning a very stiff competition that allowed them to build the Lakeview Estate situated off Lower Kabete Road in Nairobi. Completing the project on budget and in time in 1982 gave their practice a huge boost. Today, Planning Systems Services has become one of the most significant practices in East Africa with nineteen international and seventeen national awards and commendations for architectural excellence and similar awards.
With the approval and support of the vice-chancellor of the university at the time, I set up a small architectural private practice that I ran in the evenings and weekends to earn some extra cash. In return, I would engage architectural students during the holidays to enable them gain hands on experience,” Jim recalls how his architectural firm started.
“I am proud that the practice is now transitioning into the next generation of architects, with four younger directors, two associate directors and four associates on board. We have also set up another company – Planning Projects Management – that is doing very well,” says a proud Jim.
Giving back to the community…
Appalled by the filthy environment leading to poor living standards in some rural and urban areas in Kenya, in the 1990s Jim began thinking of ways to encourage people to pick up rubbish. He thought he might be able to make rubbish commercially attractive by using it to generate heat and thus began sketching ideas. This led to the development of a Community Cooker, a technology that recycles waste by burning all kinds of rubbish to generate heat energy.
The pilot project was at Laini Saba in Kibera, but has extended to Kawangware in Nairobi and also Karagita in Naivasha. “The project has the potential to transform informal settlements and rural villages into resource rich communities because the cooker is versatile and can be used to boil water, cook food and bake cakes. It is interesting to see the community in Naivasha using this fuel as a source of revenue by selling the food they cook,” says Janice Muthui, the Community Cooker Foundation manager.
The community cooker is a deliberately designed as a simple machine and it is built so that members of the community can also carry out repairs and maintenance. “Although it is currently designed for cooking, the cooker has the potential to convert energy into alternative uses including generating electricity,” says Jim.
So how does the Community Cooker work?
First, rubbish is collected and sorted out to ensure that non-combustible materials and materials which create harmful fumes are intercepted and removed. Biodegradable scraps that fall through become compost manure, while the remaining rubbish such as plastic bags is put to dry.
Using the two taps in the cooker – one that controls a drip flow of recycled sump oil (discarded oil from vehicles) and another that controls a drip flow of water – a drop of each, in equal measures, falls onto the super-heated steel plate of the firebox, where the water vaporises and boosts the flames increasing the temperature from about 250 degrees Celsius to more than 800 degrees Celsius (the World Health Organisation minimum heat standard for incinerators in developing countries).
As the firebox gets hotter, the very simple network of steel pipes that pass around the cooker produce hot water. As the rubbish burns, heat is distributed under eight cooking plates on top of the cooker and two ovens on the sides that can bake up to ten loaves of bread or roast a whole goat. With this cooker, low-income earners can collect regular and reliable supplies of low cost fuel to cook and boil water.
The Community Cooker Foundation provides information about the Community Cooker to the public, oversees training on how to use the cooker and manages volunteers who assist in promoting the cooker while Ushirika wa Usafi, a community based organisation in Kibera manages the cooker in Laini Saba. Jim is deeply indebted to the directors of Planning Systems Services as well as UNEP, donors, sponsors and organisations who have helped keep the project financially viable.
The Community Cooker has received interest both nationally and internationally and has also received multiple international awards and recognitions including being selected as the winner of the Environmental Impact Award at the British Expertise International Awards 2011/2012 and winner of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) First World Design Impact Prize 2011/ 2012.
Jim has been married for 28 years to Linda Archer, a demographer and statician, who works as the Kenyan manager of monitoring and evaluation at Jhpiego, an international non-profit health organization affiliated to the Johns Hopkins University in the US. Jhpiego is dedicated to improving the health of women and families in developing countries.
“Marriage has been terrific and between us we have four children and three grand children,” Jim says adding with great humour that he also has two cats and one dog, which he is very fond of. He says his family values spending time together and they often create time whenever they can to re-connect. He is also grateful to Linda, whom he says is very helpful to the Community Cooker Foundation and to their children for their unwavering support.
For more information about the community cooker call Janice Muthui, the Community Cooker Foundation manager on 0724255088 or 0733555001 or by email: Janice.Muthui@planning-kenya.com
Published in July 2013