Dream Homes: Construction Cost, a Game Changer in AEC

Nowhere is the word dream-home more prevalent than on the internet and social-media. Dream-homes, very appealing images of “homes” that are out of this world, some about to be constructed in the near-future. Some actually do manage to transition into reality and people actually live in them, but not without challenges.

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Architectural rendering of a Dream Home which has Curved Roof-line and Flat Roofs on a hilly terrain

The familiar image of a dream-home is one with the following features: rustic exterior-wall-finishes, floor-to-ceiling height windows, fancy ceiling and interior decorations, cantilevered-balconies with glass-railings, and well done exterior-lighting arrangement, a one-or-two car-garage, “cabro-paved” driveway, flat-roofs with extending eaves finished in wooden-slits or panel soffits. Often, these homes are situated on a sloppy-terrain, which makes them a perfect fit for split-level floor arrangement, coupled with the need of retaining walls and trees in the background. Design professionals normally refer to such images as “renders.” But is it possible for architectural rendering to transition to reality without alteration or losing key features?

(Render in this context is used to refer to an image of a building, and not stucco or plaster-finish applied on a wall as commonly used in the United-Kingdom).

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The Concept of Value Engineering Simplified

In the Kenyan experience, it has been assessed that cost is the ultimate game-changer in between design and construction. Engineers call this kind of behavior or phenomenon, “Value Engineering.” That is, comparing the original-design and another alternative in terms of cost, performance, durability, strength and many other criteria. Depending on the need of a project or a client, emphasis can be zeroed in on one aspect, and in most cases, it’s the cost. The idea behind it is to be able to meet the same function or performance at a much lower-cost than originally determined.

Many are the cases that we have witnessed where the actual construction of a building is always different from the original architectural-rendering provided. Value-engineering has the tendency of altering the character of the final product, sometimes too far removed from the original intent (dream-homes). The miracle that cost-construction does to design is a transformative one; therefore, cost is the ultimate game-changer.

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Actual Kenyan Dream-Homes As-Built

Foundations tend to be the most costly aspect in a building especially if a structure has multiple levels. These costs arise from excavation, material, labor and equipment costs. The only way to bring down foundation-costs is to have fewer levels or reduce building dead-loads. That means that a 3-story building reduced to 1-or-2 floor level buildings.
Solid masonry wall is the default construction material for walls in Kenya. But with emerging technology and trends, savings on walls can be achieved using other available materials like interlocking-blocks, hollow-masonry, bricks, light-framing systems etc. But these alternatives, though lower in cost, have inherent challenges that could alter the total appearance of a building.

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Another Kenyan Dream Homes As-Built bearing almost similar resemblance in layout organization and roof design to the one above

Although there is a preference for floor-to-ceiling height windos and doors with borrow daylight, these fenestration systems consume more materials like steel, wood, glass, insulation and plastic, pushing up their acquisition costs. Homeowners normally change their minds to the default regular size doors and windows which costs less, again having a significant impact on the appearance of the final output.

Exterior-finishes like cladding, which might have first enticed a client to a specific design, may turn out to be costly and would be rejected and replaced with much simpler and cheaper alternatives like painting, or just stucco/plaster and even most of the times, masonry-walls are always left unfinished. Similarly, the same experience might be felt inside of the house, again, altering the building character significantly.

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A Controversial Kenyan Dream Homes by Designer Alfred Tully of (Alfeno-Studios-http://www.alfeno.com)

Construction Permits and Approvals:
Some dream-homes are really dreams out of this world literally, wonderful, but probably out of context with regard to the social, political and economic realities of the day or place. For example, you will find proposals of homes under-water, others completely underground, some above water-bodies like oceans, lakes, and rivers etc., which truly are remarkably but sometimes pure fantasy. One has to wonder whether people can really afford the construction-cost of these structures, but of more concern is really whether these structures can get approved at the various county or local-authority or building-and-planning departments. The challenge here is not about the structures themselves at all, but rather, whether they can meet or conform to the already preset planning and ordinance codes that already exists in a given place. Can these dreams homes be approved for construction?


The tendency of cost-cutting or thrifty design behavior can be applied to almost any part of a building, from floors-to-roofs, from chimney-to-staircases, to landscaping and site-works. In so doing, the original design is altered or transformed significantly into a totally different entity; sometimes very very far removed from the utopian view of a dream-home that once it was. Dream-homes are just simply that “dream-homes.”

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Cost – Time – Quality-flexibility

It is often very discouraging and confusing to see the exchange between clients and building professionals and practitioners go in opposing directions all the time on matters regarding cost. Professionals either as architects, designers, engineers, and contractors, also famously referred to as “fundi” in Swahili, have dedicated their lives, time and work to try to investigate and understand the built-environment and have put at their service to work for the public, to work for their interests and concerns. But somehow, as witnessed in Kenya, clients for some reason seem to “know better or are intelligent in their own ways”, and are accustomed to instant solutions to complex and difficult problems, either trying to save costs here and there, making cost, and not need or want, the defining element in building and construction design: the ultimate game changer.


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