April 1, 2013

Brick Matters: Nigeria’s chance to improve housing, industry (I)


A Walk through Some of the World’s Best Neighbourhoods

Imagine taking an autumn stroll along the canals of old Amsterdam, one of Europe’s loveliest cities. The historic streets are lined with row upon row of beautiful houses, many dating back to the 17th century, when Amsterdam was at the centre of the world economy. Look up at the facades, and many of the well-cared-for houses still show their date of construction – 1636, 1657, 1705…

These historic canal houses, despite their age, sell in the millions of dollars. And they all have one thing in common – they are all constructed from red brick.

Transition 350 kilometres to the west, and you arrive in London. Walk through any upscale neighbourhood, such as Chelsea, and you will notice the same thing: most of the stately homes are built from red brick.

Next, cross the Atlantic Ocean to the east coast city of Boston, America’s most European city. The Beacon Hill neighbourhood is home to generations of old-money families whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. And once again, nearly all of these mansions are made with red brick.

Now let’s fly back to Nigeria and visit bustling, rapidly urbanising Lagos, a beehive of construction activity. Oxford Economics reports that the growth of construction output in Nigeria is the highest in all of Africa. The Lekki corridor alone is the site of thousands of new upscale homes. But something is amiss. There is hardly a brick house in sight. Nearly all of the houses in Lagos, and in most of Nigeria, are built from concrete block. A 2012 monograph estimates that 90% of physical infrastructure in Nigeria is built from concrete block.

The question to ask is – why? Brick has been available in Nigeria long before concrete block ever made its appearance; brick construction has been uncovered by archaeologists studying Nigeria’s proto-historic period, and brick was widely used during colonial times. As the walk through some of the worlds’ posh neighbourhoods shows, brick is not only acceptable in housing construction elsewhere in the world – it is actually preferred. Outside of Nigeria, homes are built with red brick, and concrete block is used primarily as an industrial or commercial building material.

Brick Costs Less than Block, Creates More Affordable Housing

Brick is strong, durable, and aesthetically pleasing; it can be made from materials found widely across Nigeria. To add to the mystery of its lack of uptake in the market, it actually costs less to build with brick than with block.

Brick, as a lower-cost alternative to block for housing construction, is interesting in Nigeria’s voracious housing market, where there is a need for an estimated 12 to16 million new homes. Prospective buyers have repeatedly cited high cost of materials and out-of-reach home prices as the primary obstacle to home ownership in Nigeria.

Simply put, less costly building materials mean less costly home construction, leading to lower prices. Any solution that drives down the cost of housing will expand the market from the bottom, putting entry level homes into the reach of more first-time buyers.

There are two different types of brick available in Nigeria. The first type is the compressed laterite brick, which is manufactured by pressure on a type of red soil found in abundance across 80 percent of Nigeria. Laterite bricks may be produced on a small scale, or even on-site, and require very little energy input in a nation where shortage of industrial energy is a major concern. The second type of brick is the baked clay brick, which is kiln-fired and requires greater investment and energy input.

To the homeowner, however, the cost difference between brick and block is substantial. It costs between 30 percent and 47 percent LESS to build with compressed laterite bricks than with blocks, according to a 2012 study from scholars at the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, Benue State.

Building with baked clay bricks costs 19 percent less, per square meter, than building with concrete blocks. This study included not only the cost of the materials, but also mortar and labour, in the calculation. Considering that structural elements constitute about 50 percent of the material cost of a new home, using bricks instead of blocks to construct the walls results in significant overall cost savings to the home buyer.

Furthermore, bricks in Nigeria are made from indigenous materials which support the local economy all the way up the supply chain; concrete blocks use cement as the major cost input, a material that is customarily expensive in Nigeria by world standards and of which a large proportion is imported, mainly from China.

Despite all of these advantages – delivering technical durability, superior appearance, and better cost – brick is used in only about 10 percent of housing construction in Nigeria. Bricks provide serious room for market expansion, and the dearth of brick homes is a dilemma. Let us examine some of the market myths surrounding bricks.

*Mr. Ashkin, Technical Director, GEMS2 Programme supported by UKaid, is a private sector development consultant and manager with professional experience in 60 countries around the globe, on enterprise development, competitiveness, strategy, and international trade.