Architect cashes in on Kenya’s growing property industry

In recent years hotel construction in Kenya’s capital Nairobi has increased due to rising international and inter-regional travel. The expansion of international hotels and entry of local brands is a boon for local professional services firms. Thomas Gronlykke Studio, a Nairobi-based architectural firm, has curved a niche in the hospitality sector.

Founded in 1991 by Denmark-born architect Thomas Gronlykke, the studio has handled numerous hotels and luxury homes projects. One of the studio’s current projects is the Radisson Blu hotel under construction in Nairobi. The 271-room hotel is the first Radisson brand in East Africa and is due to open in 2014.

Gronlykke grew up in Denmark in a family of restaurateurs. While studying architecture, he met his wife, a Kenyan who was studying in Denmark, and relocated to Kenya after they got married.

“I worked for one of the leading firms in Nairobi for five years before starting my own business in 1991 and I have no regrets yet. As an architect everyone wants to end up running their own firm. It is very tempting.”

He noted that in the last three decades, architecture in Kenya has evolved due to increased travel among Kenyans, improved technology and an influx of expatriates.

“There is a lot of competition today. The architects in Kenya are a lot better, so you have to work harder for your money. The young architects are very talented and they monitor trends outside the country. There is better quality of architecture,” he said. ”Everybody expects better design standards today.”

Gronlykke has recently ventured into construction. One of his projects is the Msambweni Beach villas at the Kenyan coast.

“That is something I would like to do more: design and build. It is more lucrative,” he said. “People have made money in the last 10 years because of an improved business environment that has promoted private sector businesses. The middle and upper class are growing and there are lots of houses being built targeted at them.”

Over the years, Gronlykke has had to close down the business several times due to tough economic circumstances.

“From 1999 to 2001 there was no work and I had to close my business. There was no money in the country. I went back to Denmark for two years until a month to the 2002 December elections. It is interesting; it can get really low.”

But even with the ups and downs in the Kenyan market, Gronlykke said he has never considered running his business from Denmark.

“I only go there (Denmark) every two or three years. There is also a lot of construction work happening in Kenya over the last 10 years. It is a growing economy while [in] Denmark they have all the houses they need,” he said. “I know [in] Kenya opportunities are unending. It is just a matter of the business climate being right so that investors can utilise the opportunities. There are so many people ready to build and open shops.”

International trends

One of the things he has learnt over the years is to keep an eye on international trends.

“You have to keep up with international standards because the world is changing rapidly and issues like security – like we have seen with the recent [terrorist] attack in Kenya – are priority. We have to look outside and see how other people are dealing with [insecurity] in design.”

He advised other entrepreneurs to keep educating themselves, and to travel and learn from the ways in which other people are solving today’s challenges.

“You have to reinvent yourself. Always try to do things better than everybody else. It is very important. You have to be a step ahead of the competition,” he said. “Don’t start your business straight from the university. Go out, get experience in a good firm, especially if you are an architect.”

Gronlykke noted that Africa is on an upward trend, citing improving infrastructure, mobile technology, a growing middle class and higher literacy and education levels.

“If this continues, then it will get worthwhile manufacturing in Africa, not just in the big cities but also in small towns. In Europe we manufacture everywhere because with infrastructure it doesn’t matter where your plant is based. That is when the continent will really take off; when the roads and rail [network] become that good.”