The Tortoise Architect Vs The Entreprenhare

Thank God I didn’t decide to train to be an architect. Not because I don’t like them, or what they do. In fact, building a house here in Kenya has given me a huge appreciation for the art of building. But because, from my limited experience of dealing with architects, I’ve learnt they have to be extraordinarily patient people. A trait that passed me by in the lottery of life.

Fortunately, my friend Tim is the embodiment of patience. So much so that even the Kenyans, renowned for their inability to stick to timings, have declared that ‘Tim Time’ is a few hours behind even ‘African Time’, and this becomes a huge disadvantage when catching planes and flights, as Tim has learnt over the years. But it is a huge advantage when working, methodically, through the problems that constructing a building out here throws up.

If I’d been left to design this house on my own, doors would open into doors, heads would be banged, staircases would arrive in the middle of the floor and many items I would have ordered to be built would have had to be rebuilt.

In fact, that is what happens to many a Kenyan house. Because of the somewhat lackadaisical attitude to planning and the certification needed to build a house, many supremely unqualified people have had a shot at building houses out here.

Some designs are ludicrous. People have built without consideration for the monsoon winds, meaning they block the cool breeze and end up in a sauna, year-round. Houses are built out of completely unsuitable materials. Wood has to be revarnished daily because it is the wrong type in the wrong place; living rooms are built in the middle of corridors, toilets are so close to dining spots that even the quietest poo has diners pushing their plates away.

In one glorious example, a house was designed in feet and built in meters, leaving one lady, who thought she was designing a smallish cottage, with a larger lump of concrete than she intended.

To build a simple, green house, one must first understand the local environment, climate, usages, staff needs, flora and fauna and a host of other factors. Then, you have to communicate your designs to local builders, who might not speak good English and further don’t understand why you need half the things you’re trying to install.

Here is a supremely embarrassing photograph (for a simplicity journeyer) showing my house displayed behind my neighbour’s house.

The Simple House
I am simpler than thou

If I’m serious about simplicity, as I claim to be, it seems he could teach me a huge amount. Although I don’t think I would be happy with a kind of simplicity that is completely alien to me. More on that in another post.

Nonetheless, Tim has methodically worked with his world-class patience through each of these problems, spending hours and hours testing different designs and ideas. Often, I’ve bounced up to him with a new thought which, after two or three days of testing during which he devises a workable solution, gets assigned to the scrap heap because another newer, shinier idea has cropped up in his client’s peripatetic mind.

Tim’s patience has meant that a huge number of potential problems have been averted because he’s taken the time to think them through and explain them, sometimes so painstakingly I wonder if he’s going to explode – so things go where they’re meant to go.

What does this mean for the simplicity journey? It has taught me several important lessons:

First, if you take the time to work through a problem and see it from different angles, you can save much time and frustration later.

Second, to keep things simple – for example ensuring that you don’t need air-conditioning to live in a tropical climate – you sometimes have to work hard at the solution. Simplicity doesn’t always come easy.

Third, if you try to do everything as efficiently and quickly as possible – often the case in the example a time-starved executive – I wonder if you ever reach the kind of flow or quality of result that someone who takes the time to make mistakes can achieve.

Fourth, if you are indiscriminate with your ability to be generous with your time, then you become much more of a pleasure to spend time with.

For me, the lessons have been simple.

  • Take time to work through a problem as opposed to bouncing between different ideas. Easier said than done, and certainly a long way from being mastered.
  • Time can be you enemy or your friend. When choosing categories for this blog on the back of some posts I’d written, I discovered that many of my articles were about time and, with that discovery, I realised it played a more important part in my life than I’d given it credit for. I was and am a slave to time. Tim and many Kenyans, are masters of time.
  • I’m fortunate I didn’t try to be an architect. No one would want to live in one of my houses. However, it’s fortunate that Tim didn’t choose to be an entrepreneur. In the quest to know oneself, it’s good to recognize different strengths and use those as well as you can, while realising the weakness.
  • Maybe Tim was meant to be named differently, but at some point he dropped an ‘e’?

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