There are some places that almost seem unreal; like a picture extrapolated from a book of fairy tales. The residence Eliza Costabel designed for herself in Kenya is one such place, in the most exquisite and quasi unimaginable way possible. Distantly reminiscent of the Red Tower protectively observing its environs, Eliza’s creation in Watamu, a holiday destination town on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, conversely sits within a bed of green, enveloped within, rather than overlooking the landscape. And yet, Eliza confesses that describing her Kenyan design journey is a lot more idyllic than having to live it. ‘Starting from scratch in a place where don’t know anyone and where you need to pretty much re-learn how to operate within your profession to adapt to the new customs and place, is a lot easier said than done!’ she says.

Having moved to Kenya from Los Angeles to join her then partner, Eliza needed a strategy to attract clients, and show them what it is that she did and more importantly how she did it. Her strategy was a straightforward one: to use this home as a calling card. In this respect she managed perfectly as her Kenyan home became a portfolio piece through which she attracted her main, and still current, clients in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

For the first six months, she engaged in extensive research on methods of construction, the sourcing of materials and the items she needed for her projects, and, perhaps most importantly, the right place to build her home. Eventually, a two-acre plot in a coconut palm grove was purchased – a factor that would both affect and inform her design choices.


Environmental impact

When it came to designing the build, Eliza was faced with two alternatives: an open structure design with thatched roofs, which was more customarily adopted for the design of tropical / holiday houses, or the Swahili vernacular style of building, based on Moorish architecture, and very much influenced by the past trade from the Arabian peninsula. ‘For practical reasons, as this was not going to be a holiday home but one to be lived in all year round, along with my long standing love for Moorish architecture, I opted to use Swahili and North African architecture as my main source of inspiration,’ says Eliza.

But the reality of the environment in which Eliza was working went far beyond her need to understand the local construction methods, processes and traditional techniques. Very high on her agenda was the issue of safety, something which doesn’t often crop up in conversations with designers or architects. Eliza had to understand the constraints and the dangers inherent in the remote location, especially those concerning wildlife and the extreme tropical weather conditions. ‘Once you live through the different seasons, you discover several “surprises” that initially are quite a challenge but that eventually you adapt to as part of living in the tropical bush,’ she says. ‘Scorpions, snakes, the cheekiest monkeys and the potential of malaria-infested mosquitoes are common guests to contend with year round, but during the rainy season you get insect-invasions in the millions – each aspect of the wildlife and surrounding environment informed the most important design choices, such as opting for metal bars inside the house in every aperture, and making the whole space ready to be sealed and locked up when necessary.”

The whole project took some two and a half years to complete, during which time, she was practically living on site. The build itself was the result of a most laborious process; Eliza made much use of local craftsmanship as well as readily available and commonly used materials such as the Swahili Niru, a hand-mixed pigment and white cement-based plaster, more commonly known as Moroccan tadelakt. Also, practically no machinery was used during construction. ‘I remember the day I walked on-site and saw the entry hall prepared for the roof slab with a myriad mangrove tree trunks holding up the shuttering. That in itself was like an installation!’ says Eliza. ‘Using natural materials available around us – the house was built with locally sourced coral sedimentary blocks – was actually the safest thing to do because everything else that needed to be trucked in from Mombasa was subject to all sorts of unforeseen incidents. Overseas shipments of goods were liable to pirate attacks on the seas and everything from the fuel for the trucks coming to Watamu, to the pigments, metal rebars or cement were lost and months had to pass before new shipments came in to restock the local suppliers.’

All the walls and surfaces were plastered by hand, the use of wooden, rather than metal trowels for instance, allowing for surface imperfections and imparting walls with a veneer that suggests the passing of time. The exterior was plastered using pigments from India, and the traditional finish reminiscent of buildings in Morocco or the Middle East – which is simultaneously smooth yet textural. ‘Witnessing the process of these old and traditional methods was highly revelatory and gave me a solid understanding of the ingenuity behind these building practices,’ says Eliza. ‘The result is a stunning hand-crafted feel to every surface, so much so that now I find many more constraints when working on projects in the Western World where precision and machinery tend to strip the character from many materials, especially in old buildings, which is what I most enjoy working on.’

Kenya’s lush vegetation surrounds the build which boasts an inviting outdoor space that is punctuated by a Bedouin tent and pool. The combined seating / dining area is also highly seductive on the senses, with copious plays of light and shade created by a loosely woven wooden canopy made of agave stalks that also adds a layer of playfulness to the space. The architectural approach, albeit of Moorish/Swahili influence, is minimal and paired down to its essence. A neutral colour palette, and perhaps more importantly, natural fabrics and raw wood dominate the design of the interiors, merging the indoor and outdoor spaces, and allowing the eyes and senses to travel seamlessly.

In each and every aspect possible, Eliza created a build which respects context, space and tradition. It was and remains true to the architecture of the place, all at once integrating and complementing the existing environment. ‘My experience is Kenya has been an absolute game changer,’ says Eliza who returned to Malta six years ago. ‘I had spent over 10 years prior to that in Los Angeles working in a large architecture firm and my own studio where everything from a professional standpoint was straightforward and readily available. Then came Watamu, where every detail, from the door handles to apertures, furniture, light fittings and everything in between, had to be designed and custom fabricated.

‘It’s a bit of a designer’s litmus test for your creativity and endurance: not being spoilt with ease and choices makes you look closer at everything you have available, at how each material or mundane object can be transformed into something else. It also allows you to sit down with the fabricators and artisans and learn how things are made versus buying off the shelf or choosing from a catalogue.

‘It expands your mind laterally, makes you humble and teaches you the Hakuna Matata philosophy of going with the flow when there are situations you cannot change. These lessons now guide everything I do, from my design approach of wanting to hand-make things and be part of the construction process, seeing how all the trades work, to my outlook on life, allowing those good results to take their time and not letting stress get to you!’