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Interview: Urko Sanchez Architects

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Since inception in the early 90s in Kenya’s Coastal town of Lamu, Urko Sanchez Architects has grown in leaps and bounds to become one of the most recognizable practice in Kenya and beyond.

We speak to Urko Sanchez, Founder and CEO of Urko Sanchez Architects:

CN: Many thanks for having time to talk to us kindly tell us how the company started.

Born and raised in Madrid, Spain, Urko Sanchez began his architectural studies in 1988 driven always by a huge passion for travel.  “I’ve been in more than 50 countries.” From Canada to Argentina, from India to Sierra Leone, Urko has seen a great deal of the world. Consequently, travel has informed much of his life and his work – all of the colors and art and people and cultures he’s been exposed to adding to a sense of what Urko wanted to build for himself and others.

As part of his studies, Urko began participating in different architectural endeavors with NGOs. One of my first assignments was on the border of Somalia and Kenya. Urko continued to offer his expertise in different conflict zones. Then Urko went to an island off the coast of East Africa and fell in love. “Lamu was a completely peaceful break from all of the high-conflict countries I’d been working in.

He decided to set up a base there and made his living in Lamu as an architect. He worked and lived in Lamu for over 8 years where he built different private residence and hotels, And that’s how Urko began to expand his specialty, expanding more and more into Swahili architecture with a modern twist.

CN: How has the company grown over the years?

During those early days in Lamu, Urko started to be appointed for bigger projects along the Kenyan cost and decided to move to Mombasa where he set his base for another few years. Once in Mombasa, the office grew big with a mix of national and international team from different backgrounds and got its first international recognition and awards. He was even invited to exhibit part of his work at the Venezia Bienale.  Even though the office grew big Urko had to deal with the uncertainty of developments in Kenya and therefore expand its range of work to other countries; first among the East African Region: Tanzania, Ethiopia… and then worldwide: Middle East, West Africa…. Nowadays Urko Sanchez Architects became an international recognized architectural practice with offices both in Nairobi and Madrid.

CN:What are some of the challenges that Urko Sanchez Architects has faced in the practice

Uncertainty is one of the biggest challenges of building in Africa: East African region had gone through some rough moments in the past few years where investment and developments would change form one year to the next. Some of our projects were interrupted due to the lack of stability in the region and then took over after a few years. That lack of continuity makes it difficult to keep the momentum of the project and the correct progress of the building site.

On the other hand, we have built projects in remote locations where the scarcity of building materials, or the lack skilled workers was a challenge itself.

CN: How has architecture evolved over the years

It has become globalised. This can be viewed in two ways:

On one hand this globalization can be viewed in a wrong way in the sense that the same building can be found in Australia, China, Uganda or Canada without taking into consideration the climate consideration, orientation or local materials.

On the other hand, there are some patterns, that are becoming a global trend which we believe are positive for the architecture evolution. For example the introduction of green elements in the design, the consideration of the energy consumption of the building and the construction site itself, the use of local materials, the integration into the surroundings… All this had always been basic pillars of our office design

CN:How does customer taste and preference vary from location to location?

We believe it is a matter of the client and his/her expectations on the project more than the location itself. When a great project happened is when client and architect trust each other and work together in the same direction which is the one that benefits the project and the final user of the building.

CN:What is the inspiration of your designs?

The firm is deeply committed to environmental stewardship, and for each project, the team considers the cultural roots of the structure, and how the building will be best integrated into its environment; the view, the indigenous materials, and the flow of the surroundings. Hallmarks of Urko Sanchez projects include contemporary twists on traditional architecture; a green aesthetic that harnesses wind and solar power and recycled water; and leveraging natural architecture to showcase natural light, and frame private gardens and open courtyards.

CN:How has Urko Sanchez Architects managed to stay competitive in the face of competition?

Our projects range in size, complexity and function. In all cases, however, the focus is on the client and the context, with a tailor-­crafted approach to each unique project.

The team at Urko Sanchez Architects is flexible, multicultural and boasts stellar local and international track­ records. Principal Urko Sanchez has a wealth of experience, having traveled extensively along Africa and accomplished projects in multiple contexts. Urko uses his broad experience to craft an innovative and versatile architectural outlook for every unique project.

The team focuses on working closely with clients to create tailor-­made projects, and faithfully interpret their vision. Above all else, the firm values client trust, and unparalleled quality in the expression and execution of its ideas.

Moreover,  our team  includes external specialists such as  environmental consultants, structural engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, landscapers etc who help us address specific environmental subjects such as wildlife protection, noise abatement, transport engineering, energy efficiency and so on.

CN: What are some of the notable projects that Urko Sanchez Architects has undertaken?


1.Red Pepper House in Lamu, Kenya – one of Urko´s first project. It is built only with local materials and workers, and the building the carbon footprint is practically cero. It has been awarded with different international Awards such as:

  • Young Architects in Africa, 2014 – Winner
  • Architectural Association of Kenya, Best Hospitality Industry Project 2013 – Winner
  • Fibra Awards 2018 – Winner

2.SOS Children Village in Tadjourah, Djibouti – One of our most challenging projects due to the remote location and the scarcity of resources.


Architecture for Social Gain 2015, South Africa – Merit Certificate

ArchMarathon Awards 2016, Mixed Tenure Buildings – Winner

Aga Khan Award for Architecture 2019 – Shortlisted (on going)

3.Swahili Gem in Mombasa, Kenya – Enveloped in a mashrabiya structural shell, an structural challenge to build without access to advanced technology. The building is distinctive in its creative design, ensuring privacy and optimizing natural ventilation and lighting.

Award:Architectural Association of Kenya, Best Residential Building 2017 – Winner

4.Vipingo Club House in Mombasa, Kenya

Award: International Property Awards Africa – Best Golf Development Kenya 2013 – Winner

CN:What is the future of Urko Sanchez Architects

We would like to contribute to the development of Africa in a direction that is respectful with the environment and understands the context, by generating innovative proposals inspired in the African tradition.

Hopefully, we will attract clients who understand the added value a good design brings to their development.

And at the same time we want to keep contributing to social oriented projects and use our knowledge to assist those who need it the most.

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