Bitanya Woldu works passionately to create office spaces that are both functional and inspirational, spaces in which we can thrive in our respective work. As the Design and Project Director at a design-and-build business in Nairobi, Bitanya’s combined education and work experiences on 2 continents influence the customized work spaces she creates. As she states, “A good design should have the power to nurture good culture, inspire collaboration and facilitate and increase productivity”.
You have an Engineering degree and an MBA. You have taken on diverse roles on equally diverse projects. Can you illustrate some of the different roles and projects you have been involved in and describe how your combined education, interests and expertise enabled you to navigate various roles?
One role I had was in project management for one of the largest general building and civil construction companies in the United States. I came into this role after getting my degree in Architectural and Civil Engineering. My education was very comprehensive covering both technical and design aspects and allowed me to quickly understand the thinking behind the architects and engineers designs and execute them more proficiently. I also loved interacting with different types of people and this ability to communicate balanced out my more technical side. I found it easy jumping from deep technical discussions with subcontractors to general update meetings with Senior VP’s, government representatives, and project owners.
Another role I took on was as a consultant for international organizations and private companies. This was after getting my MBA and moving back to Addis Ababa. I used both my previous work and my MBA studies to deliver on all of my projects. I was lucky to be involved in development work, and with small private companies or start-ups in their initial stages. One of my favorite projects was setting up the project management processes for a start-up construction company; I felt this experience really combined my education, interests and expertise. I believe management structure and process is as important as having the people with the necessary skills. And while it was challenging to get a start-up to think about these things, I felt it was a worthy exercise and a rewarding experience.
Then I moved on to my latest role. I moved to Nairobi and started a Design-and- Build firm that specializes in commercial interiors, focusing mostly on offices. We are a one-point contact, the design and construction phases are overlapped to reduce risk, time, and cost to the client. I use elements of all my education and experience. I design knowing about the practical needs of an office from a management perspective. An office isn’t just a space to put people’s desks. An office design must foster communication between managers and workers, and between the co-workers themselves. All this and it has to look good too!
How do you approach designing a functional and inspirational space for working? How does your creative imagination blend with your business skills and interests?
I’ve already touched a bit on this but fundamentally I believe there should be a balance between beauty and functionality. This balance changes from job to job based on what the client’s needs are. Of course the number of offices and meeting rooms varies from project to project, but we strive to design a place that promotes both communication and cooperation while still keeping the “feel” that the client is looking for.
Sometimes creativity comes from simply trying to solve a problem or even from mistakes that arise once we start the construction phase. But my overarching approach is based on user-centered design, a reiterative process in design with feedback at various stages involving the client. This creates a feedback loop, which means the client has contributed in the design. So, some of the creativity comes from the client as well. From my experience, creative collaboration with the client leads to the best results. And the best result is always a happy client.
Can you comment on your ideal workspace?
This is a good question and one that is difficult to answer. Each client has different needs and wants, and a different amount of resources. Generally, I would have to say that my ideal workspace is one that “feels” good. The “feel” of an office relates to employee’s comfort and a client’s tastes. To achieve this, I must go beyond the functional, and focus more on the beauty and inspirational aspect of an office. And this is basically the fluffy stuff like the artwork, plants, or making the common areas bigger to encourage employees to interact more (which sometimes means taking square footage from executive offices!)
A good design should have the power to nurture good culture, inspire collaboration and facilitate and increase productivity. I believe the “fluffy” stuff delivers to this end, but unfortunately does not get much attention from some clients. And this personal belief heavily guides my attitude and approach with my clients. I have learned to start the conversation early, try to educate my clients (sometimes debate over it in several meetings) and find ways to incorporate these ideas without stretching the budget too much. At the end of the day I want my clients to love their office. Whatever it takes for them to trust that these ideas are worth every penny is something I’m constantly working on.