How a space can change a life

04th Dec

In the late 1920s, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, an extended essay based on her assertion that women of the time needed a safe, private space if they were to be able to write. Hers was a feminist argument, of course, a generation and a continent away from the experience of the young Joe Bvumburai – but the principle is pretty much the same.
Growing up in the suburbs of Lusaka, Zambia, Joe – who believes he was born in about 1957, but never had a birth certificate – lived in a small one-bedroom house to which there was a seemingly never-ending stream of visitors. “It was almost like a free house,” he says. Joe would walk, barefoot, to primary school and back every day, but as he reached secondary school his mother realised the effect his cramped surroundings were having on his ability to study. She had a small timber extension built for him, and, at last, Joe had a room of his own – even if he had to work by candlelight, as there was no electricity.
This proved to be the catalyst for what would be his life’s calling. It made Joe realise how transformative such a space could be, no matter how modest the construction – and he decided that, henceforth, he wanted to become an architect. “That extension made such a big difference in my life, and the interest in extensions and building really started at that stage,” says Joe.
He went to gain qualifications in architectural technology from the Zambia Institute of Technology, harbouring big ambitions to set up his own practice. At the time, however, despite Zambia achieving independence in 1963, the architectural industry there was still dominated by British firms, in whose eyes Joe was not adequately qualified.
Undeterred, Joe set about writing to architectural institutions all over the world. Out of the 250 he applied to, the first one to accept him was the Hull School of Architecture. The only problem was, he had no money. His parents certainly couldn’t afford to sponsor him. What do to? Catch a train to the capital and start knocking on the doors of all of the embassies and high commissions. After two days of rejection after rejection, though, Joe was beginning to give up hope – until he arrived at the last one on his list, the Swedish Embassy. There, the education attaché said, “I think we can help you.” By this time, Joe had heard “no” so many times, and he was about to get up and leave, when the attaché repeated, “No, no – come back! We can help you.”
They asked Joe to take a letter to the ministry of finance around the corner. After a phone call back to the embassy to make sure he was bona fide, Joe was issued with a cheque for £7,000. His mother, who had fought so hard for him to be able to get his education, had mixed feelings, though; this wasn’t how she envisaged things would turn out – she had expected Joe to start work in Zambia so he could help the family, but she conceded that a scholarship to the UK was an unmissable opportunity.
So, aged just 22, Joe found himself “on my own, clad in a safari suit” on a flight to Heathrow. As the plane was coming into land, he could see rows upon rows of buildings packed closely together. “What are those?” he asked the passenger sitting next to him. “Houses,” the man replied.
“I just couldn’t understand that,” says Joe. “All the white people in Zambia had huge houses, some with swimming pools, so going to England I was sure they would have even bigger properties. It was a complete a shock to the system.”
He was so keen to see the rest of the country that he swapped his flight ticket to Humberside for a train ticket to Hull – how he did this, he can’t remember; people trying this would be met with blank looks nowadays – and looked out in awe as the carriage passed through the green fields, suburbia and town centres of eastern England.
Joe’s first “home” was Hull International House, in Westbourne Avenue, which has been a communal home for people from around the world for nearly 60 years. It was, by its nature, a welcoming space for ethnic minority students – but outside this bubble, of course, was the reality of late-1970s Hull. “Life was very, very different compared to London,” says Joe, “because in London there were all sorts of ethnic people, whereas in Hull there were very few. In fact, if you saw another black person you felt obliged to stop and say hi!” Joe would go running in local parks and streets, and, for the first time in his life, encountered racist abuse. “It was a shock to me – I had looked up to these people, and now they were calling me names.”
Not for a moment, though, did he doubt that he’d done the right thing in coming all this way to follow his dream. If anything, it made him more determined than ever to achieve his qualifications and set up his own architectural practice in Zambia. But, of course, things didn’t turn out that way. Was there a spanner in the works, I ask? “Yes, there was,” he laughs. “It was a spanner called ‘life’! Life just took over.”
During his degree studies, Joe had returned to Zambia for the summer holidays, and it was while he was there that he met the woman who would become his wife. She came over to Hull to join him the following winter, but found it too cold and headed back home, leaving Joe on his own in a poky flat in Park Avenue. The following summer, though, she gave it another go, and this time she decided to stay. They married, and their first daughter came along in the middle of Joe’s degree exams; a second daughter followed in 1989, by which time Joe had completed a post-graduate diploma.
As they settled in Hull, the economic situation in Zambia had drastically deteriorated. “There was no cooking oil, no washing powder, you had to queue to buy basic things,” says Joe. “Life had become really hard, and my mother felt I’d probably be better off staying here in the UK. In a way, she was happy that I was out of the country.” He sent home what little money he had, but as Aids swept through Zambia in the late 20th century, many members of his family were claimed by the disease, including a sister, who died on the same day as his mother, who had diabetes complications. “It was a difficult time for everybody. And over a few short years, everyone just passed away to the point that I was left alone, and the urge to go back to Zambia became less and less.”
After he had completed his studies in 1989, Joe set up a design practice, working for various architectural firms. His biggest project at that time had been converting a Grade II listed building in the Avenues into 21 flats. Then recession hit, and practically overnight, Joe found himself an unemployed househusband. He realised, however, that he could put his skills to use outside the architecture industry, and eventually found work as a development officer. Jobs at a series of housing associations followed, including stints in Buckinghamshire, Bradford and York.
The idea of going it alone with his own architectural practice was still there in the background, even if, as Joe concedes, he had become rather comfortable working for housing associations. Soon, however, the decision would be made for him. There was a reorganisation at his firm, and one person was made redundant. That person was Joe. “I think that just gave me the push that I’d been waiting for all this time,” he says. “So as soon as that happened, I set up Eznat, and got an office at the Enterprise Centre in the University of Hull.” The new company was named in tribute to the person who had created that life-changing space for Joe all those years ago – his mother.
The Enterprise Centre was only ever going to be a temporary solution, and it was AS Rating’s Adrian Smith who suggested the One Business Village in Emily Street, Hull. Since moving there three years ago, Eznat has gone from strength to strength. The firm’s “bread and butter”, says Joe, is domestic extensions, but its wide remit includes social housing, project management and major developments, among the latest of which is the £1.8 million Cooperage conversion in Grimsby, that is seeing a historic building transformed into 20 flats and two townhouses. An affordable housing scheme in Ghana is also in the pipeline, subject to funding availability.  
Joe has invested heavily in technology to keep Eznat ahead of the competition, from time-saving systems to the ability to design in 3D. “Clients are amazed at the quality of our work and how quickly we’re able to do it. Some people don’t understand architectural plans at all, and you can try to explain them until the cows come home – until the minute you turn them into 3D. So I think that’s what marks us out from most of the competition.”
Well, I know who to call when I come around to having an extension built on my own home. But, sadly, Joe might have to put the plans on ice until that lottery win comes in.
 

Hull and East Yorkshire Winter 2020

Features from the latest print magazine, Winter 2020

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  • I’m not playing Amazon’s game – I’m playing mine, says Julie of JE Books
  • …With a little help from our friends – and Rishi, say Beverley Travel’s Karl and Kelly
  • How edible oils recycler Brocklesby rose from the ashes to look to a bright future