Monday, June 26, 2006

U.P. College of Architecture

A visit at the U.P. College of Architecture, a school of great accomplishment in design and competition, was held Monday, June 19th, where lectures on Filipino architecture were given by professors, and a tour of the U.P. campus was hosted by the students themselves.

The day began with an official introduction to Secretary Maria Lisa Santos, whom we’ve previously been in contact with since Montreal, and Dean Prosperidad C. Luis, followed by a tour of the architecture building, views of student works, and classroom sit ins with Filipino architecture students being lectured on hospital fire safety.

After a delicious lunch of rice, vegetables, beef and fish
provided by the college, a select group of U.P. students presented their projects and provided us with a jeepney tour of their campus.

The day ended with a chance to sample some of the finest yet daring Filipino delicacies of isaw (ee-sao) otherwise known as chicken intestine, and a jam session with Arkaira, once again organized by the students, wherein our own Matt Wiviott took the opportunity to play with the musicians.

We were privileged to have met such a smart and talented group of young aspiring architects full of life and enthusiasm. The energy that fills their souls is matched by their hospitality and willingness to share; to accept; to entertain, and to welcome us within their home and within their own architectural realm.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Freedom Build- Let’s Get PHYSICAL!

June 13th, Tuesday and June 15th, Thursday

From a constant stance of observing, absorbing and deliberating, now had come our opportunity to, well, basically get down and dirty-with construction.

Gawad Kalinga Winnipeg, Narra village moving towards its colourful completion.

We were raring after our holiday to Bolinao and Banaue and the collaborative work we had produced with the architects from Hong Kong and now after being psyched for weeks, we were ready to do the Freedom Build, a four day activity set up across the nation for the National Independence Day. The concept was amazing. Get on site and build with a community. We had signed up for two alternate days of work in a little village called Narra supported by the NGO Gawad Kalinga from Winnipeg. Excited to contribute in a physically tangible way we all woke up bright and early to only have our day roll itself out at around noon. Our friend, Jinjo came over to pick us up and when we were finally on our hour’s drive to the site we were welcomed by torrential rains that trapped us in the vehicle for a good twenty minutes. For those moments we wondered if the remainder of our day would be a battle against the weather. But as we drove up to the village we broke through the emerging sunny wetness to be greeted by the two elderly men in charge, Boy and Willy. The smell of simmering lunches, the crunch of gravel and squish of wet sand pulled at our senses as we walked through the tiny village. It was no more than a strip of a pedestrian laneway flanked on either side by a row of houses, the left moving towards a colourful completion and the right waiting to do so. The assembly its self was powerfully symbolic of a great vision. We walked to the end of the laneway parting a sea of shy children and women whilst gathering smiles, nods and dancing eyebrows-all gestures of welcome and invitation. The waves as surely returned-the children flocked towards us bewildered but accepting. Our drawing power was an eclectic mix- the absolute foreignness of our being there, our accented English filling the air already saturated with clucking chickens and ‘Taglish’ (a mixture of Tagalog and English) and our clicking digital cameras.

There was a general sense of awkward excitement in the air. We were here to do and they were ready to have us but what could a bunch of students who probably never shoveled a thing in their life be ready for? I personally thought I was ready to carry a mighty bag of cement and erect a re-bar cage twenty feet high.

Day 1: Omar, Danielle, Matt and Jr (on the make-shift scaffolding) painting the salmon pink house.

We were congenially asked to paint. Yes, paint. Bright, lovely colours of acid green, salmon pink, mauve and anything you could possibly pick out of the rainbow. There was a moment where I was not sure what to do or feel. But my sense of amusement at the entire situation gently kicked itself in and I picked up the acid green roller and did the first coat with Emmanuel on the exterior of a house. You never should be-little a job to the realms of simple till you’ve done it yourself and as best as possible. And that day I learned how to paint a wall. Actually I think quite a few of us learnt. Amongst great banter those more experienced amongst us guided, “No Jill, you don’t have to go in that many directions” and those working in the community gently explained and watched amusingly. Oscillating work between two houses I got quite the knack of it. I think my plain white walls at home have hope.

The ease-in with the paint job was the best thing for us that day because we got so much more out of the experience than we could have bargained for. We had the chance to converse with the people living in their makeshift houses as we dripped paint, click pictures with the swarm of children while speckled with colour and talk over the ambitions of those eagerly working to finish the village to this vision they had. We built relationships that day. Jr, a fantastic young man of only 18 years was the honcho of the construction scene. With an assuring smile and only pertinent words of instruction and conversation we learnt how he was doing this all to give his family and community the homes they deserved. It made the second day all the more to look forward to.

Day 2: Hans and Yan shoveling the sand into the makeshift wooden carrier box. Jr (left-most) looks on.

Thursday, found us rested and much earlier on site. We were now part of the family. Most of the women and children remembered our names and this time the men were ready with shovels and grins. Today we were going to really build and work. The few shovels swapped hands and we were now sweating over sand, gravel and clay. Yan, Emmanuel and Danielle jumped right on to the clay ground of the house to be built. They dug hard through mounds of compacted rubbish and clay through most of the morning. Emmanuel also hovered in the trench with Omar helping to erect the re-bar cages for the corner columns of the square house footprint. Andrea and Matt bustled about with more painting at the back of some of the houses and Cindy and I helped Jinjo, Hans and Jr with eight rounds of sand transported from just outside the village to a pile close to the clay site. Activity escalated at most instances. But it was interesting to watch efficiency take the backseat with the limitation of working equipment and the general dependence on Jr to guide us all. Most of the time it was waiting for one step like getting all the sand and cement together so we could then transport the gravel to then mix it all with water to make the concrete. But there was always joy and laughter in everything done. However long it took and seemingly arbitrary it all had soul and purpose. Their hope and traditions found its way into the work; before the concrete could be poured for a column's base a chicken’s throat was slit and its blood poured onto the mushy clay. It was to bring strength and stability to the house and we soon learnt another chicken would have to follow suite for the next column to be erected that day. Omar in likened spirit, threw a few coins into the trench-to bring wealth to the home. The builders were very pleased.

Jinjo (left), Omar (right) and Emmanuel (further) working by the clay based trench around the house being constructed.

The work continued in a slow fashion until they invited us to join them for lunch. Covered with dust, clay and sweat we heartily ate the fish stew, rice and pork gravies and I was personally thankful there weren’t any chicken dishes. Generosity and hospitality always presides in Filipino society –they hold no bar to culture, creed or association and sharing food, we have come to learn, is undoubtedly a grand way of doing so.

Omar helping out with the erection of the re-bar cage for the corner column.

Recharged we went back to more shoveling, mixing and digging. Round two for making concrete constituted the same steps as before. Eight trips of sand piled onto the site with two bags of cement all mixed together with shovels. When it was Cindy and my turn to bring in the gravel, Jr grinned and told us we needed to do twenty of such deposits. That’s when Jinjo made it a community affair and said we should do the Bayanihan. It was the best thing I saw that day. Almost instantly as he said it, young and old lined up side by side and we passed six pails from the outside of the village to the concrete being mixed. For those few minutes every person became involved either by shoveling the gravel into the pails or simply counting out loud the loads being dumped. And then as quickly as it was set up it was done and the job moved forward.

community involvement- Bayanihan

us at the end of day 2 with all our new friends

As our day wound to a close we did the Bayanihan once again to pass the slushy concrete to be poured into the foundations. After, we began to clean up, saying our goodbyes and taking our final pictures with the lovely children, some of whom had helped out quite a bit. Our man, Jr was incredible through the day, focused, concise and dedicated to doing his best with all that was to his avail. It gives projects like Gawad Kalinga’s 777 goal of 700,000 homes in 7,000 communities in 7 years undoubted potential towards reality and this nation great hope for its people. Fitting to the sweetness of the day we departed with requests to return and a delicious snack of sticky sweet rice topped with caramelized nuts. We drove home, tired, quiet, happy and nourished at every realm.

GK 777 a remarkable vision

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A different side...

While the rest of the group was exploring the charms and cuisine of the provinces, I had the opportunity to experience quite a different side of Manila. Due to a bit of digestive difficulty (something most of us have had the pleasure of experiencing at one point or another) I decided that it was best not to travel, and instead I was treated to a bit of Manilan luxury in a place called Eastwood City.
This place is an example of what upscale city living in Manila is like. High-rise luxury condos are clustered together around a plaza of shops, restaurants and night clubs. The entire complex is gated and guarded – perfectly safe and perfectly isolated. It was, for a brief possible to forget that I was indeed still in Manila. But this city is proving itself to be a place of contrast – a place where great abundance and great need are juxtaposed within the dense urban fabric.

Eastwood City towers and condo unit.

In spite of this, I have to admit that the rest was much appreciated. The group returned from their holiday just in time for all of us to partake in the Independence Day celebrations here in the Philippines. June 12th is their national holiday, the day which, in 1898, marked the end of the Spanish rule here.
The wee hours of the holiday found us in a place called the Hobbit House, a local bar that honors its namesake by employing, er, “little people” as waiters and waitresses. The place is also frequented by foreigners - on this night it seemed as if there were more North Americans there than locals. Highlights of the night included some great Filipino music, and a special guest number by our own Matt Wiviott. We will definitely be returning to this place again!
The rest of the holiday was spent resting at the condo. There were celebrations planned down by Manila Bay, but heavy rains in the late afternoon deterred us from venturing out. Rainy season is descending upon us – it rains almost every day now, frustrating our work plans, but teaching us to be patient and, most importantly, to “go with the flow.”

Music at the Hobbit House

Cool cat Matt takes the stage

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Back to work! After Tagaytay, Santa Rosa and Carmona Cavite, Malaybay is the next site BuildAid has been commissioned to work on.

Malaybay is a barangay (community) that has been struck by fire in last December. Woodframe construction was the cause of the rapid fire spread throughout the densely packed houses. Yet there is hope. Among those properties, ten approached CCT as financial partners for the reconstruction of their house. CCT gives loans of P50,000 ($1000 CD) to the families in order to rebuild their houses, some borrowing up to P120,000 ($2,500 CD).

(Malybay master plan)
The task set out for BuildAid is to revise the failures encountered in the design and construction of such houses. Indeed, since the site is next to a lake, it is no surprise to find the water table 40cm below the ground. Actually, it used to be a fishing lake that has been reclaimed by landfill and what remains of the lake by garbage. This situation presents a large issue in terms of foundations and a risk of settlement of the houses, since the houses are now being built out of concrete masonry rather than woodframe construction, for not another fire to spread again through the barangay. Another problem is the knowledge of construction by the builders, which are the owners of the houses and their neighbours. They sometime don’t have any knowledge in construction, which lead to overdesigned steel rebars, too much mortar being applied, and too large columns and beams. Those issues might be relatively minor in the West, but in these situations every penny need be used efficiently. The loan is also given in one shot, yet other unexpected priorities might arise, such as illness, schooling, and newborns. Thus, in theory P50,000 seems more than enough for a 16sq.m. lot, but in reality money is spread elsewhere and the houses are never completed.

(residents building their house)

BuildAid went on site to visit the individual families to take measurements of their existing stage in construction, to then send these to the engineers in Hong Kong for feedback on the structural aspect, while we further investigate each families needs and aspirations, in order to provide a sufficient completed plan for their houses. This work can only be carried out under close contact with the families involved to fully understand their specific living habits.
(Rusty and Corazon Gentolia, CCT partners; Rusty is a recent Computer Science graduate from the Philippino Christian University)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Some rest...

After 2 weeks of orientation, site visits, hard working and sickness, it was time for us to take a break from the capital city, exercise, get some fresh air and experience the native Filipino dishes…

Destination Banaue and the rice terraces,

After an early wake-up call and a 9-hour car ride through valleys and mountains of Northern
Luzon, we finally arrived in Banaue, a small town in the province of Ifugao, known for its amazing rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered as the 8th Wonder of the World.
We thus spent our first day resting and walking through this amazing landscape, an engineering achievement created by the native tribes 2000 years ago. A model of sustainability, the terraces now show scars of aging, resulting in a need for protection of the area. Natural erosion, tourism and labor shortage (for repair and rice farming) are a few examples of causes leading to the slow destruction of this unique feature. Locals’ interests have changed, people are turning into tourist activities (touring, artifacts production) or are moving in Manila because of their inability to generate enough revenue from rice harvesting to fill their families’ needs. As a result, 65% of today’s rice supply in the surrounding area is coming from importation, and this figure is unlikely to improve with the current situation.
After our encounter with the Tam-an village inhabitants and our walk through a minor portion of the 20’000km stretch of paths and trails in the Banaue rice terraces, it was time to get some rest and meet the “locals”. For our first night outside Manila, we had the surprise to share our dorm with some more or less pleasant visitors. Moths, cockroaches, and a few other “over-sized” companions were to join us and give us some unforgettable moments.

After the mountains, the beach…. But before...

Swamp. This one word could describe our night in Locap, a small town located in the region of the Hundred Islands. While some of us were struggling with the heat and humidity of the area, others were fighting with the always memorable cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes, geckos and small mammalian specimens. The most lucky ones would have the combo, unexpected roommates AND temperature.
Our ‘journey’ in the Hundred Islands would thus never happen and would be traded with a more pleasant one in the area of Bolinao, Puerto del Sol Beach Resort where the group was to enjoy the warm water of the China Sea, the baking sun, sand and the comfort of some more decent hotel rooms. We shall also mention this unforgettable dinner on the beach during which we were to satisfy our digestive tracts with some local fish and vegetables, cooked by our guide Pastor Choy and driver Jesus.
Our last day outside the scented Manila lead us to a quick visit of the enchanted cave, where some of us enjoyed the cool underground water pool, naturally formed within the volcanic ground of the island, before taking the road back to the sweaty Manila.

(Sunset in Bolinao)

Local dishes… An initiation to the Filipino culture,

A journey outside Manila would not have been complete without tasting the so-famous Balut, a special Filipino snack. Before going further into the details of this unique tradition, it is my duty to warn of the nature of the following, sensitive hearts please avoid.
To make this a short story, the Balut actually consists of a duck embryo. The eggs are specifically chosen by the farmers and merchants and the embryo should not be over 18 days-old in order to be eaten. The eggs, containing the embryo (which may already contain the beak, feathers and internal organs) are cooked and served with the shell. Local beliefs mention eating Balut brings strength and virility to the man and is said to improve lactation for the opposite gender when pregnant or lactating. Balut is also part of the wedding ceremony. If the egg is consumed, union between the newly-weds is said to be reinforced during their honeymoon, making the first night a spicy and memorable one.
So it was our duty to try the special treat. With some moment of hesitation, it is with some good courage that Omar and I were to be the first ones to taste the chicken-tasting egg. Holding our breath, and adding some salt and sauce to give some flavor to the thing, it was time to bite into this unique meat. The event attracting several curious, it is with a small crowd, all eyes turned on us that we chewed into life (almost literally speaking…) and had our first taste of Balut. The experience was a success, and so was our very unique initiation and integration to the Filipino culture.

(A close-up view of the famous Balut)

It is thus with our stomachs full of goodies that we drove back in Manila, fresh and ready for some more adventures and eager to go back to work.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Theory and Practice

Well, we've survived our first deadline.

As Danielle mentioned, we spent the second week of our stay here in Manila working with a group of young architects from Hong Kong. Despite their youthful countenance, they brought a tremdous amount of professional experience and an iron-clad work ethic. Plus, they were really great guys to hang out with.

I'd like to talk a little bit more about the projects we engaged in, and their outcomes. First, however, I think it is worth speaking briefly about the NGO that has been hosting us, the Center for Community Transformation. CCT has been primarily involved in micro-finance: providing collateral-free loans to families living in slum settlements.

In a sense, CCT acts as a middle-man between the banks and the needy families, providing accountability for the banks, and hosting weekly collection meetings with the partners. Remarkably, there has been a 99.7% repayment rate of the thousands of loans they have already arranged.

CCT does provide a special 50,000 peso loan for housing, provided that the family can match half of that to prove they are indeed serious about building a house. So 75,000 pesos is the maximum most partner families can afford to spend on their house.

To put things into perspective, the families we are working with have the equivalent of $1,500 to spend on a house. That includes materials, land purchase, labour, the cost of temporary housing, etc. Of course, houses are usually in a state of perpetual upgrade, so one loan might build the foundation and walls, the next might provide a floor, and third may one day allow for a second storey.

The problem that we have been observing is that CCT has very little technical expertise in construction, nor legal knowledge of land acquisition. In the past, they have simply provided funding for partners, without advising them on how best to allocate their newfound resources.

Since these families are often entrenched in poverty, squandered money is unacceptable, and yet we are beginning to suspect that some partners might be spending more than is necessary when building their homes because they do not have access to professional expertise. CCT would like to provide them with this, but they do not seem to have adequate staff with such knowledge.

As architects and volunteers, we would like our contribution to be an assemblage of work that might facilitate the NGO in providing aid to those who seek to improve their lives through the improvement of their built environments. The job of ensuring quality and efficiency is clearly a full-time, on-the-ground responsibility, but we hope that by establishing a basic framework through a few project solutions we may elevate the capacity of CCT to provide such aid and thus leave our imprint.


Of the three projects we began to explore, the one I worked on was probably the most immediate, practical, and difficult. I don't say that to boast. The reality is that my group could not propose a suitable solution.

A squatter settlement beneath an overpass in a rural area had been displaced when the government had decided to expand the highway. Ten of the families whose homes had been plowed banded together and purchased a plot of land supposedly 8m by 20m. CCT had advised them that there was a standard design for a ten-unit habitation of those dimensions. CCT had not evaluated the site with the families, and it was unclear whether the families had entered into a contract to purchase the land.

What was clear was that the land was far too small. Although the site was exactly 8m*20m, the back portion abruptly sloped down, eliminating 48 sq. m. of buildable area. These families are desperately poor, and knew that the land was small. There was a tremendous solidarity among them; they demanded that each family receive equal treatment, so none might receive more than the poorest.

In that alone, we might learn a lesson.

It became clear as we muddled with potential configurations that the only acceptable scheme, in which we divided the site in two and placed a corridor in the middle serving five houses on either side, left each unit with 8 sq. m. of floor space per storey. Presuming that it might be some time before the second storeys were built, it became difficult to imagine a family inhabiting a space likely smaller than your bedroom. These families each had an average of five members; one had nine.

An alternative scheme was a two-storey building with five units on each floor. This contradicted a firm cultural bias towards the demarcation of property with the footprint of the home. If some units were entirely on the second storey, their claim to the land would be at least psychologically insecure. Also, the equality of housing would be compromised, with units on the second storey having lighting and air circulation advantages over those below.

We also entertained the notion of shared facilities, such as kitchens and bathrooms all at the back of the site, perhaps within the slope. Again, we were told that the families would resist such a proposal, even if it meant more space for sleeping.

An ethical dilemma arose: do we propose an architectural solution we know to be inadequate? Does the architect have a responsibility to ensure that s/he provides space for a standard quality of living? Is it more important to respect the wishes of the occupants, of the values we hold as truths?

In the end, we proposed two schemes: one with miniture two-storey units, one with two floors of single storey units. We also prepared a summary of guidelines to determine the minimum size of a dwelling, as well as the minimum construction area in which such a dwelling could be built, taking into account circulation and public space. That final contribution was probably the most useful part of our work. The committee to which we presented agreed that the housing was inadequate and pledged to help the families find another site.

As for the two other projects, I think I'll ask the parties responsible to speak of them, since I don't know as much as they do about their respective work. Also, I think I've written enough already.

I'll try to get some more photos up soon. I know that's the real reason to check this blog anyway.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?