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.

I think words are as meaningful as pictures, do not diminish your entries!
Words can be visual, and your words paint exquisite pictures of creative minds working on an ethical canvas. Very moving.
What an amazing way to use your education and training, by giving dignity to these people,
Bonjour Yan ! Keep up all the good work in Manilla. Bianca says hallo, lol. Go Oilers go !
thanks for the comprehensive explation of the project, and glad to see people are working with eyes open and an understanding of needs which are different that ones which are so firmly entrenched in our society.
loved your post. what you all are doing is incredibly inspiring.
Miss you Andrea
Lots of Love,
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