Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2010, an NGO called Streetlight, which helps children in the slums of Tacloban, invited Alex Furunes, an architect, along with his two friends, to design and build a study center for the children and their families in Tagpuro, a small barangay in the city.
“We did so through a very close collaboration with the parents that had children enrolled in the educational programs of the NGO,” Furunes says. “Through weekly workshops with the families and through testing on-site, we managed to build something they were very proud of in the end.”
In 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall, and destroyed the center.
Furunes, who runs his own architectural firm, Eriksson Furunes, in Norway, went back to Tacloban four months after the devastation, and started to work right away. He recalls that the aftermath of the typhoon was chaotic, and that during that time, it was difficult for them to think beyond the immediate needs of the relief.
“We aimed to take the process step by step, and in this way, we could open the design process so that the community could express their concerns, ambitions and hope for the future,” he says.
Another architect, Sudarshan Khadka, had seen the study center in an architectural website before Haiyan clobbered the entire structure. When the typhoon hit, he wanted to help out in rebuilding efforts, looked up Furunes’ website, and reached out to volunteer.
“After a few e-mails and a meetup with Alex [Furunes] and Jago [Boase, the engineer of the project], I got the firm I was working with at the time, Leandro V. Locsin Partners [LVLP], to get fully involved in the project,” Khadka shares.
Together with LVLP and Khadka, Furunes closely worked with Streetlight, whose staff co-facilitated the entire process, as their beneficiaries were also involved in the conception and construction of the new study center.
“The community itself, whose interests and ambitions were at the core of the project, was able to come together through weekly workshops, and some were employed on the construction site by our contractor,” Furunes explains. He says that the workshops, where they made architectural tools and methods accessible to the community, was necessary so the organizations involved in constructing the new site could learn, question, and make something that matters to the people of Tagpuro.
The workshops, which the architects designed to be fun (akin to a friendly gathering over food), were held once a week. Making these workshops as accessible and enjoyable as possible, Furunes says, was imperative so they could give the people in Tagpuro the space and time they needed to be creative.
Khadka also adds that through the workshop, they learned that the spatial concepts of ‘open and light’ and ‘closed and safe’ resonated with the community.
“These concepts helped them articulate a desire for openness and connection to nature while providing safety and security during a typhoon,” he says. “In some way, the design process helped them deal with and respond to the psychological trauma of Haiyan.”
During the workshops, the children would also write poems to try to describe what doors and windows meant for them, and their parents would then reflect these meanings into their designs. “In this way, the workshops helped naming concepts that describes values and meaning held by the community,” Furunes says. “[It also] set frameworks that enabled different opinions and ambitions to come together.”
The project made use of light timber frames set against heavy reinforced concrete — which, Khadka explains, was the manifestation of the dual concepts of “open vs. closed” and “light vs. heavy.” The diamond-shaped, timber-slatted doors and windows, which the fathers of the children designed and built, allow for air to flow through spaces, while the concrete offered to be a solid refuge should typhoons strike. Furunes shares that neither Streetlight nor the community opted for steel, as steel didn’t prove to be a stronghold when met with the destructive winds of Haiyan.
After several workshops, the community slowly became more verse in their ways of working that they even established their workshop committee so they can lead the workshops themselves. Furunes shares that the families would describe this as bayanihan.
“In Norway, we have something similar that we call ‘dugnad,’ and like bayanihan, this is a tradition where groups of people come together to achieve something they cannot achieve by themselves individually,” he says. “Maybe bayanihan or ‘dugnad’ can inspire new ways of giving shape to our built environment?”
In choosing the materials and construction methods to be used, Khadka emphasizes that they intentionally used a low-technology approach so the community can repair the building without a higher level of assistance. This, he says, also gives them full ownership of the project.
After over 100 workshops and three years of construction, the organizations and the community finally built the study center, together with an office and an orphanage. Furunes says that the collaboration was vital in designing and building something that carries meaning to every individual involved.
“The essence of architecture is not space, but the meaning embodied by space. Thus, space becomes architecture when given meaning,” Khadka adds.
“Finding shared meanings allows people to connect more deeply with architecture and the built environment in general. When people lose this connection, we end up with cities which are soulless.”