Safe & Sound
Despite Earthquakes, Bureaucracy and a Bit of Global Naiveté, an Afterschool Center Project Became a Template for Further Initiatives
The Children's Learning Center in the village of Danhug, Ormoc City, the Philippines
BY JEN THOMAS
Project manager Cecilie Wang and architect Jakob Gate started with a personal mission rather than a specific project in mind. In late 2016, feeling unfulfilled by the work they were doing in the commercial sector, the two decided to leave their respective firms in London, England and pursue opportunities to do good elsewhere.
With limited funding from the Sheryl Lynn Foundation, Ms. Wang and Mr. Gate moved to the Philippines, intending to stay for a year. They soon began collaborating with local nongovernmental organization Rural Development Initiative (RDI), in Ormoc City on the island of Leyte, to determine the most pressing needs for the area. They quickly learned that many children had nowhere to go after the final school bell rang.
The first Children's Learning Center in the village of Cagbuhangin, Ormoc City
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATIVE NARRATIVE
“The kids often were playing along the streets and working for parents,” says Ms. Wang, who now runs the design studio that was born out of the Philippines project, Native Narrative, from Copenhagen, Denmark with Mr. Gate. “There was really a need for after-school facilities, which was something they didn't have in any villages around where we were working.”
—Cecilie Wang, Native Narrative, Copenhagen, Denmark
So in partnership with RDI—and with funding from the Sheryl Lynn Foundation and Mayor Richard Gomez of the Ormoc City Government—Ms. Wang and Mr. Gate got to work designing and constructing their first Children's Learning Center in the village of Cagbuhangin. The 10-month, £10,500 project, completed in late 2017, would serve as a template for other such centers throughout the Philippines, with three more constructed in 2018 and five projects slated for completion this year.
WEATHERING THE STORMS
Because the Philippines is in the Pacific Ocean's “Ring of Fire,” seismic activities like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. So when Mr. Gate began developing the project plans for the 678-square-foot (63-square-meter) learning center, it was with these tumultuous conditions in mind.
“Sometimes, the solution for one thing complicates or contradicts a solution for another,” he explains. “For instance, we were raising up the building to prevent it from flooding. But, if you raise the building up too much, you make it weaker in terms of earthquakes. So we were very much concerned about it.”
To balance both requirements, Mr. Gate leaned heavily on the expertise of local engineers as well as earthquake expert Carl Fosholt. They were used to designing under these constraints. And it paid off: While in the middle of construction, an earthquake hit—and the building made it through intact.
Beyond the basic structure of the building, the team had to be mindful of the durability of the project materials. Mr. Gate originally envisioned building the center with earthy bamboo and timber, for instance, but soon learned that both materials would be impractical for the site.
“When we arrived in the area, we were a little bit naive,” he says. “The locals informed us that things are quite temporary when they're made from bamboo. In order to make the bamboo longer-lasting, it needs to be either soaked in salt water for several months or treated with chemicals.” Either process would have required more specialists on the construction crew, which would have pushed the project budget past its breaking point.
—Jakob Gate, Native Narrative, Copenhagen, Denmark
“Bamboo or timber would have delayed the project, been more expensive and been more difficult in terms of quality control,” Mr. Gate says. With those options clearly off the table, he designed a predominantly concrete structure that would be more budget-friendly and less time-intensive, and would stand up to the high winds and rain the area is known for.
Then, to infuse the space with personal touches, the team called in local carpenters to fabricate the plywood furniture. And seat covers were made from pandan, an abundant local grass that's dried, dyed and woven by regional weavers.
TANGLED UP IN RED TAPE
Despite working closely with the local government, Native Narrative wasn't able to completely avoid the kind of bureaucratic headaches that can snag a project timeline. The team learned, for instance, that clearing a space for the after-school facility would be more complicated than it had imagined.
The site had been occupied by a government-owned structure that was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) in 2013. “The building was absolutely in pieces, but getting that removed was very difficult in terms of paperwork,” Mr. Gate says. “If you want to destroy government property, this is very complicated.”
January 2017: Ms. Wang and Mr. Gate relocate to the Philippines and begin design research and establishing local connections.
July 2017: Construction on the first Children's Learning Center begins in the village of Cagbuhangin.
July 2017: Earthquake hits the project site.
October 2017: Team completes construction on the first Children's Learning Center.
June 2018: Construction begins on three additional centers throughout the Philippines.
October 2018: Team completes construction on the three additional centers.
The team's timeline ended up spanning 10 months—with just 2.5 months devoted to construction. “The rest of the time was dealing with the bureaucracy,” says Mr. Gate. Yet the team was able to reduce the impact of that red tape considerably on future projects, as it replicated lessons learned on dealing with the local government.
Cecilie Wang, co-founder, project lead, Native Narrative
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Experience: 8 years
What was your favorite part of the project location?
The warmth of the Filipino people—so heartwarming and kind. Despite most people living in extreme poverty, we were always welcomed with meals, drinks and accommodations. We became friends with 20-30 children in our neighborhood, which fundamentally shaped our understanding of their situation. These children often came to our house to play, and some even waited outside in the early morning for us to wake up.
How did you recharge after a project setback?
I practiced the Wim Hof Method, which is a combination of power-breath exercises and cold exposure in ice baths. That kept my mind and body in check.
“In the first year, we finished one building within 10 months, and the second year we did three buildings within 10 months,” says Ms. Wang. “So we did optimize because we had learned from the first project.”
WINDOW TO THE FUTURE
Knowing that the first building would serve as the basis for the rest of the program of after-school facilities, the Native Narrative team wanted to make sure it was creating the best possible template.
At first, village leaders were hesitant to disparage the new space. But after learning that their feedback would help inform future projects, they opened up. For instance, the initial structure used tinder screens in place of windows, which allowed breezes to pass through but were less expensive than windows that could open and close. To shield those openings from rain, the project plan included a 1.5-meter (5-foot) overhang supported by a concrete beam and columns, making it more resistant to strong winds.
“But they shared that during strong side winds and downpours, the interior still took on water,” says Mr. Gate. The overhang wasn't enough. So for future projects, he revised the plan to include working windows, as well as overhead fans. Those changes, along with other elements, increased project costs from £10,500 for the prototype to £20,000 for later learning centers. “But with the increased budget, we were able to do a better design,” he says.
A LASTING LEGACY
After overseeing the initial Children's Learning Center and three additional projects, Ms. Wang and Mr. Gate did what they had hoped to do all along: hand over the fine-tuned project plans and extensive knowledge library to the local government. The transition couldn't have been smoother, says Ms. Wang, given that Native Narrative had already been working in such close concert with the municipalities.
The Children's Learning Center in the village of Mas-in, Ormoc City, the Philippines. Below, all furniture is made of plywood by local carpenters, while seat covers are made of a grass that is grown, dried, dyed and woven by local weavers.
“All of our design is open-source,” she says. “That's also why the collaboration with the local government has been really important for us, because we knew it would have to carry on while we were not there anymore.”
But Native Narrative hasn't stepped away completely. Mr. Gate and Ms. Wang get frequent updates on the program's progress since their departure. “Our goal was really to make ourselves redundant,” says Ms. Wang. “It sounds like a really bad business strategy, but that was really our hope.” PM
PMI research shows project teams that draw from an array of perspectives and skillsets deliver powerful outcomes.