Rebuilding a better post-COVID world

Families will continue to ‘co-live’ even after the pandemic, and activities that sometimes conflict will overlap. Our homes would therefore need to have more flexible and adaptable spaces.

“Build, build, build” was the theme of 2020 and the next few years — or so I thought.

I run an architectural design firm called Buensalido + Architects and just like the famous slogan, we were looking forward to building and building and building in 2020. Everybody said that this was going to be a great year, and it certainly felt like it at first. 

We were coming in to a vibrant office every day, juggling various design projects of different types and scales. A few of our projects were due to be completed this year and new projects landed on the drawing board — a tropical high-rise office building on Shaw Boulevard, a few hotels, housing developments all over the Philippines, a convention center in Iloilo, neighborhood malls, and quite a few luxury homes all over Metro Manila, to mention a few. 

We also had a renewed energy, coming from attending the Anthology Festival, an architectural festival held in Fort Santiago. It was charged with a lot of talks and workshops by foreign and local architects, attended by professionals and students from our industry, where a lot of new ideas towards better architecture and a built environment were exchanged. 

We actually had a clue of what was to come, as some of the international speakers were not able to make it to Manila — some of whom cancelled because of the growing uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 in their countries, while some were forced to turn back due to tighter security protocols in the connecting airports coming here.

We participated in an architecture-centric art installation within the festival grounds, whose main idea was that architecture must evolve beyond its current definition and must be used as a force that fights for the greater good, an idea that we were excited to integrate into our projects and practice.

The safety and health of our team have always been the foremost priorities in our decision-making, so a week before the lockdown, we already shifted to WFH (work from home). 

Majority of the construction of our projects were put on hold, but we had quite a few design projects on the drawing board that kept us busy. I am very grateful for that and the fact that the nature of our work, which is design, allowed us to work remotely. We had no choice but to adapt quickly and learn the ins and outs of remote work, shifting from a very collaborative and tactile practice to practically a virtual one.  

We missed our impromptu huddles, accidental meet-ups, informal pin-ups — which are all very important in our process as these moments are where real and meaty discussions and unfiltered creative ideas are brought out. 

We also quickly pivoted Foundree, an architecture review center for licensure exams that I am part of, into a virtual school. We felt a great deal of anxiety from aspiring architects as they could not go to physical classes to review for the exam, whose date was fast approaching (it was moved eventually from June to October). We really just wanted to help them prepare for their exam, but we were pleasantly surprised that going virtual even expanded our reach beyond Metro Manila, attracting other aspiring architects from all over the country to enroll. We have even established an on-site branch in Cebu during the quarantine through a strategic partnership.

We had three trips planned this year, which were all obviously cancelled. Two were vacation trips to Amsterdam or Paris in April and a yearly anniversary trip to Iceland in November. Prior to those two, we were supposed to be on a work trip to Milan and Venice in March, to visit offices and factories of a couple of furniture brands, which was also cancelled on the day of departure. We were actually relieved about it because that was the same week that lockdowns in Italy started to happen as well.

Despite being locked down, we started a few initiatives to pitch in our own little way to the whole situation. We started a #StayHomeStayOptimistic campaign on our social media channels, where we created content and activities for our immediate community, to encourage them to stay home.  

B+Abble, is what we call our regular learning platform in the office, which we take public and convert into a yearly seminar, inviting speakers from various creative fields to speak about new ideas and ways of doing things, to inspire other creatives to pursue positive change within their own spheres of influence.

So for the period of the quarantine, we took B+Abble online. It became a platform for us to raise funds for an emergency quarantine facility (EQF) that we volunteered to fund, which was eventually built in Perpetual Help Medical Center in Las Piñas City, which was only one of the 75 EQFs intended to augment the capacity of hospitals all over the country. 

As we try to regain the normal that we once knew, we also know that it would probably never be the same. This is true for how we work and will be so for architecture as well.

It was also an opportunity for us to further our agenda that our culture and identity must be manifested more in architecture, that together contribute to a sense of place that is unique only to the Philippines — this idea of a national identity that is coherent and is unified by our cultural ethos today, but celebrates variety, diversity, and creative freedom in expression. 

We also launched a campaign called Post-Pandemic Explorations, where we imagined different ideas for specific typologies (retail, restaurants, hospitality, high-rise condos, and private homes) and how we thought they could adapt and respond to the pandemic. 

We are exploring ideas about how to reinvent the jeepney into a delivery system to bring essential goods to micro-communities that have no means of mobility and access to basic goods and services. For our pilot project, we are looking at converting decommissioned jeepneys into mobile palengkes.  

As of this writing, we have slowly come back to the physical office, which was no easy task. My wife ensured that our team was comfortable with it, as we still continue to blend physical and remote work.  

We had to do our own multiple rounds of contact tracing to determine each of our team member’s risk factors, testing, ramping up health and safety protocols, and even organizing a shuttle service for everyone. We have cascaded to our team the importance of vigilance and caution while continuously tweaking our protocols as we go along. 

As we try to regain the normal that we once knew, we also know that it would probably never be the same. This is true for how we work and will be so for architecture as well.

So the question is, how will architecture change?

Focus on the essentials and co-living. There has been a shift of values during the pandemic — a simplification of needs and a focus on essential things. Architecture will be straightforward, practical, functional, and health and wellness–centric. 

Families will continue to “co-live” even after the pandemic and activities that sometimes conflict will overlap. My wife, for example, has taken the role of teacher to Annika, while running the office with me and the team during our daughter’s naptime. We have joined in the bandwagon of baking our own banana bread, ube cheese pandesal, and bagels, while making friends with suppliers of groceries and deliveries online. Our homes would, therefore, need to have more flexible and adaptable spaces to accommodate all of these to occur at the same time. 

As a response to this, we conceived of and started to offer BUÔ, an “essential home” designed to accommodate a holistic lifestyle, a balanced lifestyle. It will have places to sleep, rest, socialize, bond, pray, exercise, grow your own food, harvest solar energy, and even designed to respond to a pandemic with abundant outdoor spaces (gardens, balconies, decks), transitory spaces (porches, foyers, sanitation areas), and quarantine configurations.

Nature and the outdoors. As we are all stuck in our homes and condos, we realized the importance of nature and the outdoors. Porches, balconies, and roof decks will be integrated more and more over the coming years to address this. I have been in my current home for almost a decade now and never have I enjoyed our balconies and roof deck as I did during the lockdown. They gave me and my family additional “legroom,” and spaces to breathe and feel the expanse of nature.

Here, Annika and I run around, play tag, and dance to the tune of They’re Playing My Song. During the quarantine, my wife Nikki and I slowly added more and more plants in these spaces and taught Annika how to care for them. Our “sky gardens” allowed me to slow down and to literally stop and smell the flowers, occasionally seeing butterflies pop in to visit.

Self-sufficiency. Urban gardening or urban farming will increasingly become a staple so that people can just harvest their own food or a portion of it. My wife’s ongoing project is to increase our urban farm, where we could potentially grow our own vegetables. Aside from food, alternative resources would be adapted by more homes like solar energy, rainwater harvesting, among others, to limit our utility expenses as we stay in our homes for longer periods of time.

Moving forward. The points mentioned above are just about homes, and only a small fraction of how architecture will change. During our collective experience of the lockdown, a lot of new issues in our built environment popped up, and some pre-existing issues were highlighted. 

The reality, though, is that no one knows what is going to happen next with the pandemic. Let us use our collective experience and learnings during this pandemic as our drivers to shift our focus to the planet, people, communities, wellness, meaningful social interactions, and humane spaces that give dignity to all. There must be a balance somewhere there.

My hope is that we can reflect on the good qualities of our spaces, as well as the bad, and rebuild a better post-COVID world. Architects cannot do it alone. So together, let’s build it, for future generations to enjoy.  


Edited by Tanya T. Lara

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