EXCLUSIVE: Architects Dan Lichauco, William Ti, And Denise De Castro Are Part Of Metro Society's "Inspiring People"
As the nation was locked down during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the task-based, common-sensical, grounded solutions of our country’s greatest creative minds provided us with the positivity we all could use some of
While the nation was locked down on the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and paranoia and paralysis took over our lives, there was a group of creatives who responded to the crisis by seeing it as an opportunity to do what might be their most important work, responding to the most urgent demand of these times.
Architects, designers, and builders worked on important and necessary structures that sought to address a basic need of our hospitals: space. This is their story.
MacGyver the complexity
Architect Dan Lichauco had been doing work with the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) for years, and when it became the designated COVID-referral center, it was no surprise that he would get a call. “They called us to see how we could quickly fix the wards, to make sure that they were negative pressure, or as least infectious as possible,” he recalls.
As with many who started doing COVID-related initiatives and hoped to help ease people’s uncertainties about the virus, Dan started posting on social media about how to create makeshift negative pressure rooms in our own homes. Vince Dizon of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) then got in touch with him about the construction of Bayanihan Centers.
But being reeled in by the government didn’t mean things would be easy. “Early on, there was a lot of confusion and misconception about what was needed. The lockdown was instantaneous and it did not give everybody a lot of time to prepare,” Dan says. “During the lockdown everybody was fumbling, everybody was panicking, everybody didn’t understand how we could catch this disease, and so there was a lot of kuwentong kutsero and kuwentong barbero, and we had to learn along the way.”
Dan and his team took stock in the midst of chaos and anxiety. “What we had to do initially was to understand what the facility had to do. There was this big discussion if it was for PUIs, PUMs, or positives, or a step-down facility. But we designed it for the most severe [patients],” he says. “We designed the facilities to handle positives, then what it can be used for, within World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, are the PUIs and PUMs.”
But then there was the difficulty of getting on the same page about the standards that would be followed, given the need to work as quickly as possible. “There’s the WHO standard, and there’s the National Institute of Health (NIH)-USA standards. And [officials] were leaning towards the NIH standards, which were more stringent, more expensive, more time consuming,” he explains. “So we said, hey, this is what we can build today. We did meet WHO standards.”
It was a race against time and the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients who had nowhere to go. “[It] was that when they shut down, and people were getting infected—people, particularly in the more dense parts of the cities, couldn’t self-quarantine. That’s what we had to catch up with.”
The lockdown also meant a difficulty with construction materials. “When we were building the COVID facilities, everything was shut down. So even building materials, we had to be judicious, it was like we had to MacGyver everything that was available.”
The PGH facility is one such structure, where the limited materials and the impossibility of meeting the negative pressure demand, became an opportunity to “MacGyver it,” so to speak. “What we did in PGH was we did a unidirectional airflow system wherein we built a donut building, and we pushed the air from the outside all the way to the inside to evacuate in the middle, in the hole of the donut, so that all the contaminated air would be in the middle,” Dan explains. “We couldn’t put in a full negative pressure system, we couldn’t put in an h-vac air conditioning system, so we had to deal with exhaust fans. When the consultants came in, we found out that what we were doing was correct.”
Dan’s team also did not want to sacrifice the comfort and psycho-emotional needs of patients who might use the Bayanihan Centers. “Those were really designed for comfort. One of the things we insisted on putting in was an outlet in every cubicle [so people] can charge their devices. I put myself in their shoes, if I’m stuck there for 14 days, what do I do?” he explains. “So we had outlets, individual lights, we had privacy, we made sure the bathrooms were working, and the LGUs (local government units) will take care of the food.”
Patient and staff comfort, and doing no harm to our frontliners, were at the heart of the design vision for the work Dan and his team did on these COVID-19 facilities. None of that were sacrificed in the name of speed or urgency; instead it came together towards providing an actual refuge, a space of comfort, in a time of uncertainty and fear.
Simplicity and generosity
The work of Architects William Ti of WTA Architecture + Design Studio and Denise de Castro of DEQA Design Collaborative, meanwhile, highlights not just the value of responding to the most basic need for space at that particular moment in the pandemic, but also the importance of humility. They knew from the start that their limited resources and manpower might mean not being able to make their Emergency Quarantine Facilities (EQFs) as quickly as possible at the scale it was demanded, and so they disseminated its design for free.
“The key idea was how to scale it up. And at that time in the middle of March, everyone was just scared about what’s to come,” William explains. “And I think one of the things that causes our fears is we need a sense of security that there’s a place for us, that there’s somewhere to go to. And so I think there was not really much interest in proprietary rights or anything. For me, it was just about how to scale this up, whatever it takes.”
The EQF design was also such that it used standard sizing of materials, and allowed people to work with readily available materials. None of it was set in stone. “Almost every week there was an update, a new version,” Denise explains. “Because everyone would give input, we had another Viber group just for technical advisory. So people would give their feedback, and then Will’s team would release a new version, and that would get disseminated. It kept on improving as every variation was built.”
“In architecture, we always like to think about local materials and what’s sustainable. And you cannot get more local than this because you basically build with what you have,” William responds. “We had one [EQF] in Pangasinan where they used old tarpaulins. You’ll see some structures built in steel and polycarbonate, some in plywood. The one in Singapore, they were using steel frames.”
Unsurprisingly, this EQF initiative became bigger than William expected. “The initial plan was to build on four sites, as prototypes, and then the idea was that maybe somebody else or maybe the government agencies would take it on, and cascade it out,” he says. “But before we even finished the first one we realized that the need was much more.”
“Our first call for funding was only for 15 sites. Then it became 20 plus, and then 40. And then 75,” Denise chimes in.
The scale at which this happened, and the swiftness with which these structures were constructed especially at the start, had a lot to do with the decision to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which had its engineering teams and soldiers working on EQFs at different sites. This also helped them logistically, to get supplies from one place to the next, in the midst of the lockdown. But just as important, it required a shift in the creative process of William and Denise, given the exigencies of the time.
“There’s a sense of pace. The idea that you should be able to make decisions quickly and soundly. At least for me, I’m rarely on site actually for other projects. But this one required a more hands-on approach,” William recalls. This also meant learning from the different processes this project demanded of the team. “I think as we mature as a society, a lot of our architecture has become more rigid and restricted in terms of documentation. And so I wanted to explore this idea of an architect actually building on site, and designing on site, without reams of paper and all that. It was like building with your hands.”
Despite the success of the initiative to build as many EQFs as possible within a specific period, it was clear to William and Denise that it would not be enough. Denise says: “The national problem had a national solution. But we were, of course, limited in terms of the work that we could do because we’re a private group, so limited funds as well.” William adds: “I would think, I don’t know if it’s a sad or good thing, it’s almost like a national response, and yet it’s done with the private industry.”
It was a national response that began with a design for an emergency quarantine facility that could address the most basic demand for space in the face of a global pandemic, funded and fueled by the private sector that, as always, rises to the occasion of a nation in crisis.
Boots on the ground
While the COVID-19 structures they’ve built are an important part of the response, both William and Denise, as well Dan, agree that these buildings address a small part of the bigger problem.
“It’s a moving target in terms of regulations,” Dan says. “But I think the problem with regulations is that one agency will say this, another will say that. And another group within the same agency will say something differently. So what happens is we need to get the standards uniform across the board.”
The crisis on the ground did not make their work any less valuable. “This initiative [is] probably one of the most meaningful work we’ve done, and so it feels good to be an architect and be able to build something that has immediate impact,” William says. “I think it will remind architects of our roles in society [and] I think at the end of the day architecture needs to be there for us to plan a way forward.”
For Denise, it is about the nature of their profession as well. “I think as designers and architects, we’re just naturally optimists. We just think that everything can be made better.”
At a time when we feel like we are barely keeping our heads above water, given this pandemic, the task-based, common-sensical, grounded solutions of our architects and designers provide us with the positivity we all could use some of.
Dan Lichauco photos Metro Home Archives
William Ti photos from Instagram
Denise de Castro portrait by William Ong for Metro Home
Other photos courtesy of the social media accounts of Architects Dan Lichauco, William Ti,and Denise de Castro