An Architect’s Patriotic Act: Giving Back

by Jul 12, 2021Stories To Live By

The following is an edited version of an article I co-wrote for The Manila Times, a prominent journal in the Philippines, published and featured in their April 29, 2019 Build & Design Section.

Since the early 1990’s, amidst the economic boom of Malaysia and while expatriating in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I was pondering on how I could give-back to the Philippines and to the society that granted me my status as a professional. I was malleable to having to do something good.

Sure, I was involved in the usual charity donations, calamity reliefs, and subtle participations in Filipino community activities — not much for a professional who is trained in critical thinking and doing well in a foreign land I called home.

The window of opportunity came in November 2011. Over casual lunch with Attorney Robby Consunji and Ambassador Ed Malaya, even though the cost was imponderable, I proposed an ambitious renovation project for the Philippines Embassy in KL, to be carried out completely on a ‘pro bono’ basis.

The existing place was outdated, a mash up of old-original and newly installed elements, run-down and almost like an environment of forlorn dystopian, and the condition was ubiquitous.

So by February 2012, the first embassy walls came crumbling down. Works were concentrated on the interiors with a design concept of an open-plan — a statement synonymous with the ambassador’s stern advocacy of transparency and clean governance.

Since the existing structure was a former residence of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and was never revamped into a proper working office space, I spearheaded the design and construction works to undertake the following:-

  • Bedroom walls discarded and replaced with walls of tempered glass framed with solid timber for the restricted offices
  • Existing bedroom bathrooms (previously used for file storages with bath tubs still in place) were eliminated and all file records relocated to a new centralized filing room
  • Entire plywood and acoustic panel ceilings torn down and replaced with seamless gypsum plaster board ceilings inclusive of decorative cornices
  • Where applicable, general floor finishes were changed to 3’x3’ porcelain tiles or timber planks
  • The lobby re-floored in 3’x3’ polished Zimbabwe black granite slabs and a large, more welcoming, circular reception desk fitted-in
  • Former dining room enlarged and transformed into the community hall that spilled out into a new vast timber deck and into the existing car park space
  • Original wet kitchen converted into the embassy staff’s chow hall
  • Where new partitions were required, insulated gypsum board walls installed, complimented with timber baseboards
  • Fibre optic lighting, programmed to proudly illuminate the Philippine flag colours of blue, red, white & yellow, introduced at the main stairwell
  • The staircase itself ornamented with new decorative wrought-iron balustrades and finished in solid timber treads
  • Authentic stained glass windows and skylights installed in public spaces and prominent areas such as the ambassador’s waiting lounge
  • All doors replaced with solid timber or timber-framed glass doors equipped with Italian locksets and door closers
  • Former house windows, serving as transaction openings between the consulate and general public, reconstructed into large laminated tempered glass fenestrations framed in solid timber
  • Vinyl wall paper and a two-layered light trough & decorative pendant lamp installed at the ambassador’s office and waiting lounge
  • Dysfunctioning aircon units replaced with new split-type inverter units
  • Fluorescent lamps changed to light emitting diode (LED) downlights or T5 LED tubes in recessed louver housing; all electrical wirings rewired, encased in conduits, and concealed
  • New reception furniture and sconces for the lobby and office furniture for new offices

There were a few new interior structural columns, either of concrete, steel or timber, planted or shifted to suit the layout. For the exterior, all walls received fresh coats of paint but the overall architectural language was kept intact to preserve the heritage value of the edifice.

The entire ‘pro bono’ impact totalled an equivalent 11-million Philippine Pesos inclusive of almost-substrate-of-charge consultancy fees and was officially submitted, endorsed, and approved by the Philippines Commission on Audit.

All that while, the paramount task was to keep the embassy operations running while renovating which required careful planning and phasing programs. It was a foreseen conundrum and it seemed impossible to accomplish both sides of that coin.

But with the full cooperation of the entire embassy staff at that time, a carefully staged process that minimized downtime was carried out.

Above all else, the project had to be broom-clean finished by April 2012 in time for the official visit of then Philippines Vice-President Jejomar Binay who was the guest of honour in the opening ceremonies.

Welcoming and sharing a light moment with then Philippines Vice-President Jejomar Binay and later during the ceremonies, receiving an award while ambassador Eduardo Malaya (right) looks on.

A year later and still on a ‘pro bono’ basis, we extensively renovated the existing guardhouse cum public entrance, making it more functionally efficient, and installed a 4’X8’ etched granite embassy signage at the front fence.

Two years later, I instigated a design competition among members of the United Architects of the Philippines Kuala Lumpur Chapter (UAP-KL) for the renovation and expansion of the Philippine Overseas Labor office (POLO) and other attaché offices housed in an adjacent building.

The competition was judged by the POLO officials and a winning design chosen. Soil investigations and piling works were completed until the end of Ambassador Malaya’s term.

It was definitely an elating and gratifying experience to render professional expertise as a service to the Filipino community in KL who in turn finally felt some pride and dignity towards their new embassy.

It was also a sigh of relief for the embassy personnel who went through the perturbing experience but at the end of the day were highly motivated to work in a new organized and efficient environment.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, most people give because what we get back makes us feel a sense of purpose about ourselves, our society, and our lives.

There are many forms of contributions but to gift the full practice of one’s profession — from design to implementation to project management to full completion — may perhaps be too rare.

It is perchance best described in W.T. Purkiser’s words: “Not what we say about our blessings but how we utilize them is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”

I did share my thanksgiving.

Reviewing my Commendation Letter from the Congress of the Philippines, House of Representatives, Resolution No. 34, dated July 2016 together with Ambassador Eduardo Malaya at the new lobby of the Philippine Embassy, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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Click here to watch my interview with Radio-TV Malacañang (RTVM) regarding the project.

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