September - December 2007
Power and poisons

Building the breathing spaces

IN THE cookie-cutter residential community for academic and non-teaching personnel of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, the home of the Navals on M. Viola Street is a standout. Amid rows of abodes with roofs inclined at a university-mandated 15 degrees, the cream-and-terra cotta Naval house has 30-degree sloped roofs and a two-meter wooden balcony that splits the upper portion of the structure.

THE Navals’ house on M. Viola Street inside the U.P. Diliman campus. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

Of course it didn’t use to look like this. But when Jimmuel Naval, an award-winning writer and Filipino professor, took over the house in August 2004, he consulted architect-friend Clifford Espinosa on how to make the place more suitable for his young family. By the time Espinosa was done with the revamp, almost a year had passed — and the house had a roof structure that was in complete disregard of the university’s building regulation.

“It’s an American-inspired design, suited more for heating back in the 1960s,” says Espinosa of the old roof. He explains that a 30-degree slope is more appropriate for the Philippines as it leads to less accumulation of dust, fallen leaves, rain, and even moisture.

The roof, however, was not the only innovation Espinosa introduced to what was once a standard university house. He raised the ceiling height and changed the flat, dropped ceilings into cathedral ones. He added windows and openings all around the house. Thus, the Navals now have the luxury of daylight illumination for practically the whole day, plus a constant supply of cool air. Professor Naval himself says they now use a low-power air-conditioning unit only occasionally, unlike when they used to live in the sweltering Hardin ng Bougainvilla, one of the university’s tenement housing complexes.

Espinosa says he is foremost a “spatialist,” or one who creates humanizing spaces. “The medium of architecture is space,” he declares. “Without space, light and air are impossible. Life is not possible.”

Yet in these days when global warming and climate change have become household bywords, there is a more fashionable term for Espinosa’s preoccupation: green architecture. The idea emerged in the last few years, particularly in the United States, as an offshoot of the mainstreaming of green awareness among consumers. Many people are paying more attention to the kind of food they eat, what they use in their homes, and how they can live healthier lives that are more attuned with Mother Earth.

For sure, environment-friendly and energy-efficient design has been with us since the days of the bahay kubo (nipa hut), and later adapted to suit the Spanish-era bahay na bato (literally house of stone). But Romulo de Jesus, a leading member of the Green Architecture Movement (GAM) of the United Architects of the Philippines (UAP), says green architecture has of late become imperative, in large part because it has become obvious that we humans can no longer continue with our wasteful and destructive ways.

BY DEFINITION, green architecture involves design that is environmentally sensitive, in harmony with the natural features of the sites, and energy-efficient. It employs materials that are ecological, recyclable, or are derived from sustainable sources. And it means buildings that last longer and are easy to maintain.

GAM started out as a committee of the 23,000-strong architects’ association back in 2000. But de Jesus says it has since evolved into an advocacy that continuously educates members on green-architecture principles so that they can apply these in their practice. At the same time, GAM reaches out to the academe, other allied professions, and the general public to spread the word about green architecture and its benefits.

“We encourage and promote the use of green building practices in all buildings we construct, remodel, and renovate,” de Jesus says, with the emphasis on incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) methods and techniques in the construction of facilities.

Adopted from the United States, LEED is a rating system that provides the building industry with nationally accepted standards for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings. It promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. The system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a non-profit group composed of leaders from every sector of the building industry. It believes in transforming the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated so that these become environmentally responsible, profitable, and healthy places to live and work.

FRONT balcony makes use of old wooden balusters from an ancestral house in Nueva Ecija. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

Given GAM’s expertise in the practice of green architecture, it has become a vital partner of the recently established Philippine Green Building Council (PhilGBC). Initially composed of representatives from the different sectors of the country’s building industry, the council has been expanded to include the business sector, particularly developers and property managers, academe, socio-civic and nongovernment organizations, and government agencies.

PhilGBC executive director Christopher de la Cruz says the group was a rather belated response to the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 (Republic Act 9003), which mandated local governments to promulgate regulations requiring owners of premises containing six or more residential units to provide for waste segregation.

According to de la Cruz, architects had not anticipated the law’s implications on the building sector. In fact, they were unaware of the new law and so continued to use old design standards that only rendered their designs obsolete before construction even began. There was also the problem with securing building permits from local governments since these now required buildings to install solid waste management facilities.

These days, though, architects can refer to a design manual that integrates the provisions of RA 9003 in the architectural design of buildings. And just three months after it was officially registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission last March, PhilGBC held its first Building Green Expo, during which a memorandum of cooperation was signed between the council and its partners to promote green building practices locally.

Foremost of these practices are improving air quality and water efficiency, promoting energy efficiency and conservation, establishing solid waste management practices, advancing ecologically friendly site development, and increasing the use of green materials in all phases of construction. The council is also spearheading efforts to develop a nationally accepted green building rating standard patterned after the LEED system.

ACTUALLY, SAYS de la Cruz, “there are many architects with so much expertise in green architecture, as well as engineers in the area of energy efficiency. But they are trapped in the cracks because there are developers who are dictating how things are done.”

WELL-placed windows and openings ensure ample light and ventilation. [photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

He cites the case of many high-rise residential and commercial condominiums whose developers think aesthetics is the more primary consideration. “They prefer glass buildings without regard for their proper lighting and ventilation,” de la Cruz remarks. “So their solution is to fill them up with air conditioners.”

Not that air conditioners are bad per se. But several architects now see these as a stopgap solution. Espinosa says these are “a selfish way of solving the problem because you only increase the heat of the outside environment.” That’s why, he says, he creates openings in specific areas of a house or building to lessen dependence on air conditioning.

Too, with the Naval house — which looks bigger than its 77-square-meter floor area because of its open design — cool room temperature is ensured, not by traditional cross-ventilation techniques, but by maximizing the benefits derived from the principle that hot air rises and cold air sinks. Here, says Espinosa, air circulation is not dependent on moving air. Warm air remains on top, with no heat descending, simply because of the difference in temperature.

Having such a constant storage of cool air, he adds, is also a function of the surrounding landscaping. “Para mas malamig ang loob ng bahay, dapat mas malamig ang immediate space sa labas (To ensure cool air inside, the immediate space outside should also have a supply of cool air),” he reasons. At the Naval house, narra trees offer ample shade and there’s vegetation in abundance. A pond in front of the house is even being considered as a future addition to the landscape.

And because there is no dampness inside, one bonus is that mosquitoes are not much of a problem. But birds are, says Jimmuel Naval; they are often lured into the house by its many openings. Naval suspects — but doesn’t mind — that the birds may have already built nests somewhere.

Espinosa says, though, that in the nearly 18 years that he has been an architect, and with 20 houses and buildings that he has so far built or renovated, he has almost always had quarrels with owners over the use of electric fans or air conditioners. Clients like the Navals, who are believers in his design ideas, are few, he says. He estimates that of his “natural architecture” concepts that treat climatic conditions as givens to be maximized for human comfort, only about 30 percent have been accepted by owners and eventually incorporated in the finished structures. But he insists, “It is vital for the house to breathe for it is the reason for it. Thus, natural light and air are the main components.”

ONE OBSTACLE to going natural is that it is perceived by many to have a high price tag. GAM’s de Jesus himself confirms that adding green building elements in a structure does cost a bit more — but only in the short-term, he clarifies. “It becomes cheaper in the maintenance side since the design is focused on energy savings, the comfort and well-being of residents and the surrounding community,” he says.

Incorporating green features into a building project entails what is called a first cost. But then there are also life-cycle costs, which take into account energy savings overtime, increased durability of materials, healthier, safer occupants, or enhanced productivity of workers (in the case of a workplace).

“There’s actually lesser cost in the long run,” says de la Cruz, adding that the PhilGBC aims to bring together buyers and sellers so they come to an understanding of the importance of having greener buildings. “(You) have a cleaner environment as payback. It will also help lessen pressure on the government to build more power plants.”

CATHEDRAL ceilings not only provide spaciousness but also introduced more natural light and ventilation in tandem with windows and openings all around. [photo courtesy of]

The good news is that the market is slowly maturing, given the practical applications of green techniques that are now being employed, mainly in commercial buildings. Laudably, the commercial sector is taking the lead as it accounts for about 30 percent of the country’s total energy consumption.

The design solutions laid out are a mix of old and new. There are, for example, tried-and-tested techniques like passive cooling (sun baffles, canopies, and retractable awnings), natural cross ventilation, natural lighting (light scoops), and solar panels. These are then combined with energy-saving compact fluorescent lights, LED (light emitting diode) for signages in lieu of neon, green elevators and escalators, dual piping systems that recycle waste water for use in flushing toilets, waterless urinals, and reed-bed systems using tambo grass as a low-cost alternative to waste water treatment.

On an even grander scale, leading property developer Ayala Land is completing its first green buildings: two business-process outsourcing office buildings referred to as Technopods, one at the U.P. North Science and Technology Park in Quezon City, and another in Nuvali, its proposed community of the future in a 1,600-hectare property in Canlubang, Laguna. Aside from avoiding a south or west orientation that turn them into heat traps, the buildings are equipped with picture windows for maximum natural daylight, a centralized air-conditioning facility that produces ice during off-peak hours for use to cool the system during the day, and toilets that use recycled water for flushing.

There is also the future headquarters of the Philippine Stock Exchange at the Bonifacio Global City, expected to be completed in three years, that Ayala Land and its partners say is to be designed in such a way that work stations are located within 12 meters of a window and natural lighting. But topping all these is the ambitious Nuvali sustainable development project, which envisions a new metropolis that integrates business, residential, educational, retail, and recreational uses in a spacious and green environment.

STILL, ONE need not have a Nuvali address to have a green house. As the Navals can attest, the likes of M. Viola Street in Area 3 at the U.P. Diliman campus will do just fine — so long as architects like Espinosa are allowed to ensure that the houses are “breathing” as well as they should.

ANOTHER of Clifford Espinosa’s ‘natural architecture’ projects. [photo courtesy of]

At the Naval house, the cool ambiance is also tempered by the warmth of weathered and battered wood that Espinosa collects not only as material for the houses he builds — and rebuilds — but also for his sculptural and furniture pieces. The trusses of the cathedral ceiling came from the Our Lady of Grace Academy in Caloocan built in 1956. The balcony’s balusters were taken from the Naval ancestral home in Nueva Ecija. Old wood sourced from pre-war houses in Binondo also came in handy.

These days, Espinosa is dreaming up a green warehouse, optimally designed for maximum sunlight and air utilization, along with a novel solution to a major commercial establishment’s dilemma with its malls’ skylights that generate excessive heat.

For the warehouse project, Espinosa proposes using strategically placed glass blocks on the walls, clerestory windows and bigger window systems varying in fixed and movable designs to give the two-story structure a lighter look and feel. He also recommends incorporating a passive cooling system similar to the Naval house, allowing cold air to come in to push the hot air out in order to create continuous air circulation. Certain corners where the roof and the walls meet also allow heat to escape from the warehouse. Generating cold air outside will require plants or a mini garden. All this, he says, will eventually lower energy cost in maintaining the structure when it is operational.

As for the malls, a thrilled Espinosa says the solution requires addressing the problem of the skylight serving as a heat trap. Because the project is still under negotiation, he says he cannot give details. But he guarantees that the solution, a simple, natural one at that, will allow for both maximum heat absorption and maximum sunlight illumination — plus an optimum view of the sky.

Still in his mid-40s, Espinosa has already successfully demonstrated his concept in one of the company’s Metro Manila malls. He hopes the company big bosses will finally give him the go-signal to build the prototype, arguing, “It will greatly minimize the financial electricity and maintenance costs they incur.”

Not to mention transforming downbeat customer mood and attitude in the same way that the Naval house has become a prime attraction in U.P. As Jimmuel Naval reveals, it has become a favorite party and hangout place for their colleagues and friends. And the neighborhood birds.