• by Shareen Elnaschie

    Following the devastation caused by tropical storm Ondoy (Ketsana) in 2009, questions on where and how to resettle over 100,000 prioritised Informal Settler Families (ISFs) became the focus of much needed attention. These families, currently situated in high level risk zones within Metro Manila – mostly along polluted and congested waterways – are the first to suffer when the city experiences extreme and frequent weather events. The strong preference for in-city relocation, an ever-growing population and costs associated with building upon poor soil, has catalysed a renewed interest in what are commonly known as medium rise buildings (MRBs: buildings up to a maximum of five storeys).

    Whilst the emphasis is on providing safe housing as quickly as possible – relying on currently available models – there is need to invest in parallel investigation. Much opportunity exists to learn from past experiences and to challenge the way that we conceive of, and conduct, resettlement projects. Towards this aim, TAO Pilipinas, under their Young Professionals scheme, initiated a research project investigating three MRB projects within Metro Manila, focusing on the physical aspects of the projects and how they relate to the socio-economic sphere.

    The three chosen projects represent different approaches to housing provision. Separated by the Estero de Vitas, Katuparan Housing (1990) and the Smokey Mountain (2004) development make an interesting comparison. Both house approximately 1,200 families from a similar catchment area and both suffer from similar site ailments: poor ground conditions, poor air quality and pollution from the nearby R-10 highway and industrial port, and flooding. TFI Townhomes (2009) by Habitat for Humanity is an example of a more inclusive approach that is made possible by working with smaller beneficiary groups.

    The goal of this study was to take an objective approach to assess the successes and failures of these projects, to begin to distinguish common themes and issues and to identify key questions and areas for further research and enquiry. The first stage of this research was presented at a round-table discussion at the Department for Interior and Local Government (DILG) office, involving members from DILG, National Housing Association (NHA), Partnership of Philippine Support Service Agencies (PHILSSA) and other key housing stakeholders. The following is a concise summary of the findings and initial conclusions from the discussion.

    The Projects:

    Katuparan Housing:

    Katuparan Housing is home to approximately 1,200 ISF families, in a complex of twenty-seven four-storey buildings. To finance the original development of Katuparan Housing, 70% of available units were sold on the open market and the remaining units were allocated for social housing.

    Despite many issues suffered today, Katuparan was a pioneering effort in providing affordable housing when inaugurated in 1990. The development utilised the Canchela construction method, an innovative cost-cutting solution utilising a pre-fabricated concrete modular stacking system that enabled the quick fabrication of the buildings.

    The standard unit, at 18m2 (still the current minimum standard) is very small for a family home that will in many cases being growing and DIY adaptation has inevitably occurred on a massive scale throughout the entire project site, as a response to greater spatial needs. Initial observations on the nature of these adaptations reveal a need for increased storage capacity and a laundry area for drying clothes.

    Conditions today are highly degraded and dangerous – we were told that more than one person has been killed falling from a rooftop after railings failed and we were shown a staircase that had collapsed two weeks prior to our site visit. A thorough structural investigation is needed to fully understand the root causes for these failures in the building fabric.

    With no viable alternatives available, people are living as best they can in very difficult circumstances. Despite this, a building coordinator who accompanied us explained that there is a strong preference amongst residents for the buildings to be restored and renovated, with relocation seen as a last resort. Many of these families are owner-occupiers who have invested a lot and for the majority, Katuparan is close to essential livelihood opportunities.

    Smokey Mountain:

    The Balut Dumpsite, or Smokey Mountain as it is more commonly known, is a 21.1 hectare (ha) open refuse pile up, once home to some 4,000 ISFs who were identified for rehousing as part of a larger environmental clean-up and socio-economic development project. The Smokey Mountain development was a joint partnership between the NHA and R-II Builders, a private contractor.

    Phase one involved the Reclamation and selling of a 79ha site to the west of the R-10, opposite the Smokey Mountain site, to enable financing of the development. The original plans for the reclaimed site proposed commercial-industry and port-related activities, supposedly designed to provide employment opportunities for the ISFs. Proposals for phase two included the construction of a modern incinerator plant to remove over 2 million m3 of refuse; however planning restrictions prohibiting any incineration facilities within a 1km radius of any residential area prevented this idea from progressing.

    The nature of building upon a smoking mountain of refuse necessitated an extensive foundation strategy, geo-textile membranes and a comprehensive ventilation strategy to remove gas build up; construction costs were high. Despite these costs however, standard units are generous by social housing standards, at 32m2 including a mezzanine level, however there is little option to customise the space. A common adaptation, we were told, was for residents to extend the mezzanine level to create a full floor.

    Each block contains 120 units over five floors and the units are arranged around a central atrium than runs up through the building. At ground level, the atrium contains large planters. In the original design, the atrium was left uncovered, allowing rain to enter to water the proposed planting, however residents raised objections and today the atrium has been covered and the planters sit empty. What had been designed as an almost European style space has evolved into a dark and poorly ventilated area.

    TFI Townhomes:

    The third and youngest project reviewed was TFI Townhomes in Taguig, developed by Habitat for Humanity (HfH). Set within a vast industrial area just 2km from Ninoy International airport and Lawa ng Laguna, TFI Townhomes is much smaller in scale, providing on site housing to 96 families.

    HfH’s delivery model incorporates sweat equity investment from beneficiaries and from volunteers through their international Global Village program. Although it is commendable that HfH focus on involving future residents in all stages of the project, methods do not fall under fully participatory peoples planning processes (beneficiaries are given choices of design models).

    The most valuable aspect of beneficiary involvement that HfH has been able to establish at this site is management- an aspect that was considered from the start. Today the community are self organised and use community savings to ensure upkeep of the buildings, make repairs, monitor garbage and waste, look after planting and take care of the small on-site urban farm.

    The buildings have been constructed using Habitat’s award winning Concrete Interlocking Block (CIB) system, a volunteer-friendly method of construction not too dissimilar to Lego©. The technology, in respect of the whole building process is cost effective, but it does rely quite heavily on volunteerism and sweat equity.

    The development only provides for housing units so commercial spaces -typically sari-sari stores (literally- variety stores) – are located in the parking area along the western boundary. The small number of residents and restricted site access may limit economic opportunities for businesses.

    Despite its location, the development is surprisingly calm. The layout, in addition to restricted three storey structures, encourages a bright and airy environment. Planting has been used extensively to line walkways and create buffers at the site periphery. At the eastern edge of the site sits a large but seemingly underused recreation area; with only 96 families in this development it is a shame that it is not accessible to greater numbers. Triple aspect units also assist with natural surveillance and enable multiple configurations of space depending on the residents needs.


    Affordability, as ever, has the largest influence on both the delivery and success of a project, from costs of construction and maintenance through to the capacity of beneficiaries to meet their amortisation commitments. Repayment rates are reported to be typically low across the three projects and there may be a variety of reasons for this, which should be studied in more detail. The need for more in depth profiling of beneficiaries was highlighted, to enable livelihood activities to be focused on before the provision of housing; there is little sense in constructing amortised housing for ISFs that is beyond their financial capacity. The extent of social engagement and preparation prior to project implementation was acknowledged as critical to long-term success.

    Rental housing was identified as too expensive for government to maintain, so thought should be given to how this can be improved; mixed tenure schemes could consider rental properties in relation to livelihood investments.

    For example, rental unit guardians could receive other subsidies, tax benefits or discounts, or groups could purchase units as part of a cooperative investment.

    Although live-work units at ground level are common, amortised at higher rates than subsequent floors, mixed commercial-social housing projects are few. The NHA are currently trialling this typology and attention should be paid to assess the success of this model.

    Alternative currencies such as sweat equity investments used in the HfH model may be a means of reducing construction costs and instilling a sense of pride and ownership among beneficiaries, benefits that may also encourage improved repayment rates. The potential mainstreaming of sweat equity as a system of delivery should be considered in relation to the wider construction industry however, and what impacts this might have. Building technologies should be appropriate for unskilled workers and considered in terms of long-term costs, quality of material and ability to perform repairs. The potential to develop a parallel industry to provide affordable housing should be seriously but carfeully considered.

    Poor soil conditions, the need for earthquake resistant construction and the monopoly held by very few within the construction industry ensure that prices remain prohibitively high and uncompetitive. Unsure of how to best tackle this issue, the need for experienced engineers was cited as an essential investment to carry out value engineering exercises necessary to bring down the current costs of construction.

    Site Planning:

    HfH promotes three storey dwellings to obtain optimum density on site, citing this as a key factor to the successful management and sustainability of projects. Successful four-storey housing schemes in the private sector are sparking debate for why this model fails in social housing. It was acknowledged that more research should be done into the main differences to understand the specifics of what is driving success in the private sector, and failure within social housing.

    The most obvious issue that these three examples highlight is that the space between buildings matter. Underused, out-of-sight spaces result in shameful gaps that pose multiple hazards. FTI Townhomes has successfully incorporated these spaces with circulation routes around the site that consider scale and atmosphere. Giving purpose to dead zones maximizes limited space available and helps to encourage a safe and healthy environment.

    When planning the provision of recreation space, we should think not only in terms of area, but also about the type of spaces we are providing and whom they are for. Are we addressing the needs of all residents? Informal appropriations of space seen at Smokey Mountain would seem to suggest a need for smaller interventions distributed more widely around the site.

    Connectivity to the wider city should be considered as part of any development. Improved connections can increase access to alternative livelihood opportunities and prevent ghettoization and sense of isolation.


    It was acknowledged that there is a mismatch between current minimum space standards and family sizes, and a need to address family growth and eventual contraction is an area that needs thought and creativity. We need to clarify what it is we need to provide, and to consider the building’s life expectancy when deciding on options for delivery and technology. Incremental core housing was discussed as a basic model, provoking questions of how this can be adapted for multifamily dwellings and how delivery may be phased to allow more families to be assisted quickly.

    Based on initial observation of the three case studies, material quality would seem to have the greatest affect on building lifespan. In Katuparan, crumbling concrete has exposed steel reinforcements that have rusted. In addition to brutal alterations to the building fabric, the structural integrity of the blocks has been undermined to dangerous levels. It is expected that these blocks will be condemned within the next five to seven years- though it would not be surprising if this occurs sooner.

    Size is clearly one of the most important aspects determining if there is first a need to adapt, but the nature of adaptations seen in the three cases indicates a need for an entrance area for wet shoes and clothes, greater storage capacity and a laundry area for drying clothes. All three projects contained some covered area where families could remove shoes and wet clothes and perhaps store a few items, but none fully addressed the issue of laundry in a satisfactory manner.

    Aesthetically speaking, FTI Townhomes is by far the most successful example. Although newer, the inherent material qualities that the buildings rely on are much harder wearing than any applied finish- Smokey Mountain is not aging well and the brick dimensions of the CIBs further transform a quite industrial material into something more domestic. Beneficiaries are able to manufacture the bricks themselves and reductions in labor costs can be re-invested to increase the quality of materials used or to make other savings.

    Management plays a huge role in the upkeep of buildings, which is illustrated quite clearly through the three examples. Where support to develop site and property management skills and community savings was provided from the start, as was the case at FTI Townhomes, problems were identified and addressed far sooner, thus ensuring more efficient upkeep and preventing serious degradation.


    The need for more research is clear and this is a time for government, academic institutions and the private sector to come together to formulate a research plan. There must be clear objectives with relevant questions to be answered and all participants must operate in a manner that is thorough, objective and above all transparent.

    Huge potential lies with the incorporation of beneficiaries, not just in the design of housing, through people’s planning processes, but also in the delivery of housing, the development of repayment and management systems, and in the learning process.

    The pressure to remove ISFs from immediate danger now does not necessarily equate to repeated mistakes. Investments in extra support for developing long-term estate management and repayment solutions, and extra attention to site planning may help to reduce some of the issues affecting resettlement projects in formalised housing. Tying delivered projects to CSR strategies within the private sector may help to ease the burden on government. Finally, a flexible outlook in relation to zoning could provide long-term alternative options to save investments. Re-purposing failed housing to create office space, or adapting empty offices for housing should not be overlooked as potential options.

    The meeting concluded with a sense that we had identified many of the questions and shared a determination to actively seek out the answers. To find them, we must continue to reflect and learn from existing experiments. As Undersecretary Francisco Fernandez said: ‘perhaps we do not need to reinvent the wheel, just fine-tune it a bit’.

    About the author

    Shareen Elnaschie is a UK based architectural researcher, planner and designer.  She specializes in undertaking original local research, creating detailed land use and character maps and establishing evidence-based design principles and strategies for change. She is a graduate of Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC) in Barcelona with a master’s degree in International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture. She completed a three-month internship with TAO-Pilipinas last year from April till June. This article is part of the research that she did for TAO-Pilipinas. 

    Posted by rp @ 1:33 pm

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