Think Big, Design Small: Designing for the Forgotten
Designing small means forsaking the non-essential, the pompous, and the profligate; focusing instead on nurturing people and the environment
September 8, 2020
The rationale for the theme, Think Big, Design Small, clicked fully into place just two months before we worked on this issue. Last August, two BluPrint teams flew to Indonesia and Singapore to gather material for next year’s Tropical Architecture for the 21st Century, Book 2. We visited seven houses in Singapore and eleven in Jakarta and Bandung.
All the homes I visited in Singapore had at least one stay-in Filipina domestic worker. At the first home, the nanny, laundrywoman, and cook—all Pinay—solicitously asked how my trip was going. So I, in turn, inquired in private about their circumstances. Were they happy? Were they healthy? Were their masters kind? Yes, yes, yes, each one assured me. On impulse, I asked to see their room. The youngest of the three brought me to their space, all the while apologizing profusely for the mess. (There was none!) They had two bedrooms—one for the family nanny of 23 years and one for the two junior helpers to share. The nanny’s bedroom faced the swimming pool, while the other room faced the front garden. It turns out the bedrooms were designed for the owners’ two daughters, who preferred instead to live in the grandparents’ wing of the compound. What generous employers, I thought, resolving to check out helpers’ rooms in all the other houses on my itinerary.
The Filipina helper working in the house featured on this issue’s cover totally lucked out. She lives up on the attic level—the breeziest level—of Formwerkz‘s Open House, a long and narrow terrace house designed to be as open as can be so winds may sweep through from one end to the other.
As for the other homes, the living conditions of the domestic workers were, for the most part, humane. After all, they were staying in landed homes, whose owners were affluent enough to hire architects and interior designers. Were the rooms well designed? Not particularly. Three were shunted into spaces leftover from laundry yards, pantries, and assorted storage spaces.
One room broke my heart—2.0 by 1.5 meters, a total of 2.5 square meters, shared by two domestic workers. The Philippine building code defines a “room for human habitation” as 6.0 square meters, with the shortest side at least 2.0 meters long. The Singapore code stipulates the minimum area of a “habitable room” is 6.5 square meters.
This maid’s room was just big enough to fit in a narrow bunk bed and a small person to stand beside it and get in. No shelves or closets. The helpers’ belongings were on and under the bunk beds. It was dark and airless.
“Why no window?” I asked the architect. “Oh, there is a window,” he corrected me, pointing to a lone glass block embedded in one of the concrete walls. “It lets light in.” Sadly, ironically, the glass block faces an open courtyard designed to light and ventilate the home. Why couldn’t the architect have created openings large enough to let the sleeping space of two human beings breathe?
What hurt and disappointed me most about this particular maid’s room was that it was a designed by a Filipino architect; a Filipino who has been living and working in Singapore for so long, he should know that the maid’s rooms he designs will in all likelihood be used by compatriots. He ought to have known better, he ought to have empathized, and he ought to have designed better. Is there anyone who would want his child to sleep in a room with nothing but a glass block for a window?
Designing better is NOT about providing only what the law requires. On researching the minimum requirements for windows for ventilation, I found our code requires the total area of openings to be 10 percent of the floor area of a room, and that Singapore’s Building & Construction Authority requires only 5 percent! So assuming a room meets the minimum prescribed areas, openings for ventilation only need to add up to 0.6 square meters in the Philippines and 0.325 square meters in Singapore. Incredible! How inhumane our minimum prescriptions are for humane living.
The theme of this issue is Think Big, Design Small. No, it doesn’t mean designing tiny, dark, and airless spaces. It doesn’t mean fulfilling only the letter of the law. Like the environmentalists’ ‘Think Global, Act Local,’ the motto, ‘Think Big, Design Small’ advocates embracing the concerns of the many and dreaming big—so big we want to make the world a better place. It encourages designing small—forsaking the non-essential, the pompous, and the profligate—and focusing instead on essentials and minimizing our demands on the environment.
People often say it’s the little things in life that count. Caring for the forgotten and the smallest among us; that is the path to peace, love, justice, equity, and happiness. These things are not small at all.