Strong Foundations

Non-profit organization BASE brings much-needed quality and dignity to social housing with the help of the humble bamboo

Interview Miguel Llona
Images BASE Foundation

Hello BASE team! Please illuminate us on your organization’s cause.

Dr. Pablo Jorillo, General Manager: BASE is a non-profit organization that provides alternative building technologies to enable our network of partners to build quality socialized homes. When we say ‘quality,’ we mean homes that are comfortable, affordable, disaster-resilient, ecologically friendly, and sustainable. As an organization, we develop technologies using locally-grown, renewable materials to create housing envelopes and designs suited to the needs of local communities we are present in.

Through intensive research, training, and value chain development, we developed the Cement Bamboo Frame Technology (CBFT), an AITECH (Accreditation of Innovative Technologies for Housing) accredited as a prefabricated frame system using load-bearing bamboo with metal connections and mortar cement plaster. The CBFT is a technology based on the Bahareque Encementado, which combines the South American building system with European engineering and Philippine traditions.

Taking into account environmental conditions, this system has been optimized to consider earthquakes, typhoons, fires, and insect resilience of structures over the past 10 years.

Since 2014, BASE has helped build over 800 homes while providing livelihood to farmers and treatment workers within the value chain; from bamboo harvesting, treatment, to house construction—BASE’s supply partners harvest, treat, and conduct quality-controls of more than 100,000 full culm bamboos annually.

Our most ambitious goal so far is the construction of 10,000 Cement-Bamboo Frame Houses across Negros Occidental, together with partners Habitat for Humanity and HILTI Foundation, in line with the Negros Occidental Impact Coalition.

Last 2020, BASE also expanded the reach of our cement-bamboo frame technology to Nepal.

It is stated on your website that your organization’s mission is to build “quality socialized homes.” Was your organization formed as a response to the inadequacies and shortcomings of local governments when it comes to the socialized housing they provide?

Dr. Jorillo: BASE was formed as a response to the need for adequate housing especially in the Asia Pacific region. With the support of the HILTI Foundation, we invest in extensive research, particularly on disaster-resilient and seismic designs. In this part of the world, natural disasters are among the biggest threats for families without a house. From our perspective, when natural disasters strike a home, it is not the typhoon or the earthquake that harm people, but rather poor construction.

In answering this call, we saw an opportunity with utilizing and maximizing the use of bamboo as a material for building disaster-resilient and sustainable socialized homes—allowing Philippine bamboo to be applied for more reliable and systematic performance in engineering structures.

Looking at the problem from a Policy, Environmental, Economic, and Social standpoint, we work together with our partners from the government, local and international NGOs, like the HILTI Foundation, in pioneering the research and development of new bamboo building techniques. Guided by local and international practices, our research focuses on testing materials, systems, typhoons, and fire resistance with the use of full-scale test houses built prior to the first construction project.

That is why, in this regard, we have launched the Base Innovation Center (BIC) earlier this year to further our research and development. The BIC is a scientific, creative, and industrial space that allows collaboration between local and international researchers and specialists to work on alternative green building materials and technologies for sustainable construction. Apart from being a venue for research and testing programs, it is also a place for continuing professional education and training. We had built this with the goal of advancing bamboo-based technology and other alternative building technologies in mind—towards the creation of a better sustainable future.

When talking about socialized housing, the first impression most people have is its being made of low-grade materials, with an overall subpar quality. What are the steps your organization undertook to veer away from this view, and how important is it to provide the disadvantaged with houses that are not only sturdy but also comfortable and livable?

Luis Lopez, Head of Technology: For BASE, we understand that the low-cost market should not receive less attention than the higher market,  especially since this sector is more vulnerable to disasters and poor construction. Over the last decade, total damages caused by natural disasters were valued at almost US$500 billion, not to mention the countless lives lost as a result of these disasters.

In choosing to use bamboo as our main construction material, we recognize that there are more viable materials other than concrete and steel—and that is something that we have been advocating for since we had launched. For instance, bamboo has better compression properties than concrete and better tensile quality than steel, making it an ideal construction material for houses in tropical countries with typhoons and earthquakes.

We also understand that cost is not only related to the construction itself, but also the resources you need to live in to make the house comfortable and livable for a family. An example of this is how we ensure that our builds also give good thermal comfort inside the house, as it can help families save on electricity cost for airconditioning, and offset their expenses for other needs.

Dr. Jorillo: In order to ensure the community’s acceptance of the cement-bamboo frame technology houses, some of the activities we’ve undertaken include:

  1. Involvement of the community, LGU, builder partner, and other stakeholders on the architectural design of the houses, space planning, and house materials topology. A recent example is our project with an NGO 4P in Batangas for the design and construction of children’s homes. Another is the Maranaw-Torogan house, built with the Hineleban Foundation and LGU of Bukidnon as part of the Indigenous people’s socialized housing plan.
  2. CBFT Training to all decision-makers, opinion leaders, and community representatives on the methodology and the design of houses.
  3. Facilitate visit in prior Housing Projects of BASE, and in the BASE Innovation Center for the viewing of the testing of the houses and construction of a pilot model house in the Center.

You work with organizations and individuals to produce construction-grade bamboo poles. What are the material’s benefits, and how much of an upgrade are they compared to the typical construction materials used for any kind of housing?

Lopez: In our experience, we found that using the CBF is more cost-efficient by 15 to 20%, in comparison to a conventional house of the same quality made with your usual cement and steel materials. For our projects, we make sure to build houses that are no less than 25sqm to ensure a comfortable and decent space for the families to live in.

By using bamboo, BASE also supports the livelihood of bamboo farmers and workers in the supply and treatment process, creating a green value chain from bamboo harvesting, treatment, and construction of the houses. In this way, we are not only helping the beneficiaries of our socialized homes, but also those who contribute to the success of our construction projects.

With bamboo and cement plaster as its main components, the CBFT-produced homes and structures have also been thoroughly tested and proven to be disaster-resilient, insect-resilient. Apart from being more affordable, it is also able to provide a more comfortable indoor temperature than conventional cement houses.

In addition to these, it has also been proven—according to a Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA), that the Cement-Bamboo Frame House has 74% less environmental impact compared to a conventional concrete house. In absolute terms, this relates to a reduction of 9.3 t CO2 equivalents over a service life of 25 years.

BASE uses ISO 19624 for grading bamboo culms for structures. With a standard being applied across bamboo producers and users, they can agree on construction-grade bamboo based on visual or machine grading, condition, and geometric properties. The process ensures the quality and safety of bamboo for structures. Specifically, the grading considers the bamboo’s age, size, wall thickness, straightness, fissures, indentation, and presence of infestation and damages.

We also follow ISO 22157 for testing bamboo, a process one must follow when testing the mechanical properties of bamboo. This is a breakthrough for establishing the resistance of bamboo in relation to its visual characteristics such as size. With this standard, a bamboo producer can claim that his bamboo of a certain size can resist such an amount.

As an organization, we are also working to have bamboo included in the building code to determine the necessary load resistance of bamboo for construction. Once these are set in place, bamboo producers can be better guided on how to make their bamboo materials compliant with the building code.

Nausgbu Treatment Center, Batangas, photographed by Alecs Ongcal
Nausgbu Treatment Center, Batangas, photographed by Alecs Ongcal

Are you doing research on materials other than bamboo that you can use for construction?

Dr. Jorillo: At the moment, BASE’s primary subject of study is bamboo, as we recognize that there is still much to be done in maximizing its use in the Philippines. The BASE Innovation Center (BIC), however, was launched with the intent to study a wider range of alternative building materials (i.e. Compressed earth blocks, recycled plastic blocks, bamboo and wood composite, etc.) and test innovative building elements such as walls, windows, and foundation that can improve the resistance of social housing.

What are the innovations that your research and development team work on, and how are these findings/knowledge disseminated to your partners?

Dr. Jorillo: One of the pillars to achieve BASE’s vision is to take leadership in research and development in bamboo-based technologies and other alternative building and green materials. BASE’s research and development topics range from optimization of the technologies, life-cycle assessments, property characterization of bamboo, codes, and approvals, and other related alternative building technologies. These are done through partnerships with local and international universities as well as other innovation and research centers. Results are presented to the public in various manners, including:

  1. Being published and presented in refereed technical journals in science and engineering.
  2. Shared to the professional and academic communities through social and digital media.
  3. Presented and published in professional engineering and science conventions like ASEP (Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines), UAP (United Architects of the Philippines), Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers (PICE), ISO (International Standards Organization), DTI-BS Bureau of Standards, INBAR, etc.
  4. Training through CPD.
  5. Social and Digital Webinars, FB Live, and Online launches.

Lopez: As we mentioned earlier, BASE developed the Cement Bamboo Frame Technology, an AITECH (Accreditation of Innovative Technologies for Housing) accredited prefabricated frame system, which uses load-bearing bamboo with metal connections and mortar cement plaster. The raw materials and connections are tested to ensure a durable and reliable load transfer that will allow for a structural design that will match the intended resistance of the system. This system is also tested for resistance to earthquakes, typhoons, fires, and insect infestation.

We also study Philippine bamboo species and other species found in the region, with regard to the characterization of bamboo, its load and connection resistance, as well as the bahareque systems. The results of these studies allow our supply partners to grade bamboo for structures based on their visual characteristics, condition, and geometric properties.

At the BIC, we also study each element of the house such as the walls, connections, roofs, and the foundation to make them more resistant to typhoons and earthquakes and to optimize their cost. An example of this is an ongoing cost study of using a riblath versus split “tadtad” bamboo as the plaster carrier. In our findings so far, we found that using “tadtad” will significantly increase the overall use of bamboo in the house—benefitting the farmers and supply partners as a result. In this regard, BASE is also currently testing bamboo to replace timber as purlins, with the intent of reducing the need for timber, while increasing the demand for bamboo.

Apart from developing technologies for the construction of houses, does your organization also conduct research on ways to improve the livelihoods of communities you provide housing to?

Maricen Jalandoni, President: In our operations, we strive to create a green economy, wherein we establish a sustainable value chain among all our stakeholders—starting from bamboo harvesting, bamboo treatment, construction, and turnover of the house. More than ensuring that our beneficiaries are provided with a safe and affordable home, we also ensure that all of our partners in each stage of the process are compensated for the value that they give us in our choice to utilize bamboo.

BASE has five supply partners across the Philippines, which includes supply facilities that are spread throughout Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. This includes outposts in Batangas, Negros Occidental, Dumaguete, Bukidnon, and Davao, each of which we trained on sustainable harvesting and treatment processes, providing a new form of livelihood for local farmers and communities.

In many places, bamboo has often been ignored—apart from being used for barbeque sticks, fish pens, and some furniture pieces. With the partnerships we’ve established, farmers who usually harvest seasonal crops are now able to harvest bamboo, as well, all year round. As of recent reporting, our supply partners are able to produce a total of 10,000 poles per month.

Have you shared your building technologies with government agencies responsible for socialized housing?

Dr. Jorillo: The Cement-Bamboo Frame has been accredited by the Accreditation of Innovative Technologies for Housing by the government after a stringent process of submitting technical documentation and testing to prove its structural soundness. Likewise, we’ve implemented projects with Local Government Units (LGUs) over the years, whose participation was particular to land provision, site planning, and development. An example of this is our community built together with the city government in Sorsogon, a place that is most frequented by typhoons. The same can be said with LGUs we’ve worked with in Iloilo, Eastern Samar, and Silay who have given us the same support for our projects.

Silay Community Center, Negros Occidental
Silay Community Center, Negros Occidental

What is the legwork involved in choosing areas to build socialized housing in, and identifying the beneficiaries of houses in those chosen areas?

Dr. Jorillo: As an organization, our mission is to provide socialized housing for disaster victims, urban poor residents, and disadvantaged groups. We work with partners who directly serve beneficiaries that meet this profile and who are aligned with BASE’s vision and mission of providing quality, affordable, and adequate housing.

We partner with NGOs, private groups, and LGUs who have land they developed for socialized housing. In most cases, the area happens to be a disaster-prone, depressed community or settlement for the urban poor. For the past seven years, BASE has helped establish 10 communities all over the Philippines; including communities in Estancia, Iloilo, and Tacloban for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, communities in Jaro, Sorsogon, Cabug, and Silay for low-income families, one community for the indigenous community in Iloilo, another in Quezon City for families living within the area of Payatas, and an orphanage in Batangas.

Through these partnerships, we are able to serve and support our fellow countrymen in need. As we strive to reach our goal of building 10,000 CBF homes, we look forward to strengthening our existing partnerships with our stakeholders and building more strategic relationships with other like-minded organizations.

Do the designs of houses differ depending on the area, in terms of their resiliency to the elements and the lifestyle/livelihoods of the people there? In what ways can the community and dwellers customize their houses?

Lopez: The design of the house is planned together with our partner and the beneficiary community. The process involves consultations on the size of the house and the materials that could be used, depending on their availability and cost-efficiency. The house elements such as the windows, roofs, foundations, and connections are also adjusted based on the natural condition surrounding the area such as the wind zone and terrain of the land. Likewise, the space is also allocated depending on how they are used by the family. An example of how we adjust to this is allotting space for a “dirty kitchen,” in communities where families traditionally have their kitchens outside.

In BASE’s project in Nepal, the roof design was patterned on the traditional butterfly roof, as it was more representative of their culture. At the end of the day, we want our beneficiary families to be able to say that they live in a house that they are proud of.

What are the usual difficulties that you and your partner organizations encounter when undertaking projects, whether it be logistical, financial, bureaucratic, or cultural?

Lopez: Culturally, the perception of bamboo remains to be the biggest challenge. Many people, especially in rural areas, still see bamboo as a poor man’s material. This is because they see concrete and steel as the modern and mainstream construction material because it is what’s commonly used in urban spaces. What we want to change with this misconception is that bamboo, just like any other material, can be used just as well for strong structures when used properly and with sufficient technology.

Many people also fear bokbok and termite infestation when using bamboo for their houses. How we have addressed this is by developing treatment processes that eliminate bamboo starch, which is what attracts bokbok. Likewise, we have introduced solutions to protect bamboo from termites. As of 2021, BASE has helped establish five supply facilities across the Philippines, providing livelihood for farmers and creating jobs in the treatment process.

Critical to addressing these constraints is education and training for both skilled workers and construction professionals.

As pioneers of the cement-bamboo framework, we at BASE are working together with our stakeholders in pushing for the inclusion of bamboo in the National Structural Code of the Philippines and taking the lead in educating our partners on how this technology can benefit many and pave the way for its wider use.

So far, your housing projects are located in the provinces and far-flung regions of the Philippines, usually to help disaster-stricken or disaster-prone communities. Have you considered partnering with organizations or government agencies that could resettle informal settlers in Metro Manila, in order to decongest the city?

Dr. Jorillo: Currently, BASE works with other organizations that focus on supporting the Urban Poor be it for in-city projects or relocation projects. An example of this was a project we did that catered to a transitional community in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City. The goal was to remove families living in hazardous areas in Payatas, especially those with persons with disabilities (PWD) and elderly family members. Through a savings program, our partner was able to help them save enough money so that in 20 years they can legally acquire land and a house of their own.

We are also in talks with another organization that helps beneficiary families in Bulacan acquire land and house through the community mortgage program. Other projects that we’ve participated in include those that required in-city builds in Iloilo, Sorsogon, Silay, and Cabug that allowed families to still be within close proximity to their work areas.

Sorsogon Community

At Anthology Festival 2021 (a local architecture and design event), a handful of architects and urban planners highlighted the need for public housing for workers and laborers migrating to Metro Manila, as the pandemic has made it difficult for them to enter and leave the city. Do you agree with this, and what is the ideal way to execute this?

Dr. Jorillo: In the recent BAHAYnihan online forum organized by Habitat with the panelist LGUs mayors from Quezon City, Mandaue, and San Carlos, also highlighted the need for public housing, not only for the existing ISF in urban areas but also for workers migrating to these cities. However, the challenge for a highly urbanized area such as Metro Manila is the availability of land limiting the construction to socialize condominium direction or house/unit rental scheme.

Jalandoni: Personally, I have mixed emotions about this development. While it is definitely important that we address the issue of how workers can reach their place of work, we also need to address the issue of congestion in the city.  We are still hopeful that this situation during the pandemic is temporary, while if we begin constructing public housing, this becomes permanent and could aggravate the overpopulation issues. This also adds to the already big need for socialized housing in the city with its existing inhabitants.

Ideally, this should be an effort that must take many factors into consideration— temporary housing, efficient transportation services, better health management and contact tracing, vaccine roll-out and work from home whenever possible.

What are the other issues regarding socialized housing that the pandemic has exposed, particularly for the provincial regions of the country? How can your organization help address these issues?

Jorillo: The inadequacies of socialized housing have revealed themselves during the pandemic. Many of our countrymen have been forced to lock themselves up in houses without basic facilities and services, not to mention the job loss making it more difficult to improve and maintain their homes. These are households of five or more living in 18sqm or less space. These inadequacies greatly impacted both the physical and mental wellbeing of all individuals. The poor conditions make it almost impossible to do economic activities from their homes. In the same manner, the environment is not conducive for students to learn remotely.

With our existing programs and operations, we hope to encourage more partners to join us in promoting the use of the Cement-Bamboo Technology in addressing some of these conditions.

As mentioned in our earlier responses, our builds account for at least a 25sqm home, including a bathroom, kitchen, living room, and a room that can further be divided into two. By investing on quality and design, we can save families a lot of resources in the long run—lessening the need for constant rebuilding every time a disaster strikes or dealing with the issues that come with inefficient design. Only when a house is adequate can it truly make an impact on the families’ well-being and the society at large.

What are some of the challenges you foresee for building socialized housing in a post-pandemic world?

Dr. Jorillo: Construction has been slower given the limitations set regarding the number of workers who can come to the projects, given the ongoing public health crisis. In this regard, we also see opportunity in engaging our local communities and stakeholders in other ways—particularly, relying more on the local workforce to complete builds for their own community.

In terms of research, international exchange of students and researchers has been halted because of international travel bans, which has slowed down testing and development of new innovative systems. Likewise, limited travel movement from this year until next may delay many research and development activities, especially with international partners and agencies.

We also foresee grants and support from donor agencies may be prioritized for other sectors, such as livelihood and infrastructure, to bolster or jumpstart the economy—making land banking for socialized housing a second priority. In this regard, we must remember that there is an existing housing gap in the Philippines that needs urgent attention. Despite these circumstances, we are still determined in our cause and advocacy, that we will continue to pursue and persevere through this difficult time to serve our beneficiaries and provide them with the homes that they deserve. •

Sorsogon Community

Banishing homelessness one cement-bamboo frame house at a time with @basebuilds

Miguel Llona is a writer who has written for numerous print and online publications. He was a former editor at BluPrint magazine, and served as a marketing consultant for an interior design firm. 

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