Entering... urban sustainability and architecture

Blogpost by Wen, one of our Skillseed Facilitators. Edited by HJ.

From the 7th to 14th November, 18 students from Dalton Academy, Beijing embarked on a journey to Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia, they were introduced to the world of architecture - hands on - through fixing a tree house, workshops in basic carpentry and building a hut in Kampung (Village) Temasek. They then popped back across the border to Singapore, where they turned their attention to explore urban sustainability as a whole, comparing and contrasting sustainability aspects in a village and in a city. Ultimately, they were challenged to put their knowledge of architecture and urban sustainability to good use - designing a more sustainable version of their own school campus.

Day 2: Welcome to Kampung Temasek! 

On the first day, we met the sleepy Chinese students at Singapore's Changi airport, leading them through Singapore's nighttime scenery to Hwa Chong Institution's boarding school to spend the night. 

The adventure began the next day! We bussed the Chinese students across the border, through customs, past the urban landscape of Johor, out of modernity and into the village life. Their phones (un)happily stowed in a communal cardboard box, they began their new materially deprived but experientially rich life amidst the croaking toads, starving ants, reeking bats, and one lonely, recently widowed duck.

The day in KT began with a brief tour around the compound and some icebreakers: a peaceful game of double whacko, bested only by a mildly competitive bout of Calculator. The architecture facilitators then took over, introducing the participants to the world of sustainable architecture. As a hands-on exercise, the facilitators took the students through the ropes of making their own concrete stool. Marina and Xin Er showed them how to measure and saw 30 cm pieces of wood, and prepare a concrete mixture (key to this: tapping the concrete mix until no more air bubbles, or future cracks, appeared). The stools were then stored in a corner, and left for 4 days to allow the concrete to harden. he participants learned not to cut corners as they would have to sit on their own creations at the end of the day!

Our stools were a (somewhat wobbly) success!

Our stools were a (somewhat wobbly) success!

Meanwhile, the ever-caring Chris and Zak headed off to the treehouse in their rock-climbing gear to install a zinc roof that would protect the unsuspecting students from the burning sun in the upcoming days.  

All in all, it was a relaxing introduction to KT. A comforting meal of Nasi Lemak (traditional Malay dish), and a traumatising shower with a rather lost bat later, it was time for bed amidst the pouring rain, soothing sounds of nature and the resident creatures in the Kampung.       

Day 3: And so it begins...

 A count of the night’s injuries: a lingering smell of bat poop, one swollen lip that was lost to a mosquito bite (sorry, Kenneth), and countless bites on our legs, feet, toes, fingers and arms. It certainly put into perspective the Dalai Lama’s remark that, “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”.

No doubt a very different experience for city kids!

The Archi facilitators started the day with a workshop on scale and proportion. Under their dictatorial instruction, the students had half an hour to show off their artistic skills and sketch the exterior and interior of the huts that they were living in.   

Zak using living models to demonstrate scale and proportion

Zak using living models to demonstrate scale and proportion

Plenty of talent was unearthed that day

Plenty of talent was unearthed that day

After getting the basics down pat, the sketchpads were put aside, and the hard work began. The students were divided into two groups. Under the watchful eyes of Chris and Zak, one group worked on upgrading the Treehouse. The other marched to the tune of Marina and Xin Er to complete a hut (our version of the Little House on the Prairie). Each group designed an outline of the final product: what would the completed railings look like? Which railings did they want to fix? What would the final hut look like? What components would they add?

The Happy Treehouse Friends:

Our Treehouse team set to work on measuring strips of wood. After a safety exercise and briefing, they began to saw. And they kept sawing. They sawed thin strips of wood. They sawed corners off the wood. Fearing that the good weather would not last for the next day, Chris and Zakkia had them saw some more. It got to a point that it was almost therapeutic for the participants - they didn't want to stop even when we beseeched them to.

Leslie flexing his biceps

Leslie flexing his biceps

Unfortunately, we, the facilitators, were yanked from our relaxing kampung lifestyle and forced to join in the efforts.

Wen - the role model

Wen - the role model

  The Hut People:

The starting point

The starting point

Our hungry hut team measured long strips of wood to make the first level of the hut. Ankle deep in mud, they sawed the ends off the wood, and nailed the wooden boards to hut’s bare structure, battling stubborn crooked nails and an enthusiastic Marina shouting, “Redo!”

Level one: complete.

It was not all blood, sweat, and tears. In between, we all took a break from the physical exertion by running around after a football, and paddling after the football that had fallen into the lake … without a paddle.

Lots of planning, design and execution went into a hut as simple as this

Lots of planning, design and execution went into a hut as simple as this

 

Day 4: The end is not in sight    

In all seriousness, the students did themselves proud. The Treehouse team endured an endless barrage of mosquitos to drill, and nail their wooden railings to the treehouse. Meanwhile, the Hut team measured, and sawed lengths of bamboo to make a bamboo roof. This was, assuredly, no easy task. Joined by some members of the Treehouse team, they were then taught by the KT staff to split the bamboo into half, and wore themselves out by splitting the bamboo themselves. Some of them worked on the second floor of the hut, again measuring pieces of wood, and nailing them to the hut’s structure.

In our spare time, we even learnt how to make roti prata, a traditional Malaysian and Singaporean breakfast. At least, we did our best impressions of flipping and folding the roti prata. If it was one thing we learnt, it was that roti prata should be left to the experts.

At night, we were treated to something even more special: a barbeque and a campfire next to the hut that the students had built!

Day 5: Return to Singapore

The final morning in Kampung Temasek was spent on the last touch-ups to the treehouse, and prepping the bamboo roof of the hut. We laid out and organised the bamboo pieces, which will have to be chemically treated by the experts and nailed to the hut in the next few weeks.

Our mission at KT complete, we headed back to Singapore, checking back into Hwa Chong’s boarding school. There, we were met by Wilson Chan, Assistant Director for Npark's Centre for Urban Greenery and Research, who led the participants through a lecture on 7 things that Singapore is working on to improve urban sustainability. 

Day 6: A heartland race and Architours!

Day 6 was a chance for participants to explore Singapore’s measures for urban sustainability and get inspired to create their own sustainable version of their school.  

In the morning, the long-suffering participants headed to one of Singapore’s ubiquitous HDBs. They were split into three teams and challenged to an amazing race. Adrenaline pumping and hearts racing, they battled the sweltering heat and numerous physical and mental tests. In a HDB void deck, they tussled to identify recyclable and non-recyclable items, before running off to look for clues in a supermarket, a community garden, and a nursery, scrabbling through the sandpit to find more clues, and battling each other in relay races.   

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