Buensalido + Architects retrofits an old building into optimistic architecture

September 17, 2020



Denny Mata

As the world undergoes rapid changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many systems including education, have explored and adopted technological and digital innovations. In the Philippines, the worst-hit Southeast Asian nation by the novel coronavirus, many universities and colleges have taken a different kind of space to hold their new academic year: cyberspace. One of these institutions is the CIIT College of Arts and Technology (CIIT Philippines) that recently concluded its third term for the academic year 2019-2020 through ‘MOVE’ or Modern Virtual Education. This shift to virtual learning by CIIT Philippines was given a 93.65 faculty rating by its students. However, conducting classes and graduation rites online are not the only significant and smart moves that the multimedia arts college has taken recently and over the years. CIIT Philippines made a much-needed change of address five years ago. Long before the pandemic, the arts and technology college moved its main campus into the Interweave Building, a long-abandoned structure retrofitted by Buensalido + Architects and Aecon Builders Co. to accommodate the growing population of the college.

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On the northeast elevation of the Interweave Building is a mural by visual artist and muralist Kris Abrigo.

Growing pains

The old CIIT Philippines main campus was at CTTM Square Building in Quezon City, not too far from the new main campus. Buensalido + Architects said the college had to turn some of its rooms in this commercial building into multi-use spaces: the library doubles as a student lounge, and the drawing labs as science labs as well. The college also had to sacrifice dedicated areas for dining, congregating, and shooting photos and videos. Over 500 students and faculty members had to share those spaces. 

“The space limitations in the old location were very restrictive for the owners,” Buensalido + Architects tells BluPrint. “As the student population grew, they ended up occupying disconnected floors in the commercial building, [but] had very limited space.”

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New address with an old building

Around the year 2013, the owners purchased an abandoned property near the former campus. The property is a 450-square-meter rectangular lot with a four-story building, located in Kamuning Road, Quezon City, a busy residential neighborhood where houses are haphazardly converted into various commercial spaces as the land value in the area hikes up. The building—built in the 80s, the owners presumed—previously housed a bar on the ground floor, a restaurant at the top level, and some office spaces in between. 

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The exterior of the existing four-story commercial building during the start of the construction.

“The owners wanted to purchase a property somewhere near the existing campus to maintain the accessibility for their current students to the new campus,” says Buensalido + Architects. “They weren’t able to find an available empty lot in the area, and the potential savings on structural costs from purchasing an existing building outweighed the difficulties that are usually associated with renovation projects.”

The brief 

Buensalido + Architects and Aecon Builders Co. collaborated for the project. Aecon Builders Co. is the architect-of-record, in charge of the basic planning and detailed drawings, while Buensalido + Architects is the façade architect and the designer for key public areas.

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The retrofitted building’s façade material is perforated aluminum composite panels with PVDF coating and nano-coating technology.

The plan was to maximize the space using the existing structural frame of the building and effectively moving the projected number of students up and down the different levels through an engaging vertical circulation strategy. Classrooms are also a priority for the additional floors above the existing ones, as well as communal spaces and dedicated laboratories and studios.

For the exterior, CIIT Philippines wanted to express a certain level of creativity, experimentation, and freedom from the norm through the façade. “CIIT’s goal is to be at the educational forefront of the intersection of arts and technology while asserting the Filipino ownership of the company, as well as integrating a certain level of pride in the Filipino identity,” details Buensalido + Architects. “They also wanted to express their ethic of sustainability—not only in learning relevant knowledge that would sustain their students far into the future of their professional lives but also their responsibility towards the environment as shown in their decision to reuse the existing structure on the site.”

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The existing RC structure was retrofitted with steel elements in the form of I-sections, channels, angles, and built-up plates.

Buensalido + Architects and Aecon Builders Co. had to work with cost limitations and structural restrictions. The project took over two years to complete—eight months of designing the exterior and interior, including revisions, and over a year and a half of construction. “It was expected that it would be more difficult to retrofit the structure and do an adaptive-reuse approach as a design solution. Nevertheless, it was the approach that was decided on, largely for sustainability—to reduce and reuse whatever was possible to minimize resource consumption in the construction of the building,” Buensalido + Architects explains.

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Answering the brief

It was decided that the existing structural members of the old building be retained and retrofitted to accommodate additional floors for the new campus’ space requirements. According to Buensalido + Architects, the original structure’s floor area was around 1400 square meters. By adding three more floors, the combined area of the new space is now around 3000 square meters. This addition allowed them to create spaces for a proper reception area, an ample-sized dedicated library, a café, more classrooms, and a gym that also serves as an event space.

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The columns and foundations were structurally retrofitted to accommodate three new stories on top of the existing four-story building.

“We gutted down the building to its bare bones, demolishing partitions and leaving just the structural components left standing—foundations, columns, beams, slabs—so we had to ensure that the spaces required fit just right into the column spans,” says Buensalido + Architects. The ground floor slab was also demolished to reveal the original footings of the building. New footings were then laid to carry another layer of reinforced concrete stiffeners wrapped around the existing columns. The new vertical members go beyond the existing four floors to carry the frames of the three new floors above as well as the double steel beams flanked on either side of each existing concrete beam as additional bracing to complete the retrofitting of the project.

“It was also a challenge to have acceptable ceiling heights on the existing levels as some of them were mezzanine levels with lower ceiling heights than regular levels, so we had to painstakingly organize the drop ceilings, lighting, and utilities to ensure that they do not affect the headroom around these areas,” Buensalido + Architects shares. 

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The Interweave Building’s second skin was inspired by indigenous weaving patterns such as Maguindanoan, T’boli, and Yakan, to name a few. “We studied commonalities between them such as patterns, shapes, use of colors, edges, transitional strategies, and boundary elements; and through an iterative process, these were then abstracted into more architectonic intricacies and scale,” explains Buensalido + Architects.

The retrofit left Buensalido + Architects with little to no room for any creative three-dimensional expression on the main shell. “Departure from the main structural mass would mean high cost to the owners,” says the architects. “The solution, therefore, was found through the idea of a second skin, detached from the main structural frame of the building, which then allowed certain freedom on three-dimensional manipulation without driving the cost up too much.”

The architects estimated the cost would have been at least 50% more than what was spent for the skin solution if they went with major massing and structural alterations for the façade to attain an expressive architectural character. The skin mimics “a canopy that grows out from a central core, like a tree, an element of nature that the idea of sustainability wants to protect. This profile is then broken down into smaller-scaled segments, sliced through lines that seem to be in motion, laid out in a pattern that echoes a typical chipboard—a microelement that fuels the magnanimity of technology, which forms part of the core of the school. Finally, weaving patterns from Filipino tribes were abstracted into a vibrant, highly geometric network of shapes and colors that unmistakably exudes the Filipino identity,” explains Buensalido + Architects.

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To offset the lack of outdoor spaces, Buensalido+Architects provided a small lounge by the entrance with green walls. Pockets of public spaces are distributed throughout the building for more breathing room.

The skin also functions more than creative expression. According to the architects, the skin acts as “an auditory buffer against the noise from the streets.” Buensalido + Architects specified perforated aluminum composite panels (ACP) with PVDF coating (Polyvinylidene Fluoride) for the skin to address the cost and maintenance aspects and add an extra layer of protection against discoloration, and a supplier that offers nano-coating which allows the surfaces to self-clean. “We also specified a perforated paneling system, carefully detailing the sizing of the perforations and the spacing between each, to try to have a balance of opacity (to deflect heat and noise from coming in), porosity (for the wind to cut through to ventilate the interiors if needed), and transparency (so that views outwards is still possible),” the architects adds.

The building maximized the whole lot, with little to no room for a sidewalk, so parking was limited to 14 slots on the ground floor area. Adding a basement or a parking space above ground was out of the question as the existing columns had a maximum carrying capacity, and classrooms are a priority over cars. The ground floor is therefore dedicated to parking, an outdoor lounge punctuated by a vertical garden, and a small entry lobby that directly leads to the central staircase and lift.

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The central grand staircase was designed to function as a circulatory space and double as a social space. “Due to its width, the staircase can accommodate students passing thru and can be used as an amphitheater for pop-up huddles and lectures, creative shows, or even simple hang-out sessions of students,” said Buensalido + Architects. The firm adds that after establishing the central feature, the classrooms were simply fit in the leftover space most efficiently.

The interior of the building was then decided to have an industrial aesthetic direction to stay within the cost limit. “This strategy not only worked well to keep the costs down, but to also show the history of the building. Old and new utilities are exposed, construction joints between original and new structures are left visible, and even the additional steel retrofitting members that reinforce the old concrete frame are seen,” explains the architects.

Notice the low ceiling on the second floor. According to the architects, the second floor was a mezzanine level before the retrofit, which explains its low ceiling. “We stripped away the ceiling off of this level to gain precious height space and exposed the structural and utilitarian aspects of the building and designed around it,” bares the architects. Now, the second floor is utilized as the main common space, with a double-height main reception, a student lounge, a library, and a cafeteria, distributed around the central core.

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Buensalido + Architects created a consistent visual language throughout the building and a sense of movement through the abstraction of indigenous Filipino weaving patterns in a series of vibrant wood strips on the walls and ceilings, starting and ending at various accesses and acting as a navigation tool.

On the third level are the administrative offices, faculty, and employee lounges. The fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to 17 different classrooms: lecture rooms, creative studios, and computer laboratories enough to accommodate over 1200 students. On the topmost level is the gym that doubles as a space for various college events and parties, and a mezzanine level for its bleachers.

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Breathing rooms

“Since the old building maximized the lot, there’s little to no outdoor spaces as it was. So, in the absence of outdoor areas, we strategically scattered public spaces within the building to offset this,” says Buensalido + Architects.

On the ground level, a small outdoor lounge area with green walls is provided for students and visitors just outside the main entrance. Hallways on typical classroom floors were planned to be wide to easily transform as lounge areas or student exhibition venues. The top-level is fully covered with a roof to shield the users from the elements and naturally ventilated through storm louvers (with a low velocity, low energy consuming big-ass fan to augment air movement). It is currently used as a multipurpose space: a gym, an extension of the cafeteria, a student lounge, and even as an event space for student assemblies, launches, and the like.

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A library on the second floor

Adapting to the new normal

“We completed the building before the pandemic broke out, and no-one foresaw the disruption of COVID-19,” Buensalido+Architects replies when BluPrint asked how ready is the new CIIT Philippines campus for the new normal. “So, we didn’t design the building with a pandemic scenario in mind, but it does have a few features that can adapt to it.”

The architects said that the tight nature of the site and the parking requirements forced them to have two lobbies—a small one on the ground floor, and a larger one on the second. “It was not our intention, but we imagine that the smaller lobby at the ground could easily be converted into a transitory area where students’ temperature could be taken or even converted into a sanitation station before being allowed to proceed up to the main campus,” the architects explain.

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Main reception area
BluPrint Architecture CIIT retrofit Buensalido + Architects

Buensalido + Architects also cited the toilets that were designed as universal single-user toilets, which they imagine would be useful now as it eliminates the person to person contact within the confines of the toilet. This type of layout, according to the architects, can be beneficial also for the operations as CIIT Philippines can choose to create a shifting schedule so that the inactive toilets can be sanitized properly.

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Another example the architects mentioned was the library-reception-café, which is probably the most active area in the building in terms of student social interactions and duration of stay, according to them. “We envisioned this level to have an open layout, where the spaces can free-flow to each other, and therefore can easily adapt and be switched around to accommodate the changing needs of the school,” explains Buensalido + Architects. “All hallways are naturally ventilated, facilitating constant air movement, and would lead to pocket-sized lobby/lounges per floor, but can easily serve nicely as spillover learning spaces if needed. We also designed the main staircase to be wider than usual so that it can function as seating on regular days, but allow for two-way traffic while allowing physical distancing to happen during a pandemic.”

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Mezzanine-bleachers on the top level

‘Optimistic architecture’

While the vicinity used to be primarily a residential neighborhood, the majority of the area, more so the main road where the site is, has been converted into a commercial zone. Buensalido + Architects said this gentrification allowed a few buildings to go taller than the two-story houses that are popping up sporadically to four, six, and a few eight stories. The architects add, “Because of this, the context and scale of the buildings in the area are actually already changing, and CIIT just happened to be one of the first ones to build tall to maximize the allowable FAR (floor area ratio). So in a way, in terms of scale and sense of place, the project also hopes to set the tone for future developments in the area.”

Buensalido + Architects said this optimism and positivity—this idea of hope is what the firm believes Filipino architecture should also be about. “Through expressive forms, vibrant colors, and an assertive presence, we hope to approximate a celebratory character in architecture that serves as an emotional motivation and an urban renewal strategy,” the architects further.

The architects hope that the Interweave Building would “set a celebratory precedent and an uplifting tone that others may echo as well in developing their properties” instead of looking outside and importing foreign styles that do not “necessarily appropriate to our context due to the difference of culture and climate, and is often implemented as a poorly implemented copy of something else.”B ender

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