In the lush coastal village of Larapan, Bohol, new resident Charlotte Lao Schmidt plays with what appear to be hollow blocks. Instead of gray cement, they are the color of buttered toast, compact and with a pleasant grain to them. With raised rims on one side and a depression on the other, they can stack like Lego, making the heavy lifting of construction seem so effortless, which Schmidt’s fingers in chipped red polish demonstrate during our Zoom meeting.
Called Interlocking Hollow-block based Integrated Construction Systems, or IHICS for short, this alternative to conventional hollow-blocks uses a unique interlocking design as well as local components. “Limestone sand from a local quarry and rice husk, which we get from the rice mill, are added to the innovative cement mix,” Schmidt goes on, before getting up to scoop up some of the discarded little jackets of palay in her hand. “I also use it as my cat litter.”
Using less mortar to bind the individual blocks together, little to no need for expensive formwork and less plaster for final rendering of the load-bearing wall — a saving on materials brought on by the patented interlocking design — makes it not only an ecological, but also economical option for those building houses. Not to mention, high standards of manufacturing allow it to hold 1000 pounds per square inch (PSI) versus low quality hollow cement blocks that break at about 150 PSI, the type to crumble in the delivery truck. “It’s safer,” Schmidt says, in times of earthquakes and typhoons, and even against regular wear and tear in tropical climates.
The Filipina-German designer moved to the Philippines a year and a half ago, for multiple reasons: partly to support IHICS, which happens to be the sustainable construction business started by her family (in charge of the company’s in-house spatial research department, she is currently building strategic partnerships with like-minded actors in the building sector); partly because she felt drawn to contribute to a growing network of places and practices exploring alternative ways of working, living and growing in the Visayas (like Luyo Space or Tropical Futures Institute in Cebu or Lokal in Siargao).
A spatial designer, she worked on various European urban and cultural contexts with international design practice 51N4E, based in Brussels. The fruitful collaboration had her contributing to meaningful projects like an award-winning renovation for a square in Albania incorporating marble from different villages, like a glittering mosaic, and preparing the ground for an ‘urban forest’, the first of its kind, growing to become a functional ecosystem in the heart of a thriving city. Formerly in danger of becoming a traffic junction, the square now hosts morning prayers, evening concerts, farmer’s markets, and chats between Albanians who pull the steel outdoor benches together so they can put their feet up next to the lap of the person they’re talking to. A triumph of public spaces.
In Bohol, she resides in a house that is actually one of various prototypes their family’s small construction company built in order to further develop their teams’ skills and test their construction system locally, an approach she calls “research by design.” This residence has white walls and natural breezeways with plants swaying all around the building.
She climbs the winding stairs to the second floor. “Look, there’s my platform!” she says, from a height, as her lips, in a deep petal pink, pop against the greenery. She points to a plain structure overlooking the ocean. “Rather than a building, I think of it as a table, where you could start modeling,” she reflects about the place she calls ‘Soft Spot.’ The name befits the curving forms of its edges, hovering like a perch amid a canopy of trees that looks out onto the Mindanao Sea, but also the fluidity of functions and even ownership she envisions for the structure.
“It could be anything really,” she continues. While building the physical garden and platform, she uses conversations as a tool to build what she describes as a roaming and dispersed community “to share authorship, to design in dialogue.” To Schmidt, design is a shared discipline, where the architect facilitates creative work and a search for answers among everyone involved, whether client, engineer or builder.
“I'd rather start from something that is very down to earth, something that is accessible and radically open, and then see where this can take us, not with a fixed plan... but the potential and imagination for a future that people can step into.”
Starting out with quite an intricate plan to define the organically shaped edge of her platform, she abandoned that idea, and regrouped with the artisans working with her to take another, more practical direction. Letting herself be led by their familiarity with handling local materials, she describes the resulting technique as more similar to painting, using a combination of steel plates, sand and rocks to create the formwork. “As a woman, I feel like these are the best possible conditions for me to grow… I’m always there working with them, it is so tangible and direct and most decisions are made on-site, gradually practicing to let go.” She pointed to the structure. “Learning together, merging cultures of doing things.”
Eventually, Schmidt hopes to continue growing her garden and add a few more structures such as ateliers and workshops, incorporating more formations of Bohol limestone — like the human-placed rock wall called a RipRap — and eventually building a repertoire of local, traditional building techniques to combine with contemporary solutions like IHICS. “Besides its cultural and social aspects, Soft Spot is thought of as a physical and mental laboratory for collaborative building culture and transformative placemaking,” Schmidt said.