Designing an Island Life: Architect Turned Island Girl

Alyssa is not your typical architect and construction professional. She graduated from UST in 2014 and took the boards shortly after, but today, spends her time managing projects, designing structures and properties in the idyllic Siargao Islands, Surigao (North Eastern Mindanao).

The island is known as the best surfing destination in the Philippines, and one of the 10 best in the world according to Conde Nast Traveller, because of the consistent and beautiful Cloud 9 surf break. The island sports numerous surfing areas for beginners and professionals and is touted as the surf mecca of the country. “The Island Life”, as many people call it, nestled in azure blue coral reefs, white sand and swaying coconut trees, is what attracted Alyssa to Siargao.

As a college student and fresh graduate, Alyssa was already an avid traveler and had a family that was supportive of her interests. Her first job in Manila, Bulb Builders, a construction firm, was chosen because of its proximity to her home – as she admittedly has no patience for the hectic Manila traffic.  Her deciding factors for work were telling of the future, and 2 years later, with fellow Island Architect Monika, she ended up on Siargao Island working as a Construction Manager for Tropiks, a Manila-based design firm, and she helped build Harana Surf Resort and Siargao Island Villas.

In 2017, loaded with more experience, Alyssa decided to set out on her own and start her private practice.I asked Alyssa why she quit, and she explained that having her own practice allowed her to manage her time better and choose smaller, more manageable projects.

“There is a misconception that if you live here, or in any island, your work is a breeze but it’s actually the same workload, sometimes more, but with a better view” Today her life is more balanced as a free-lancer.

 

Regular view from work

12 Regular view from work

What Alyssa likes best about her job is that she gets to help mold the island’s development through proper design and construction. Siargao has an identity – native, modern tropical – not your typical nipa houses.

 

Alyssa with her project…

13 Alyssa with her project in Siargao

“I think the unique Siargao character started to develop with foreign settlers who moved here early on who had ideas from other more developed tropical countries and wanted to try it here, the result is a mix of modern tropical design with a native Filipino touch. And also to credit other architects like my previous mentor, Arch. Patawaran, whose firm designed Harana Surf Resort, which I think is a great example of Island Filipino Architecture.”

Alyssa wants to help preserve that island vibe while mixing modern, fun and sustainable tropical designs that provide comfort for build users and minimal impact on the environment.

As the island develops, she hopes to incorporate more mindfulness into the different buildings in Siargao – typhoon resistance, the use of sustainable materials, correct air flow and sun shading, rainwater harvesting, solar energy and proper waste management.

These modernization come at a critical time as Siargao’s tourism is booming, and so is its waste management problem (there’s no sewer system or human waste treatment facility), under utilization of fresh water (it rains regularly) and lack of energy (power outages are the norm). Alyssa notes that sometimes, the water from her faucet is yellow, suggesting that It’s not potable.

 

Siargao needs help in infrastructure and waste management

18 Dump Site

Despite her young career, Alyssa is determined to learn more about these different facets of construction in greater depth, as she knows they are relevant to protecting the beauty of that island that she fell in love with.

She is happy to hear that there are plans of improving the infrastructure of the island by a well-known Architectural firm who specializes in sustainable planning hoping that this will address certain issues that the island is facing.

19 beauty worth preserving

One such issue is waste management, as seen in this picture below. The island has no infrastructure to deal with plastic and non-biodegradable trash.

This kind of information and construction design is critical in ensuring builds that are cost efficient in the long run. Alyssa adds that if you’re going to build, get an architect that can help you navigate those decision points and save you money in the long run.

Currently, Alyssa is working on Secret Spot Siargao and Surfing Carabao, among other projects. She notes that the locals can use a little more education in terms of building codes and environmental standards – and that it’s up to the trained and educated to guide them.

I asked her about the toughest part of her job, she said that sourcing materials can be tricky as they are not readily available on the island and must be shipped from mainland Surigao or bigger cities like Cebu or Davao. Another is balancing her work and life, as it is very tempting to just enjoy the island, to be lazy by the beach or surf longer hours. She also notes that the island vibe contributes to the slower pace of work – the laborers here move slower and the hustle of the city does not apply here. One must learn to adjust and be creative in motivating the workers.

On the flip side, the most fun and fulfilling part of her work is being able to live where she wants – Siargao Island. Being able to work in flip flops, living by the beach and riding a motorbike to meetings which are 5 minutes away makes it easy. Alyssa enjoys small projects which she can design, build and cover from start to end.

22 IMG_0552

As the number of projects she has increases, she understands that development on the island will continue, and this can post a threat to the life and environment that everyone currently enjoys. However, with the current group of locals and business owners, there is hope as a significant number of them are green at heart. “I hope that with the development of Siargao, it leads to sustainability and environmentally conscious developers and business owners. I hope the current green folks here inspire future investors to do the same.” It is worthy to note that there are at least 3 movements in Siargao Island trying to attack the trash problem created by growing tourism and a lack of infrastructure.

Alyssa’s desire for sustainable construction runs deep, as she understands that construction accounts for about 30% of the carbon waste of energy used in cities, and so it’s critical at a time when the world’s climate is changing, that builds are more efficient with design strategies like rainwater collecting, solar energy harvesting, long term planning, and the use of alternative materials such as eco-bricks, and other resource saving techniques. Beyond sustainability, she is also in favor of developing the country’s architectural identity, and not just resigning to copying what they see in other countries. She hopes that a unique Filipino tropical design will continue to grow and thrive on the islands.

Her favorite construction material for tropical houses is still hardwood – an expensive and timeless classic and bamboo – although this requires more research and processing to create something that can last for a long time. Alyssa hopes that she can work with farmers and other professionals in the future to produce better construction quality bamboo.

25Home sweet home

So if you’re looking to build or design something by the beach, this island architect might be the construction professional for you – sustainability focused, willing to learn and has love for the environment. She is one of those rare folks that have mixed a deep sense of purpose with her profession.

26 siargao rainbow

If you want to reach out to her, Alyssa can be reached at alyssaolalia.design@gmail.com

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