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Bottom-up Philanthropic Architecture: What Can Architects Do In the Covid-19 crisis?

It is almost a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Malaysia. While there have been numerous efforts to manage this crisis, one of the emerging trends relates to quarantine centres. From April until December 2020, mild cases of infection were placed in premises suitable to be used as quarantine centres. Examples include the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Centre and Malaysian, the Ministry of Health’s Training Institute (ILKMM) in Sungai Buloh and Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang, amongst others.

While conversions of the existing structure may appear a quick win, it is not at all easy. There is a set of criteria to follow, such as – appropriateness for conversion, where professionals assess the suitability of existing buildings to re-purpose into quarantine centres. Over the last few months, when the Covid-19 infections skyrocketed from single digit to four-digit numbers, quarantine centres have been in the headlines; with news on the designation of premises into quarantine centres being challenged by local communities and the unpleasing and dire conditions of the premises.

With the exponential increase in cases over the last two months, the conditions of quarantine centres were the limelight, and more so that the centres were reaching its capacity limits – resulting in asymptomatic Covid-19 patients to be quarantined at home. As Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba explained, Covid-19 patients that have mild or no symptoms undergo treatment and quarantine at home, monitored strictly by health workers. This ring alarm bells of the growing number of active cases, suggesting a critical situation with a dire need for quarantine space.

What can architects do in this situation?
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, unprecedented governmental efforts had the nation building hospitals and centres at the speed of light. Of course, the scale between China and many other countries such as Malaysia are incomparable. Yet, it does not mean that its strategy cannot be replicated. This prompts the question: is building premises an option to increase capacity of quarantine?

What can architects do? While the current action to designate quarantine centres as a Covid-19 response are top-down, can the bottom-up approach be explored? Architecture is not only about making buildings; it is also about making an impact. Architecture has an impetus role in social responsibility, and the education and training of an architect focuses on diverse skillsets and dispositions. Underpinning such education is to provide the foundation for (1) the culture of thinking (2) the culture of making and (3) the culture of compassion. Drawing these traits of the architects, it is no surprise that building temporary quarantine centres through a collaborative means is one of the alternatives.

“Building” temporary architecture during times of crisis is not new, for example, there are facilities which cater for flood, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Emergency architecture is often characterised by how instant or makeshift it is, yet befitting its function – as an easy-to-source materials and simple enough for the community to come together to construct. It is also cost-effective, as well as scalable to multiply where needed.

                                 The team at WTA architecture and Design Studio posing inside of the newly built Emergency Quarantine Facility (EQF)

While the conversion of existing premises is a beneficial approach, there have been alternative initiatives by architects, NGOs, and community groups to design and build quarantine centres. Recently, an alumnus from the School of Architecture, Building and Design at Taylor’s University, Jeffrey Cheah, who is currently a Senior Architect at WTA Architecture and Design Studio in the Philippines, shared a collaborative effort of building a simple Emergency Quarantine Facility (EQF) that can be constructed and fit-out in 5 days, and at a modest cost of RM50,000 for a 16-patient facility. The quarantine centre by WTA drew inspiration from WTA’s pavilion at the most recent Anthology Architecture and Design Festival.

Built with wood and enveloped in plastic, the WTA pavilion was rapidly redesigned and repurposed into a 6mx 26m rectilinear facility equipped with 16 beds, two bathrooms, two showers, and designated donning and doffing areas. Like its predecessor, the EQF prioritises speed, scalability, and simplicity in its structure. Built with easy to use, flexible and readily available materials, the EQF is easily replicable and scalable. To respond to the urgent and burgeoning need for facilities, logistics and construction are simplified to hasten the build process.

                       Bedding area in the Emergency Quarantine Facility

The EQFs are built on hospital parking lots and basketball courts, advocating social intimacy and social scale in architecture by strategically inserting the facility in accessible areas. So far, there are 75 EQF sites that have been built across the Philippines. Recognising the dire state of Covid-19 pandemic across the world, WTA has made the information of the quarantine centre an open-source design and free to be used by all.

Can Malaysia adapt this to grapple with the increasing daily cases? This is the moment where architects need to rise and display their empathy through “building”. In Malaysia, while we may have a community of philanthropists consisting of developers, professional such as architects, engineers, and builders, the first step lies in negotiating such alternatives with the Ministry of Health who holds the governance of the medical premises and quarantine centres. The governmental and non-governmental stakeholders should work together to fight Covid-19. What is the mediating point between the community that support such philanthropic act and the governing authority? Perhaps, professional bodies and organisations can play a pivotal role in mediating such power relations. From crowdfunding to crowdsourcing, these bottom-up approaches can make a positive impact. So, what are we waiting for?

Associate Professor Dr Veronica Ng is the Head of School at the School of Architecture, Building & Design, Faculty of Innovation & Technology at Taylor’s University.