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Anna Koosmann's Philippines community-architecture odyssey

Architect and 1997 Hudson High School grad Anna Koosmann in her Afton home last week. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Chuck Nowlen)1 / 2
The pilot Estudio Damgo – or "Dream Studio" -- project was the Dungga Daycare Center, shown above, in a rural mountain village in Valencia, Philippines. (Photo courtesy of Foundation University)2 / 2

Architect Anna Koosmann's heart, mind and soul were opened wide by a succession of immersive roles in a 4-year-old eco-sustainable community building project in the Philippines.

Now the 1997 Hudson High School grad hopes the project will inspire a new way of constructing public buildings in the Southeast Asian country -- where over the years Western-style brick-and-mortar methods have become the norm.

Fittingly, the project -- which employed bamboo, clay, natural fibers and other native materials, as well as the local community and university -- is named "Estudio Damgo," or "Dream Studio."

Work on Estudio Damgo's three keystone buildings -- a daycare center in a rural mountain village, a multipurpose hall for flood survivors and a floating guardhouse for a coastal marine sanctuary -- began in 2012 in Dumaguete City, located on the Sulu Sea.

"Estudio Damgo is one-of-a-kind. It is planting seeds ... that will shape their cities tomorrow," Koosmann wrote in a Jan. 24 article for the Dumaguete Metropost newspaper.

She adds in an interview at her Afton home last week:

"You can't just donate a building and pretend it's going to be well received by the people who will use it. ... You have to build roots there. I believe in working with the individuals, families and groups that want to do it -- to me, that's progress and sustainability.

"Sometimes, architecture is being sensitive to where you're going, why you're going there and how you're serving the community. I've had many debates with myself, even while doing the work over there; and the forefront question is: Who are we really serving?"

Estudio Damgo was spearheaded through Dumaguete's Foundation University by architecture professor Ray Villanueva, whom Koosmann met when both were masters degree architecture students at the University of Washington's Seattle campus.

Koosmann had also worked on other sustainable community-architecture projects there, including a 50-plus-unit affordable-housing project for the tribal Yakama Nation Housing Authority.

Estudio Damgo, meanwhile, required fifth-year Foundation University architecture students to complete small structures for a chosen Filipino community, showcasing regional materials like bamboo, hand-woven bamboo-strip slats, natural grass for thatched roofs and clay.

First project

The bamboo Dungga Daycare Center -- accommodating 25 local pre-school youngsters -- was Estudio Damgo's first project in mountain-village Valencia on the Philippines' Negros Oriental Island.

"I had no idea I'd be going there, but I kept following Ray's work, and one day he sent out a call for co-instructors for the project and to see if I could help with construction," Koosmann recalls.

"I was already thinking about going out around the world on my own. So I said, 'Hey, maybe I'll swing a hammer for a month or so in the Philippines. That led to, 'I'll sign on for six months and go to work.'"

She flew to the Philippines in October 2012.

Like the two buildings that followed, the daycare center project connected closely with local residents, the village council and the rest of the community through the construction process, project research and evaluations of building conditions, operations and community integration.

"The research visits were essential to improving the university's outreach program and building better relationships going forward," Koosmann noted in her Dumaguete Metropost article.

While Koosmann was there, Villanueva and his wife Amy had a child and decided to return to Seattle.

"So he asked me to take on a second project and lead the program," she says. "I stayed another year-and-a-half."

Working now with her own team of Foundation University architecture students, Koosmann went on to oversee construction of the multipurpose hall for flood survivors in Dumaguete's Bajumpandan village. It's now being used for church meetings and other events.

It was eventually followed by the floating coastal marine sanctuary guardhouse, which, sadly, collapsed in October 2015.

When the multipurpose hall was completed, Koosmann returned to the Midwest in May 2014, planning to establish her own architecture practice.

But Estudio Damgo beckoned again -- and again she answered.

"It was at a high peak in the program, but I thought, 'This won't last if I pull out. I tried to recruit and train a Filipino person to replace me, but she didn't take the job."

So Koosmann decided to try for one of academia's most prestigious champions to fund her return to Dumaguete and Foundation University: a J. William Fulbright scholarship.

She applied in August 2014 and got it the following February.

"It was something like, 'Well, I'll just try it," she remembers. "I knew a woman on a Fulbright scholarship in the Philippines, so I asked her about the process, and she gave me a few tips.

"Basically, you want to show that you can get the work done and make the Fulbright people proud. For me, I already had two years of work on the project and had a couple of buildings there under my belt, so it was really clear what I was trying to do."

Home for good

Through her five-month Fulbright teaching and research grant -- titled "Sustaining Communities Through Design-Build Architecture" -- Koosmann served as an Estudio Damgo consulting architect, focusing on evaluating and institutionalizing the project to ensure its ongoing success.

Among many other things, that involved restructuring Foundation University's Architecture Department to add third- and fourth-year students to Estudio Damgo's research, planning, design and construction program.

That further integrated its principles into the fabric of both the university and the local community.

Koosmann notes that the design-build construction method brought all involved closer to the action at all stages.

"It's not just designing a project, it's also putting in the sweat equity to actually build the project," she explains.

"That way, the student actually touches the building materials, which helps them understand how the materials go together. ... It's very empowering for the students. It also reduces the cost of construction. Labor is one of the biggest costs, and utilizing students can reduce that while also helping them learn."

Among eye-catching awards Estudio Damgo has won since it was started: a 2015 national "Most Eco-Friendly Schools" award, a 2013 national recognition as one of the country's "Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations" and another 2013 honor from the United Architects of the Philippines Student Association.

Work on a fourth Estudio Damgo project followed -- a Dumaguete port welcome center -- with current architect of record and Foundation University instructor Zorich Guia affirming, "We now have a roadmap to guide us on future projects."

Koosmann, who returned to Minnesota when her Fulbright project ended in December, notes that the grassroots reception to Estudio Damgo's finished buildings has been mixed, which some might find surprising.

"On one hand, I hear all the time that the people love the multipurpose hall, for example. They think they're all really nice buildings," she says.

"But there are also people who have some shame about their own houses now because they're not as good. ... Some of the students' parents also think, 'I was trying to get my child out of that world of bamboo construction and so forth. Why should they be doing that in architecture school?'"

Will Estudio Damgo set the Philippines’ public buildings blueprint for the future?

Only time will tell, notes Koosmann, who plans to stay in Minnesota to permanently establish her architecture practice here, incorporating what she's learned about community projects as well.

"There are major differences, but the principles are the same whether you're in Minnesota or the tropics," says Koosmann, who also blogs and dabbles in her other lifelong passion, visual art.

"So I would love to continue community design and public-service design here, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what that would look like. But you have to live what you preach, right? And that's what I'm sure I'll try to do."

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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