EL NIDO, Philippines: Soon after Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines in November 2013, skilled carpenter Gener Paduga was on a boat distributing food and plastic roofs to affected victims in Palawan.
Around him was a harrowing scene of devastation left behind by the deadliest tropical cyclone to ever hit the Philippines. It killed 6,300 people, affected some 3.4 million families and damaged more than one million houses nationwide.
In Palawan – a coastal province on the remote western border where Gener was born – collapsed homes, fallen trees and debris from coastal communities were scattered across a wide area of destruction and despair.
“I was like ‘Oh my god’. All those houses were blown away and people didn’t know what to do. They were blank,” he said. “I thought ‘how can I help these people?’.”
As he took in the bleak situation, Gener realised people needed more than food and plastic roofs to rebuild their lives. They needed new homes, he thought, that would be resilient and strong, and easy to build at low cost.
"I started to think that I should make a proper design for these people, and how to save time and money. Something easy you wouldn’t need to buy."
Then an idea came to his mind – a simple bamboo structure that could withstand storms and save islanders from total devastation should they face destructive typhoons in the future. He later named the design Tuka – a Tagalog word for beak – after its unique curved roof.
“The design itself has a purpose and reason. It’s flexible. It’s bamboo. So, it’s strong and also aerodynamic,” said the 47-year-old craftsman, sitting crossed-legged in one of the huts he designed.
The structure is compact, light and airy. There are two big openings in the front and at the back where walls usually are. The feature, he added, allows strong winds to pass through the hut instead of hitting against its walls and knocking it down.
Unlike most houses in Palawan, the Tuka has a large roof that also serves as the walls. Made of dry palm leaves, it drapes on two sides of the bamboo structure in a slight curve and stretches to nearly touch the ground. Compared to a pitched roof, Gener said his design helps reduce the impact of rain on the roof surface and enables rainwater to flow to the ground faster.
“If you make it flat, it isn’t going to last,” he added.
While many local homes are fixed in one place, the Tuka is designed for flexibility.
The structure can be lifted off the ground, relocated or turned in different directions, and set back upright if knocked over by storms. Its roof can also be removed during a typhoon so the gusty winds can pass through the main bamboo frame with minimal impact.
“You can rip up your roof before the typhoon arrives and find your safe shelter for a short while. When you come back, you’ll still have your house. That’s the main purpose of the design,” the carpenter said.
Comparing the Tuka to concrete and wooden houses, both far more common in Palawan, he added bamboo huts can better withstand typhoons as the fibrous plant is highly flexible yet very strong.
“If you shake the wood too much, it’ll collapse because wood can break. Cement as well, it’ll crack. Bamboo doesn’t break. It’s highly flexible,” Gener said.
Based on the government’s climate data, Filipino islanders have good reasons to prepare for a stormy future as the impact of climate change is expected to pose more challenges to coastal communities.
“The combined effects of continued temperature increases, changes in rainfall and accelerated sea level rise, and tropical cyclone occurrences including the associated storm surges would expose coastal communities to higher levels of threat to life and property,” said the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), a national institution specialised in weather and flood conditions.
Globally, the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate hazards. Nearly half of its 106 million population live in exposure to natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, as shown in the Global Peace Index of 2019 which analyses the potential impact of climate change on peace around the world.
In Palawan, local communities have already felt the impact.
The Philippines’ Climate Change Commission secretary Emmanuel M de Guzman said in a letter to CNA that one of the challenges that people face is the destruction of boats and houses by typhoons.
Every year, about 20 typhoons strike the Southeast Asian country. However, locals in Palawan said their arrivals have become more unpredictable recently.
“Before, in October, November and December, there were hardly any typhoons. But now, they come. We have no control over it,” said local farmer Melanie Jacob from Sitio Pangaraycayan in El Nido, Palawan. “The weather has changed a lot.”
Adaptability is the key feature as the climate becomes more unpredictable.
For Gener, his bamboo design could provide an architectural alternative for areas at risk. Its low cost and balanced utilisation of locally grown materials makes the Tuka sustainable in the local environment.
Bamboo grows rapidly and can be harvested in 3-7 years. The endemic variety – Bayog – also features a very small hole in the centre and thick fibrous wall, which allows more flexibility for builders to bend the wood without breaking it.
To improve its durability, the bamboo is soaked in seawater after the harvest – a key process that gets rid of any insects that could be living inside.
“It’s easy to make and very cheap. For me, that’s the main point to help people,” he said.
"If you plant your own bamboo, you can build your own house by yourself. In the future, I think we should do that to help the planet."
The Tuka is not just for huts and varies in size. A small one takes one person and a week to complete. It can also be built as one storey or two, depending on the desired usage, and can serve as a simple shelter or form parts of a bigger house or a school when joined together. So far, four bamboo schools have been built for small children on Palawan islands, Gener said.
Next to the hut, his first Tuka stands tall amid palm trees. Its ground floor is used as a canteen and the upper floor for storage. The structure took 15 people and a month to build, plus another week for roofing and the finishing touches. Looking at his creation, the carpenter said he dreams of building the biggest bamboo structure in the world one day when he can find enough money.
“I already have the design in my head.”