Legitimately bending the truth

Let’s be realistic for a moment: to lie is to be human. From our earliest days of playing in the sand, we tell stories with partial or metaphorical truths.

In the case of building a house, we need to tell a story to the government about how the house will be used. And then the government will tell us whether the uses we have in mind are acceptable or not.

Since lying is such a core element of who we are, different governments have different approaches to resolving matters of deception among it’s citizens. In the USA there is a massive number of building inspections (at very high costs). Your ability to cover up something (cheap wiring, etc) is obviously very limited. However, converting a legitimate storage room that happens to have good lighting into a bedroom, after the inspections are over, is not really preventable.

In Indonesia the approach is remarkably different. From my understanding there are only two inspections: the first is when you have completed the foundation; the second is when it’s done.

The in-house consulting office of the building department is very aware that all sorts of deceptive practices may happen, and what’s amazing is they are willing to help you submit the deception in order to get it approved. This may sound radical, but I would argue that the Indonesians have a deep understanding of human nature.

Let’s take one example. A roof cannot be a livable space. But there’s a requirement that only 60% of the top of a building structure needs to be covered by a Balinese-style roof. In my case I’d like to use the uncovered part (40%) for a rooftop bar, in order to offer drinks and sunset views of the ocean. AND I want to comply with the government and NOT use the space as livable space. So except for maybe a drunken nap, you can’t sleep on my rooftop level.

It would seem that both my interests and that of the government are aligned perfectly. We tested the hypothesis by placing a small pergola on the 40% side of the rooftop level, but the government didn’t like it. Perhaps their use of livable seems to include mingling around, in addition to sleeping.

Above: An X placed across the pergola and the staircase to the rooftop by a government official.

However, the government consultant knows what we want and he also knows that the definition of livable is fungible. Many folks like to hang their wet laundry on the flat part of their rooftops. Should the government fine them for creating illegal, liveable spaces? Of course not.

It was resolved that if we remove the staircase up to the roof, and the railings around the edge of the roof’s flat 40%, as well as place the water tank and air conditioning units in the middle of the rooftop bar (um, utility space), then the design will be approved by the government. This was a two-way process of either creating a legitimate lie or working within the bureaucratic process of seeing eye-to-eye. Wink wink we all know that mingling for a couple of hours with your mohito or hanging laundry where the sun and wind is unhindered are not permanent, liveable spaces. The government just doesn’t want you building bedrooms where you’re not supposed to have them.

We are moving into a world where we are going to use smart machines that will increasingly be programmed to control our ability to deceive each other. As parents we tell our kids not to lie, and so perhaps these artificially controlled machines will become our robotic parents. In China today there’s a school that’s using cameras and facial recognition systems to determine if students are drowsy. The teacher never has to ask the student if she’s paying attention, and as the accuracy of the system increases, the little white lies that have been keeping us human are going to be deleted.

In other words, a world without lies is inhuman!

Stepping forward & sideways

With any building project, or during the process of any lasting endeavor, there will always be a variety of bumps in the road. In our minds we’d like things to progress smoothly. We make predictions based on an internalized _flow_ from one task to the next. But then there’s a bump and the flow stops. Anxiety sets in. You start wondering whether the project is really moving forward. Doubts start to magnify. You don’t sleep as well.

And then, hopefully, the clouds part and you sense some progress:

In my case I was able, with some help, to get the Banjar (local community) and district signatures and stamps that I needed — as part of the building permit process. Neighbors on all sides of the property sign off, then the neighborhood Banjar, then the regional head of the local Banjar groups, and finally the director / head of the district. None of this includes the Indonesian government. They have their own set of processes that have more to do with land zoning, ownership, and the purposes of the proposed structure. However, they require local and regional representatives to sign off on the project too.

In terms of the government permit (IMB), we made some changes to the drawings (this is our second attempt for building plan approval) but there were still a few mistakes.

In the drawing above, on the left side, we reduced the number of levels from three to two, as there are a maximum of two levels that are allowed for a Pondak Wisata (home stay) permit. Bali has always had building height restrictions but the architecture team didn’t know about the limit on residential levels. Our height restriction is fine, as its below 15 meters.

A Pondak Wisata is a renewable license for five years at a time, with income taxes paid monthly or annually. You can have up to five rental units, plus a unit for the owner.

On the right side of the drawing we showed roof access (the pergola), two residential levels, and a parking area. We were told to get rid of the pergola and the staircase leading to the roof. If we want to build access to the roof it can be done after the permit is completed. Like most government procedures, if you follow their restrictions you will eventually get what you want — on paper. In reality you have to make a plan for the builder, as well as one for the government.

Finally, we were told to make an elevation drawing so that the parking area is below the ground. This way it cannot be mistaken for a building level.

As stated above, we had progress (the signatures and stamps), but also went sideways with the government. The good news is that the government is willing to work with you. In exchange, they want plans that they can approve, even though it may not line up with what happens on the building site. This is expected in most places. Here in Indonesia its a bit more than just re-naming rooms. You may have to build a staircase after the fact. And the government will tell you that when you consult with them, which is strangely reassuring.

A tag team for building and site design

Yesterday was a bit of a marathon meeting, as our architectural team called in their government permit expert and, in the end, it was decided that it’s best to re-design for two levels (instead of the current three levels) and try to somehow squeeze in the rooftop bar.

We threw some re-design ideas around for a bit and then it was decided that within a week the architectural team will create something that the government can gaze at and comment on.

It’s one thing to say a room is a library and then later, after the government inspector is gone, turn it into a bedroom — and quite another to say a roof that begins 2.5 meters above the top floor is that way in order to make the structure look cool — when in reality it’s that way to support people wandering around an open-air rooftop bar.

And so we have to make lemonade from lemons that the government deems worthy to squeeze.

While a small part of me temporarily wanted to throw in the towel, I’m eager to see what kind of rabbit Arkana Architects will pull out of it’s hat.

After the permit meeting we called in our road and wall building team to meet with Arkana.

Due to the sloping building site and the fact that part of the structure will have a parking space under it, we need to carefully determine the heights of each portion of the property for proper drainage.

It was decided to have a tiered setup: building structure, pool, and then a final tier for the cafe. The other option is a gradual slope, but by tiering the property we can do something creative with the pool placement. Essentially the downhill part of the pool wall will be more exposed in order to avoid bringing in more fill.

Calculations were made and then everyone was happy with the result.

It is remarkable that architects essentially problem-solve all day long. The beautiful touches that an architect adds to a building is probably 10% of their job. The bulk of their work consists of the nuts and bolts of, for example, making sure a water pipe doesn’t end up in the wrong place.

It’s always exciting to grind away at an idea until it comes to life. The bureaucratic hurdles can appear to be stifling, but you have to use the government’s constraints and still try your best to stay true to your vision.

None of it is easy.