GESS50: 1994-1997 Building the Bukit Tinggi Campus Extension

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by Ulrich Libal

With the opening of the Dairy Farm Campus, I was motivated to look back in time to 25 years ago. This was when the German School’s new classroom buildings were built at the old Bukit Tinggi Campus, from 1994 – 1997. I want to share a little bit about the involvement of three people in this effort: Norbert Pinno, Regina von Reitzenstein and me – Ulrich Libal. None of us thought that we would one fine day become some sort of a “builder” in Singapore.

Beginnings of the DSS Construction Committee

We all had a different journey leading up to this role. For Norbert Pinno, it was because he took up the position of Head of Administration at the Deutsche Schule Singapore (DSS). For my wife Regina, it was her attachment to the school that started with looking after our kids, meeting teachers and helping with Kindergarten festivities. Then came a day when she got involved in defining space for new Kindergarten classes and the shifting room functions. And as a draftswoman by profession, this was fun for her.

Eventually, an even more exciting project came up: the rework of the Theater and Auditorium above the canteen. That was when she came to me with questions and discussions about building technology and other stuff. Slowly, I got more deeply involved in the Bukit Tinggi construction matters. Earlier in my working life, I had gained some professional experience in electrical installation, air conditioning, painting, building construction and other areas. This came in very useful for the Bukit Tinggi Campus extension.

At this time, the school was growing rapidly or rather it ‘was bursting at the seams’. The DSS still needed many new classrooms, and additionally, a library, IT rooms, classes for physics, chemistry and many more. A few months before our involvement, the Board of Directors had set up a contract with a Singaporean construction company. They were to design and build a four-storey building on the last available space – the basketball field at the forum!

In order to support these efforts and to give a helping hand, sometime in 1994, the three of us formed the “DSS Construction Committee”. When the three of us had some time to spare, we went ‘spying’ in Singaporean schools to get a better feel of local school construction. For the overall plan, it was also essential to involve many others like the principal, teachers, students and external specialists – we were busy!

The First Plans for the Building Project

Then came the day when the representative of the general contractor brought over the first plans. And we – the Construction Committee – were asked to look over the architects’ proposals. So we spread out the plans and tried to take a ‘virtual’ walk through the new school. There were many issues – for e.g. nice rooms with a spectacular view over Singapore and which could have been great art classrooms were designated to be toilets – and so a question came up. Was this the right school design for our children? We weren’t sure.

So we contacted Mr. Krämer, the project manager from the construction firm, with our concerns. He understood that for a project of this nature we urgently needed help and advice from architects experienced in kindergarten and school construction.

We were linked up with a “Planungswerkstatt” (Design workshop) in Hildrizhausen (close to Stuttgart). The team around Professor Kroner, Mr. Kirelli and Mr. Dietz had already built several schools, Kindergartens and had written excellent books on this topic. So we sent our plans to Germany. One phone call later Mr. Kirelli rushed to Singapore almost on the next possible plane. His luggage consisted primarily of parchment paper, pencils, initial plans and a brain full of bright ideas. He arrived on a Thursday night. For weeks prior, invitations had been sent out to the parents for the Presentation and Approval of The New DSS Project. This meeting was set for the following Monday (from the time Mr. Kirelli arrived) at 7pm.

On Friday, we started a workshop with many teachers, the prinicpal, Mr. Schumann, and the three of us. This meeting in March 1995 opened the eyes of everyone involved. We stared spellbound at the many meters of parchment paper that showed Mr. Kirelli’s designs for our new school with architect’s flowing lines. The ideas born and brought to paper were so impressive that on the Sunday evening before the DSS Parents General Meeting we decided to put our old plans on file and embrace and present only the totally new concept.

On Monday, I took a day off and our dining room table was quickly transformed into a workbench for architectural models. We glued small wooden blocks together, painted windows on them and arranged Styrofoam “terrains” as a base. For one model we needed a small cupola – so I quickly unscrewed a cup nut from my daughter’s bike. This was to be a shiny highlight on the ‘Teachers Tower’. Models were also prepared for alternative solutions. We dashed to a copy shop in Bras Basah and enlarged the parchment drawings to prepare the presentation. And at 5 pm we had the tiny models ready as well as some slightly colored drawings which gave a fantastic idea of the project. All of us took showers, ate and went to the school’s theater. Norbert, my wife and I – we all felt the jitters. But Mr. Kirelli was a pro and presented the project so convincingly that the final vote was only a formality.

Growing Responsibilities for the DSS Construction Committee

The supportive Mr. Krämer from the construction company left Singapore. As such, the Building Committee had to be in the middle of the action. For example, the German architects’ English was a bit “rusty”, they did not know technical terms in English and also spoken Swabian German. The contractor’s engineers were locals and mostly spoke Singlish and Hokkien. This is where Regina and I came in. I grew up in the Swabian part of Germany and understood the slang very well and having lived in Singapore for a while, knew some Singlish as well. Additionally, Regina went to MPH and bought books on construction in Asia to find out technical terms in English.

Owing to the time difference between Singapore and Germany, we had the perfect arrangement. In the evenings, Regina and I translated the questions the Singapore engineers had and faxed them to Germany. During breakfast the next day, we processed the answers from Germany which came in by email or fax at night, translated and faxed them to the contractor or sometimes, Regina would take a trip to Chinatown to visit their office. Our study at home grew into a kind of hub for the construction project. I am also very thankful to the company where I worked as a Marketing Manager, because I almost regularly disappeared on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch time to attend the construction meeting at the contractor’s office; sometimes these meetings even took a bit longer.

We also got other tasks as the architects in Germany had to work with their counterparts in Singapore. German DIN standards clashed with the British Standards used in Singapore. The German architects were also unaware of many issues specific to Singapore: How to keep cobras out of the Kindergarten class rooms and the sandbox. How to design columns to avoid monkeys climbing up to the roof? Why do we need sunshades on the north side of a building? What materials will be used or are available? What are recommended construction details for gutters?

Presenting the Final Plans to the Parents

On 1 May 1995, we conducted another workshop with the architects and determined which functional rooms we needed, the requirements, construction details, and even every lamp and light switch were recorded. Everyone in the school listed their needs and wishes in a log book. The wishes sometimes amazed the contractors, especially when they had already planned differently. We really used a “give and take” negotiation strategy, which I had learned during my 5-year stay in Japan. We managed to realise many of these needs and wishes in a cost-neutral manner.

On 7 December 1995, we were ready to present the final plans to the parents. The construction cost of SGD 6.95 million was approved in a parents’ meeting. And the construction was set to start with the summer holidays of 1996!

Beginning of Construction and the Many Interesting Experiences

We lost some precious time waiting for approvals from the National Environmental Agency to clear space and it was not till days before the summer holiday that we were ready. So there was no groundbreaking ceremony. The holidays came and construction started at full speed. A small access road was quickly built through the (former) Turf Club so that excavators and pile drivers could be brought in. Delivery of building materials was later carried out via this road as well, because school had to run undisturbed during construction. Due to technical and safety reasons, heavy trucks could anyway not pass through the school premises.

We often had technical problems to solve – for e.g. the issue of “resilient flooring” (known as Trittschalldämmung in Germany). Such flooring ensures that the movement of chairs cannot be heard in the classrooms below. In Singapore, this method was totally unknown back then. Only shipbuilders in Sembawang used this method to isolate crew quarters from the engine noise. With the advice from our German architects, we procured some materials ourselves and created an experimental “resilient floor” which proved to be very effective and was implemented in all classrooms.

At some point, I remember, soundproofing between classrooms was also a concern. In order to avoid sound transmission, partition walls between the classrooms in the DSS had to be built as a “double shelled wall”, meaning there should be no physical connection between the brick walls. There should only be air in between. When the bricklaying teams started with their work, I inspected it and noticed that there were some steel bars that connected the two walls, thereby creating “bridges” that would transmit sounds – this was counterproductive. The next day I joined the bricklayers and, together, we developed a quicker method to build the double wall using a plywood board as an intermediate layer. The method was clean, quick and without sound bridges. Watching the progress was fun.

After work, I often went for a walk around the construction site to check the state of the activities. Once I noticed a “special” wall. This was meant to create a kind of privacy screen at the entrance to a boys toilet. It was built a week ago. But lightly touching it made it wobble and I wobbled it a little bit harder and the wall crashed. The bricklayer foreman witnessed this and I noticed his shock.

Of course, I knew where similar walls were and went to check. The foreman sped past me and burst into the next toilet room and before I got there, I heard a crashing sound. He darted one level up and there were more crashing sounds. Then the two of us dry-bricked the correct bond with the outer wall. We could not communicate with each other, but he understood. And after this occurrence he always seemed to wait for me when I arrived on the construction site. We would then take a tour to look at all the masonry work that had been done and check it together. Always “High-5” quality!

I also remember the plasterers – their presence on the construction site was well evident whenever there was a wood fire burning to heat up an enormous 10 liter water kettle. There was also makeshift “tub” lined with foil in which 2 men mixed the plaster. I always felt the urge to get a small “Putzmeister” plaster mixer machine from Germany to make life easier for these poor plasterer guys.

Their boss was also an impressive man. With cords, lumps of plaster and nails he created the reference grid for the young workers who followed him and plastered the walls. It was fantastic how he created the thickness and the sharp edges so precisely without measuring tools. Women in the crew brought the plaster in 10 litre buckets to the men on the scaffold (and from time to time, tea refill as well). They wore red headgear, as was then common for Singapore’s unmarried female helpers on construction sites.

On construction sites, there is a saying “Trust is good. Control is better.” In accordance with that, I went around checking the plaster quality with a rubber mallet and red spray paint. If the plaster sounded hollow, didn’t hold or came down, I sprayed a red “Redo!” graffiti. I was told, that when the boss of the plastering teamhad seen the graffiti for the first time, he himself started knocking everywhere and turned rather mad at his team. The result? Big improvement – only small quality problems!

Some New Disasters to Deal With

Eventually. all construction projects come to an end. The Construction Committee had to find all outstanding and remaining tasks and raise them with the contractor for processing. We drew up long checklists to do this. With the support of almost the entire teaching staff and a few parents who were “Häuslebauer” (private house builders), we looked into every “nook and cranny”. We checked every wall socket, tested all air conditioning systems, checked the noise of the ceiling fans, ensured windows were in cleaning position, checked for working locks, correct dimensions and leakage. It was quite a funny picture to see the different work teams scurrying from room to room with folding rules, screwdrivers and clipboards. But the yield was worth it.

The buildings were officially opened on December 4, 1997. I was well prepared with a speech in my pocket – and I would have loved to present it here again. It was a tribute to the many who had contributed to the buildings development and construction. But unfortunately,after these 24 years, the script has vanished in the transition from floppy disks to HDDs and many PCs/laptops.

During the first few weeks of official school operation, I took less frequent tours around the campus. One Saturday, I saw brownish liquid leaking from a small inconspicuous building next to the Kindergarten and inferred, through my engineering knowledge, that something was wrong with the black water pumps. The waste water from the new buildings, including the toilets, was collected in the basement of this inconspicuous building in order to be pumped 16m upwards, through the connection of the school, to the sewerage system.

The gardener and I investigated and found a sequence of events had caused a bit of a disaster. Luckily, I still had the electrical wiring diagrams at home! So I drove home, collected meter, tools and the plans. I swept through the shops at Sim Lim Tower and found the necessary spare parts and cables and fixed the big pump. Then I cleaned the cellar, which sometimes made it necessary to wade in the very unpleasant fluids. When Monday rolled around, we made serious changes to avoid such a disaster again.

The Story After

I was elected to continue working on the DSS Board of Directors until summer 1999. But I moved from the Construction Committee to became the treasurer and was the one to sign the very last checks for the “DSS 29 classroom construction” work. In 2000 my family and I left Singapore.

A few years ago, my daughter, Henrike, sent me a job advertisement from Singapore: GESS was looking for a coordinator for the New Campus Construction. Since I knew the administrative manager, Mr. Hermann, from a previous visit to Singapore, I sent my application by email. We had a nice phone call. The construction cost of SGD $80 to 100 million shocked me. I immediately knew this meant stress! 20 years older and living in the Bavarian countryside, in a small village and a beautiful house (naturally drawn by my wife Regina) – I was no longer keen on that. I went to walk the dog.

I withdrew my application. But deep in my heart I regret it. It would have been a great challenge!


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