ON social media, Jefferson Bulan is known as “The Global Palaweño Architect.” A native of Palawan province, the 29-year-old chose to return and practice his profession there after a successful four-year stint in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Going home to Palawan offered exciting possibilities for the award-winning architect who specializes in hospitality architecture, as well as give back to what was once called the country’s “last frontier.”
“I want to help revive tourism in Palawan,” Bulan told Build & Design. “As the [coronavirus] pandemic swept over Palawan, the bustling flow of tourists dwindled by a staggering 80 percent.”
“But now, the province is rising from the ashes, reclaiming its vitality,” he said.
Bulan returned home at a time when even before the Covid-19 crisis struck, opportunities in Dubai were already diminishing, posing a challenge to him and his young family.
“Recognizing these circumstances, my wife, Charlene Gem, pointed out that while doors were closing in Dubai, there were likely doors ready to open back home,” he recalled.
“Moreover, the presence of our firstborn son Calix Zion added an extra layer of motivation to lay the foundations for our family’s future in Palawan. My wife saw the potential for us to start anew in my hometown,” said the architect, whose second child, a daughter named Cay Zia, was born after the family had already settled in the province.
The Bulans also have another “child” of sorts: BLN Architecture & Design Studio, which they established in 2019 and which he described as “a creative haven for our architectural aspirations.” He is its principal architect; Charlene Gem, its sales and marketing manager.
BLN specializes in hospitality architecture, interior design, landscape and master planning. It offers a wide range of services spanning various stages, from the initial sketching stage to the final digitization of a project. The firm claims to take an innovative approach to architectural design. Equipped with the latest design software, BLN has the distinction of being the first of its kind in Palawan to offer virtual reality walkthrough presentations.
Building, business in his blood
It seems setting up a business comes naturally to Bulan, as he comes from a family of builders and entrepreneurs. “My late grandfather, a visionary general contractor in the city, [made] his name by contributing to the construction of some of the pioneering tall buildings in our urban landscape,” he said, while his parents were both civil engineers-turned-businesspeople.
As a child, he remembers his father drawing plans and sketches for school projects and watching an uncle carve out an architectural career.
Bulan earned his undergraduate degree at Palawan State University, where he has been teaching full-time. Recently, the school appointed him chairman of its architecture department. In June, Bulan finished his master’s degree in architecture, major in interior architecture, at the University of San Carlos-Talamban campus in Cebu City. He is a registered Safety Officer 2, which makes him better equipped for construction management.
Unsurprisingly, Bulan has a soft spot for architects practicing outside Metro Manila, like himself. His YouTube channel description says it “aims to help ‘probinsyanos’ who are in the different design disciplines excel not in spite of being ‘probinsyanos,’ but because they are ‘probinsyanos.'”
He is confident that architects in the provinces can well compete with those in the National Capital Region, especially in hospitality architecture.
“The creative industry in Palawan, particularly [in] the design and construction sectors, has shown promising growth in recent years. While Palawan might not be as densely populated as [other] urban centers, the [province] has witnessed a gradual expansion in its creative landscape, driven by a blend of local talent, cultural richness, and an increasing demand for innovative design and construction solutions,” Bulan said.
He knows that Palawan-based architects like him can take advantage of local materials and make the most of their diverse applications.
“Given the environmental significance of Palawan, sustainable design practices have gained prominence. There is an emphasis on using local, eco-friendly materials and integrating energy-efficient features into architectural designs,” the architect said.
“The design sector has embraced the unique cultural and environmental context of Palawan. Architects and designers often draw inspiration from the region’s natural beauty, resulting in a blend of contemporary and traditional design elements. Making the designs [have more] “Palawan Vibes,” a perfect reflection of a paradiso,” he added.
Bulan professes a dedication for bamboo and vernacular architecture that has resulted in an initiative he calls “Explovation++.” The word is a portmanteau of “explore” and “innovation.”
“Through this program, I aim to shed more light on the untapped potential of bamboo as a new form of luxury in sustainable design,” he said.
“By championing bamboo and traditional architectural styles, I am envisioning a future where Palawan architects lead the way in creating sustainable, innovative and uniquely captivating designs,” he added.
Striking a balance
Balance has always been a core value for Bulan. When he set up BLN, he wanted it to be a firm that prized both innovation and balance.
“Our aim is to craft remarkable design solutions for every project we embrace,” Bulan said. “Our designs not only exude extraordinary qualities, but also embrace sustainability by honoring local culture and showcasing indigenous talents and craftsmanship. They are also marked by innovation and a distinct character.”
For him, there is always the social aspect of architecture and design to be considered.
“I believe that architecture should not only benefit [the] privileged, but [also] everyone in the community, regardless of their status. I am a passionate advocate for the design and construction industry who wants to give balance between the two worlds of the fortunate and the less-fortunate communities while providing better lives and more livable spaces for them.”
In his firm’s various project sites, Bulan and his team make it a point to reach out to the communities affected. They even climbed mountains once just to collaborate with members of the community there and “train them; provide wider design inspirations so they can move with the trends; and use more of their arts, crafts, and native raw and refined materials to create remarkable projects.”
Kasabor Bistro in Macarascas village, Puerto Princesa City is one project that Bulan believes reflects ethnicity, sustainability and balance. Located on the ground floor of a spacious two-story, mixed-use building covering over 400 square meters, Kasabor Bistro offers guests a fine dining experience and bar, as well as the modern Palawan vibe Bulan speaks of.
To honor the province’s rich cultural heritage, the design team behind the bistro incorporated locally sourced rattan finishes — intricate elements that Bulan said “not only add a touch of authenticity to the space, but also celebrate the craftsmanship of local artisans.”
“Each rattan detail tells a story, showcasing the artistic prowess of the talented individuals who bring the island’s heritage to life,” he said.
Another BLN project is Aloha Cabins on Santol Road in Puerto Princesa, which reflects Bulan’s love of bamboo. He said its design showcased the resilient spirit of the plant, a sustainable resource deeply rooted in Palawan’s heritage.
“The structures mirror the sinuous elegance of nature, with intricate bamboo weaves and captivating organic shapes,” he added.
A third project, the Linapacan Beach Houses, features floor-to-ceiling windows that frame jaw-dropping and panoramic views of the sea, which the architect said allowed residents to immerse themselves in Linapacan island’s natural wonders.
The beach houses, he added, are conceived as modern sanctuaries that integrate cutting-edge architecture with the island’s inherent charm. The design features clean lines, open spaces and sleek materials.
“These houses encapsulate the essence of contemporary living, inviting residents to indulge in the best of both worlds. Our inspiration draws from the rhythmic dance of the ocean waves, the vibrant hues of the coral reefs, and the serenity of Linapacan’s beaches,” Bulan said.
Clearly, Bulan has accomplished a lot in his eight years in the industry. This did not escape the notice of the 2023 United Architects of the Philippines Dubai Design Awards, which recognized Bulan last June as its “Young Global Filipino Architect” for the year, citing his exceptional promise and innovative ideas.
The architect credits all his success to the support of his family, and is determined to do more for his home province.
“This recognition fuels my commitment to further elevate the Explovation++ initiative, bridging the realms of tourism stakeholders and the untapped potential of budding craftsman designers,” Bulan said. “It’s time to push the boundaries of bamboo and vernacular architecture, taking them to new heights that resonate harmoniously with Palawan’s scenic beauty.”
“The province is on the brink of a revival, a chance to reimagine tourism by crafting a one-of-a-kind experience that showcases a fresh perspective and a distinct style, eagerly awaiting our visitors,” he added.