Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

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Dec 15th
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The Quality Control Team

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The 649-unit Tzu Chi Great Love Village in the village of Siribopura, Hambantota, Sri Lanka, was built in eight months, and the phase two facilities were completed in just 14. That kind of tight construction calendar on a large project like this was challenging enough even for local builders. But the project's quality assurance team, based in Taiwan, took the challenge in stride even though they knew little about the local customs and laws and nothing about the local languages.

While on the construction site checking on the quality of work, the Tzu Chi construction commissioners seemed to forget nothing. Not a stone was left unturned. But they always seemed to forget to take a break. They walked here and there, looking up, down, and sideways for signs of good workmanship or a lack thereof. Although a language barrier existed between them and the workers, they made sure no detail was left untended even though that meant they had to use a lot of body language and hand gestures to get their point across.

In a little over two years, they had made more than 20 trips from Taiwan to Siribopura--all part of their volunteer work on the quality assurance team for the Tzu Chi aid project in Siribopura.

All Tzu Chi sponsored buildings must pass the strictest quality inspections by the builder, the architectural firm that designed the building, the staff at the Construction Department of the Tzu Chi Foundation, and finally the Tzu Chi construction commissioners, who ensure that substandard materials and workmanship are kept out of any Tzu Chi project.

Wang Ming-de (王明德), 64, has worked diligently on many Tzu Chi buildings, such as the Hualien Tzu Chi Medical Center, Tzu Chi hospitals in Yuli and Guanshan in eastern Taiwan, Tzu Chi University, the Tzu Chi College of Technology, and various Tzu Chi chapter offices throughout Taiwan. His professionalism and dedication made him a Tzu Chi construction commissioner.

Wang takes time out from his family and work almost every week or two and goes to inspect some new Tzu Chi project somewhere. He seems to put the foundation's work ahead of his own. "It's okay for me to put off my own business a little if that will help me keep Tzu Chi's work on track."

Zeng Liang-yuan (曾梁源) is a good friend of Wang's. He had observed Wang cheerfully volunteering for Tzu Chi for years before he himself joined in. They are now close associates in their private businesses as well as in the work of Tzu Chi. "We have worked hard for four decades to accumulate tangible assets," Zeng observed. "It's high time we amass spiritual merits by doing charity work."

In July 2005, Wang and Zeng, along with Lin Zhong-chi (林仲篪), Chen Jin-fa (陳金發), and Zhu Zhang-lin (朱章麟), all Tzu Chi construction commissioners based in Taiwan, formed a team that traveled to and from Sri Lanka to inspect the construction project going on there. They would normally travel to the construction site from Taiwan once every three or four weeks and stay for five or six days as needed. Once on site, they worked almost nonstop checking on the project's progress and quality, brainstorming for solutions to issues that invariably popped up, and making suggestions to improve on the project.

It was an arduous journey to travel from Taiwan to Sri Lanka. They typically flew from Taiwan to either Bangkok or Singapore and changed flights to Colombo. It was often past midnight when they arrived in Colombo, and it would be another hour before they could get to the hotel. Then they would board a bus at seven in the morning for Hambantota. The bus ride was about seven hours, making it almost two full days just to get to the construction site from Taiwan. At times they even skipped the hotel stay and went directly south in the wee hours of the night. Driving on the sometimes treacherous mountain roads in darkness was quite a challenge.

They did all this, trip after trip, with all expenses paid--by themselves. (Tzu Chi volunteers always pay their own travel and lodging expenses when they engage in charitable or disaster relief projects.) Though they were all over 60 years old, they did not slow down a bit, and they did it all cheerfully.

Professionally speaking
Under their watchful eyes, the sizeable, 649-family Village was brought from design through bidding, negotiations, contract, construction, to completion in eight short months. Likewise, the second phase took just 14 months.

Their expertise and mindfulness brought simplified construction processes, improved materials and quality, and lower costs to the project. One example was the roof of the classroom building. "According to the original design, it was to be a double-layered sloping roof with vents on top," said Wang. "We changed it to single layer and moved the vents to the walls. When all the vents are opened, the ventilation in the building is quite good. And we shaved 38 million Taiwanese dollars [US$1.2 million] off the project cost."

Zeng added, "What we received from the local government was a large plot of natural woodland. We intentionally kept artificial decorative objects to the minimum." This reduced resource consumption and lowered the cost at the same time. "We let the buildings speak for themselves," Zeng explained. "After all, buildings are works of art, aren't they?"

Under the pressure of placing the tsunami survivors in their permanent homes as soon as possible, construction work on the Village was awarded to three builders for concurrent building. That indeed sped up the project's completion. In phase two, however, Tzu Chi decided to start afresh in the selection of a builder. "We briefed the nation's top five construction firms in turn about the aid project that Tzu Chi was undertaking in their country. ICC [International Construction Consortium Ltd.] came into the picture as a result of this search," Wang said.

P. G. S. Piyatunga, project manager for ICC, had over 16 years of building experience. Tzu Chi National School was the third school that he had helped build; the first two were both in Colombo. This engagement gave him a firsthand view of what "quality" meant in the Tzu Chi world. "The quality of this school is higher than that of other schools, public or private," Piyatunga said. "For example, only high-grade materials were used for the floors, doors, lighting, paint, and polish."

"Furthermore, Tzu Chi buildings are structurally very strong," he continued. "A lot of steel rebar went into the buildings. I have no doubt that these buildings will make wonderful shelters in a natural disaster."  He said that builders in Colombo had even started to learn from Tzu Chi by incorporating the function of disaster sheltering into the design of new buildings.

As a construction professional, Piyatunga admired the friendliness and professionalism of the Tzu Chi volunteers that he had worked with. This project gave him a brand-new experience. Furthermore, as a Sri Lankan, he appreciated the help Tzu Chi had extended to his country. "The Great Love Village and Tzu Chi National School are terrific gifts to us. You have come from so far away to give us assistance. It is incumbent on us local folks to do our best for the project. It has been a pleasure working with you," he concluded.

Getting involved
"We can build a wrought iron fence around the tank sitting on top of the building. On the side of the fence, put a Tzu Chi logo and spotlight it. People will be able to see it from four kilometers [2.5 miles] away."

Walking through the construction site, Wang said, "In my own business, my staff manages and is responsible for each of the company's projects. I tend to be much less involved at a nuts and bolts level. But Tzu Chi projects are a whole different ballgame. I get involved in every step of the work. That's why I always remember every detail."

In a country so far from Taiwan, almost everything was new and strange to Wang and the other Tzu Chi volunteers. The land, the weather, the laws, the customs, the way people worked, and, perhaps most of all, the language were all different. To this, Zeng said, "Those obstacles can be overcome as long as we get familiar with their construction practices and their work ethic." The more Zeng volunteers, the more joy he derives from it and the more he learns. "It is just a bit hot here, and the food and lodging take a little getting used to. Other than that everything is just fine."

Experience reused
"Master Cheng Yen encourages folks like us who are over 60 to contribute our time and experience," said Wang, explaining his enthusiasm at participating in Tzu Chi projects. His volunteer work has so far taken him to China, Thailand, and now Sri Lanka.

Echoing Wang's comment, Zeng chimed in: "I am most grateful for this opportunity to work on Tzu Chi's Hambantota project, which means so much to so many tsunami survivors. This village and projects like it are probably the only things [that I have been associated with] that will remain after I die."

By Qiu Shu-juan
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photographs by Lin Yan-huang
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Spring 2008

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" Bodhisattvas are not idols made of wood; real Bodhisattvas are people who eat, talk, work, and relieve suffering in times of need. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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