Construction begins

Part Three. The Making of Vil Uyana

Blue Tiger a common butterfly in the area © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Blue Tiger a common butterfly in the area © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
2 MAY 2017
by

In the third part of a four-part article series, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne continues the story of how the London Wetland Centre was emulated in constructing a luxury hotel in Asia. The engineers race against the monsoons.

Before long, steel monsters before which an ancient army would have trembled in awe, were running over the abandoned chena land. They were digging and scooping soil doing in a day what would have taken the ancient engineers weeks of work.

A race was on. Jude and Nadeera Weerasinghe (who thought he was the naturalist before he had Project Management appended to his job description by HR) anxiously walked about carrying long rolls of white engineering drawings and studying the progress. Would man and machine dismember the earth, excavate and create a wetland system anew before the equatorial currents brought in moisture laden clouds which would turn the dry zone into a sheet of water? The fractured, bitty soil of billions of clay particles would turn into a gooey mud and pin down the machines. The race was lost and the monsoon unfurled disgorging a blanket of water riven with lightning and we lost a season of construction.

Back in HQ, Sanjeewa Anthony and his team in Finance re-ran their spreadsheet models and spoke to major shareholders and bankers about further delays on the project: a project which was questionable to them as it was not clear why a luxury hotel developer was engaged in constructing a wetland. 'You'll are doing what?' Hiran was left with the unenviable task of explaining to anxious shareholders and lenders that construction will be delayed and we need more money. Meanwhile Sunela in a long white shirt glistening in the sun and her face in deep shadow under a wide brimmed hat would stride across the dismembered earth airily gesturing with her arms and throwing out ideas. These were not landing well with the HQs engineering team who needed precise drawings and fortunately the contractors and engineering consultants were able to translate these into thin lines of carbon graphite hope on wide sheets of drawing paper.

Recognising the importance that habitat construction of this scale was significant, Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala was engaged to conduct fauna and flora surveys to collect data so that the positive impacts of the work could be measured over time. Prior to this she had worked with Jetwing on the concept of Green Directories which was an internal governance process to introduce standards to minimise environmental impacts as well as to educate staff to inculcate a sense of environmental responsibility. She mustered the team of Jetwing Hotel naturalists and and barked out orders for survey work. Not long ago she was the principal of Ladies College which turns out women with an undisguised sense of authority and the naturalists soon came to learn why that might be.

Another significant development was headed by Kumar Senaratne who was then the Head of Human Resources for Jetwing. He set out an agenda to train and hire local people for as many as possible of the staff positions. This was a bold and risky initiative. The safe and easy option would have been to advertise for staff and recruit experienced personnel. Instead the plan was for certain positions such as the front office to hire people for whom this would be their first job. A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World would now have guests greeted by a first jobber. Phone calls from prospective guests would be answered by someone who at this time did not even speak English. As the sheer insanity of this idea dawned on people, Kumar's response was to soar like a kite on an adverse wind. Hasantha Lokugamage arrived at work one day to find another naturalist has had his job description swiftly amended by HR: he had to help Kumar and his team of training managers from HR who planned ahead like generals mounting a war campaign. Jude's team constructed the staff quarter's first with common areas which became a training school. New recruits began to be taught English and how to lay a table, how to make a bed and how to handle guests, all to the close-at-hand earthquake like murmur of bulldozers churning earth.

Sunela always on the look out to grow her little army of environmentalists, found a group engaged in Rush and Reedbed conservation. Although the jungle tide comes in swiftly in the tropics, nature's reclaim of the soil and water could be helped. They planted reedbeds and accelerated the conversion to a wetland whilst trees were sourced to cast shade on what had been a bleak, arid and destroyed land.

Two staff members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds arrived on separate sabbaticals. I had naively suggested that they come in to add some finishing touches. But given the delays we had experienced one of them, Alan Parker and his wife arrived at the construction site in full flow. This worked out well as Alan suggested that some of the excavated 'waste' soil be heaped into a pile which could form a viewing platform. The end result nicknamed Parker's Peak offers glorious views over the countryside. In the evenings, giant fruit bats, fly past like giant Manta Rays hunting in the amber-lit big skies of Sigiriya.

Read also Part Two. Part Four continues on the 17th of May.