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Bio-Reconstructing Mexico: Toward an Architecture for Life

By Tracy L. Barnett
For ArchDaily.com

Editor’s note: After the earthquakes of Sept. 7 and Sept. 19 in southern and central Mexico, a nascent natural building movement – known as “bioconstruction” or “bioarchitecture” here in the Spanish-speaking South – has stepped forward, seizing the opportunity to rebuild with an architecture that promotes long-term resilience and human, environmental and social wellbeing. This article is part of a series featuring a few of those initiatives.

In the days after the earthquake that brought reality crashing down for millions throughout central Mexico, Huerto Roma Verde, the community garden and green gathering space at the heart of one of the most stricken sectors of the city, was transformed into a major hub for emergency relief. With the help of more than 5,000 volunteers who arrived to lend a hand. Roma Verde became a civilian-organized shelter, community kitchen, aid distribution center and much more, offering a space for rescue workers, medics, attorneys, psychologists, chefs, bicycle and motorcycle brigades and professionals of all kinds to offer their services to a traumatized public.

In the ferment that arose in the round-the-clock disaster response, a vision evolved of a sustainable society arising from the rubble. By the third day, recalls Arnold Ricalde of Cuatro al Cubo, a network of environmental organizations connected with Roma Verde, immediate needs were being covered and it was time to look forward to a sustainable reconstruction.

Bio-Reconstruye Mexico,” they called it, a reconstruction initiative based on the Spanish word for natural building techniques – bioconstruction, an architecture of life.

At a time when the government is lining up contracts with major construction companies to demolish en masse and build standardized cement houses, this nascent movement is seizing the chance to rebuild according to a different model— one based on bamboo, earth, wood, and ecological design principals that have been employed in ecovillages and indigenous communities around the world. Rather than bulldozing away the rubble, care is being taken to reuse materials where possible. And rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all development plan, these teams work with the community in stages to rebuild together in a way that’s consistent with local culture, history and values.

Acmed de los Santos of CASA (Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas, another of the interconnected networks involved) put out a call on Facebook on behalf of the group, calling for architects, engineers, volunteers, anyone who shared a knowledge of natural building techniques and an interest in putting those skills to work in the aftermath of the disaster.

© Osiris Luciano

© Osiris Luciano

In the first five hours, 80 people responded. “It grew very quickly, and I realized we needed to be organized,” said Santos, whose nonprofit organization in Hidalgo, OmniUnity AC, promotes permaculture and ancestrally inspired regenerative development models. They created an online Google spreadsheet where people could enter their skills and availability. Within the first five days, 350 had signed up. And a month after Santos’ post, more than 650 bioconstruction enthusiasts have joined the network, from architects and natural builders to designers, marketing specialists, activists and others who want to support the movement.

This was in addition to more than 5,000 volunteers who had signed up at Huerto Roma Verde, and a whole network of environmental groups that form Cuatro al Cubo.

“This is an opportunity to rebuild in a way that’s smarter, more efficient, more resistant, more inclusive, and more environmentally inclined,” said Santos. “For many architects, engineers, and people training in learning different techniques to create sustainable energy, rainwater harvesting, ecological designs — it is the moment to put together these efforts. This is the moment we can change the history of our country and take a step towards changing it for the whole of humanity.”

In the intervening weeks, members of this network have responded in nearly 40 communities in the five most affected states and Mexico City with site visits, workshops and other interventions.  They have teams on the ground in 12 different communities, where they have been working with local residents and citizen brigades to identify and respond to immediate needs – emergency shelters, water filters, and composting toilets, for example – and are now preparing to move into a more longterm phase, soliciting funds from international donors.

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© Osiris Luciano

“We’re not just talking about building walls – we’re talking about building sustainable communities,” Santos emphasized. It’s about rebuilding the fabric of communities that were already weakened by economic and social forces, but desperately traumatized by the earthquake and subsequent homelessness.

“The idea is to arrive with a multidisciplinary brigade of health care workers, architects, builders, permaculturists, psychologists, people who care for children… and to work with the community on the aspects that are less visible, as well,” said Santos.

“We do a sensitization process with the community, using sharing circles, working with emotions, everything this tragedy has encompassed for them.  We listen, we see, we coexist, we smile, we embrace, we make a structural analysis about the potential of the community. And we’re seeing what we can do to improve the conditions before the earthquake. We have the opportunity to strengthen ourselves, to create resilience.”

For Ricalde, the point is to channel the energy from the emergency response into a permanent network working on behalf of sustainable development, furthering the work of Roma Verde, CASA, Cuatro al Cubo and others. Now that the urgency has subsided and the volunteers have gone home, he and others are approaching national and international foundations to fund ongoing initiatives in the earthquake zones.

“This is the vision: To unite the different networks who have a vision of sustainable communities, a vision of eco-techniques, a vision of social integration, a vision of alternative health,” said Ricalde. “And the more resources we have, the more we can do.”

In El Platanar, Puebla

© Osiris Luciano

© Osiris Luciano

One of the first places BioReconstrye has intervened is the tiny agricultural village of El Platanar. The village was nearly destroyed in the quake, with scores left homeless. The town is so remote that it has no phone signal, no internet and no bus service. Since the quake, the government has only arrived to take a census.

Natural builder Ruben Coxca, a native of northern Puebla state, was able to procure a sizeable donation of bamboo from the Northern Puebla Ranchers’ Union. Together with Mexico City-based architect Elias Cattan of Taller 13, designer Luisa Correa of Roma Verde and engineer Julio Cesar Constantino, he set to work with a team of volunteers and local residents to build emergency refuges for about 15 people using the bamboo.

The A-frame design with a loft for sleeping space was an immediate hit with local residents, said Coxca. El Platanar had never seen a two-story building, or a building with a loft.  And although bamboo constructions are traditional in the north of Puebla, in the southern part of the state it is not common.

© Osiris Luciano

© Osiris Luciano

“Everyone wanted one – even people from neighboring villages were dropping by and saying, ‘I’d like one of those for my restaurant,’ or ‘I want to build one of those by my lake to make a cabin.’”

Working with the bamboo was a first, as well, and residents were taken with its flexibility and strength. Still traumatized by the earthquake, they were able to overcome their fears in the process; by the end, grown men were clambering up into the lofts with glee.

Now that everyone in the town has at least a temporary place to stay, the farmers have gone to work on the harvest, and Coxca has set himself the task of a different sort of harvest: Working with the BioReconstruye Mexico team to manifest the community’s dreams.

One goal is to build a community center, which will incorporate eco-techniques such as composting toilets, graywater treatment, an organic garden and solar power. An internet signal for the community seems within reach, said Coxsa, as they are in talks with interested donors to get the necessary equipment, and speaking with other companies for the donation of computers. Currently in all of Platanar, only one resident owns a computer.

A second goal would help stem the tide of migration from the community after the harvest, when most of the young men have to go to the city to work. Coxca hopes to raise enough money to hire six to eight of the most capable and enthusiastic young men to form a local team of builders.

“The vision is to have a team of bioconstruction ambassadors,” said Coxca. The group hopes to promote more cultivation and construction of bamboo throughout the region. Bamboo is a material with many economic as well as ecological advantages, he explained. It grows to maturity in four to six years, as opposed to trees, which take 25 to 50 years to be ready for harvest for construction. And every part of the plant is useful, from the trunk to the stems to the leaves. The plant produces 35 percent more oxygen and absorbs 40 percent more carbon than trees, according to the site Greenbuilder.org, and the network of roots that the plant produces stores twice as much water as tree roots, and helps control soil erosion. It is more resistant than oak and stronger than steel, according to the website.

The third and perhaps most important goal is to save the river that flows through El Platanar. Unlike most rivers in Mexico, this one is clean and filled with fish. Keeping it that way could be challenging with all the construction about to be underway – especially in the case of a construction company from Monterrey that has plans to come in and donate 15 houses made in the conventional way, with cement and steel.

“We’re looking at different ways that this can be done, including installing biodigestors, for example,” he said. “It’s easier in our own constructions but we will have to see about the others – it’s wonderful that they are building, but we need to try to have an agreement that we can build in a way that respects the water.”

Looking ahead

© Osiris Luciano

© Osiris Luciano

Besides the project in El Platanar, BioReconstruye Mexico is pitching an ambitious plan to build a community center and long-term sustainable housing in three additional communities: San Gregorio in Xochimilco, Mexico City; Ocuilán, in Mexico State; and Hueyápan, Morelos state (see: Rebuilding tradition in Hueyápan).

Permaculture and ecovillage designer Odin Ruz of Organi-K, one of the organizations affiliated with Roma Verde, emphasized the need to work closely with local communities to make sure that any new buildings endeavor to preserve the cultural identity of the place.

“What this kind of phenomenon should give us at the end of the day is people waking up in the new reality that’s better than what they left behind, and they don’t lose their cultural identity in the process,” he said. “Translated to construction, that would mean when the house gets rebuilt they preserve the order and the cosmology of the house.”

For example, many homes in Mexico include an outdoor kitchen; if that’s what the family prefers, the kitchen in the new home should stay outside. If they had small windows, the windows stay small.

“We don’t want to come as ecobuilders to change the environment,” said Ruz. “What you want at the end of the day is that once it gets rebuilt they wake up in a known world; it’s preserving the basic layout but they’re waking up in a better reality because now they have better water catchment, better treatment of greywater and blackwater, productive permaculture gardens, maybe a solar panel.”

What’s happening in many places, Ruz says, is that people are forced to take whatever the government gives them. Many of them will end up looking back after the earthquake and saying, “Oh, after that we had to live in that horrible grey little house with the metal roof built by the government where I always get sick, with the kitchen inside, and I never liked that.”

Instead, he said, Bio-Reconstruye Mexico wants to help communities use the earthquake as a catalyst to a better life – one in which people look back at the earthquake and say, “Yes, it was difficult, but boom! We woke up in a better position. We didn’t lose our cultural identity and the way we want to live, but we have upgraded our ecological system that gives us more congruency to Mother Earth.”

For more information about BioReconstruye México and to find out how you can support this initiative, see their website, http://www.bioreconstruye.mx, and/or their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/BioreconstruyeMX.

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© Osiris Luciano