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Fighting ‘adobicide’ in post-earthquake Mexico

By Tracy L. Barnett

Editor’s note: After the earthquakes of Sept. 7 and Sept. 19 in southern and central Mexico, scores of architects, builders, engineers, designers and other experts stepped forward to help. A nascent natural building movement – known as “bioconstruction” or “bioarchitecture” here in the Spanish-speaking South – is pushing back against the dominant cement-and-steel model, seizing the opportunity to rebuild with an architecture that promotes longterm resilience and human, environmental and social wellbeing. The Esperanza Project took a trip to the earthquake zone to learn about a few of those initiatives.

Among the casualties of the September earthquakes in Mexico are thousands of antique adobe homes and the millennial architectural heritage they represent. A week after the quake, Architect Peter Van Lengen, the son of “Barefoot Architect” Johan Van Lengen, arrived in the town of Hueyápan, a Nahuatl-speaking town in the foothills of Volcano Popcatepetl, known for its rich arquitectural heritage of multi-story adobe buildings that date back more than a hundred years.

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Peter Van Lengen addresses more than 100 participants in an adobe-making workshop in Hueyápan in October. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

Van Lengen, an architect specializing in natural building techniques or “bioarchitecture,” as it’s called in the South, grew up in Mexico City and returned to Mexico several years ago after working with his father at their Intuitive Technology and BioArchitecture Institute in Brazil. After the earthquake he began looking for a way to pitch in with relief efforts, and he learned about Hueyápan. What better place to contribute his skills as a natural building specialist, he thought, than rescuing the classic structures in this beautiful town, known as an architectural tourism destination for its many unusual adobe structures. And what better way to carry on the heritage of his father, whose classic book, The Barefoot Architect: A Handbook for Green Building, has become something of a bible for DIY homebuilders throughout the Americas.

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Thousands of adobe houses were destroyed by the natural disaster and a human-made disaster that followed. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

When he arrived, however, he was appalled to see many of those homes being torn down and bulldozed away. “It was a clear case of adobicide,” he declared. “It’s a form of racism against adobe, just like the genocide of indigenous culture. So much patrimony was destroyed in those three weeks after the earthquake.”

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Hueyápan is home to an unusual narrow two-story design of adobe that dates back more than a hundred years. Only a few examples remain. (Courtesy photo)

Adobe has already suffered a serious decline in recent decades throughout Mexico with the advent and promotion of the cement industry. Younger generations often dismiss the time-honored material as they do other traditions, as old-fashioned and lacking in modern convenience. That stigma has promoted a profusion of buildings that are toxic to the environment and to the people who live in them, and that are lacking in the basic comfort factor that adobe provides because of its thermal mass. Adobe houses remain cozy in the winter and fresh in the summer, unlike cement. And the materials they are made from – earth, straw and a bit of animal manure – are practically free.

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Hueyápan residents in their traditional shawls walk past the rubble that was once an adobe house. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

The earthquake only served to strengthen the stigma against adobe, however. In the days after the first earthquake on Sept. 7 that devastated much of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco in Southern Mexico, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto blamed the high number of destroyed homes “above all, to the fact that they were built with adobe.” Van Lengen, like hundreds of bioarchitects and natural building supporters around the country, was outraged at the presidential statement. “Basically he lied, saying that everything that fell was adobe,” said Van Lengen. “But the adobe houses that fell, fell because they had a structural problem – for example, they mixed adobe and cement, which dance differently and end up beating each other up – or they were poorly maintained.” Cooperación Comunitaria, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting social housing projects for working-class people, decried the pronouncement as “unacceptable” and based on false information. The ability to resist a seismic event has more to do with the structural integrity of the building and the maintenance that it receives than the type of material that is used, the organization stated in its open letter published widely throughout the country.

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Hueyápan’s adobe municipal building lost several front arches but the building itself is structurally intact and can be repaired. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

Many adobe structures of more than 100 years survived the quake, the authors pointed out, while thousands of buildings made with industrial materials like cement were reduced to rubble – for example, the 1,145 schools destroyed in the first earthquake alone. In addition, they argued, anti-seismic techniques for adobe and other traditional constructions have been promoted in Chile, Peru and other countries, and should be promoted in Mexico, as well, instead of lower-quality cement.

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Don Sergio, now in his 80s, owns one of the few remaining traditional two-story homes in Hueyápan. Tibá is working with him to repair the earthquake damage. (Tracy L. Barnett photo).

When Van Lengen’s team at Tibá’s Mexican office realized what was happening, they quickly began reaching out to community leaders and neighbors in Hueyápan to let them know their adobe homes could be repaired or, in the more severely damaged cases, the bricks could be recycled into new ones at practically no cost, incorporating anti-seismic techniques. 22467397_1667027293367883_503892998074312351_oOn Oct. 20-21, with only a week of publicity on Facebook, Van Lengen and his team held an adobe-making workshop in the village and were pleasantly shocked by the attendance of more than 100 people, showing the popular demand for learning and applying adobe construction techniques in the reconstruction taking place throughout the region. “I had no idea what to expect,” said Van Lengen. “I thought maybe a dozen people would show up. But we had more than 140 people sign up from all over the region, with all different levels of experience, ready to learn.”

Adobe workshop participants enjoyed rolling up their sleeves - and their pants - and having a hands-on encounter with adobe. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)
Adobe workshop participants enjoyed rolling up their sleeves – and their pants – and having a hands-on encounter with adobe. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

For Van Lengen, adobe is a health issue. He relates the rise in cancer and other diseases to the toxic environments we are creating as a society, including the building industry. “I’ve been concerned about healthy homes… And if you want a healthy home, it’s got to be adobe. Case closed. Because adobe just wins out over any other material.” Offering a free workshop was a way to generate interest, and to clarify the doubts people had about adobe following the earthquake. “I’m just really happy we had so many people who were very excited. We managed to create hope, and we managed to turn the tortilla, as we say here; we managed to get people back on the adobe train. Because there was so much doubt: Was it the adobe’s fault, or not? And that was really what we clarified, that it wasn’t the adobe’s fault. That there’s a way out of this, and at the end of the day it’s about building a sustainable home, a healthy home.”

Diego Tort demonstrates for students how to make a wall from adobe bricks.
Diego Tort demonstrates for students how to make a wall from adobe bricks. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

To Diego Tort, a bioconstructor from Mexico City who joined Tibá’s team after studying at the institute in Brazil, it’s been a rewarding experience to work with people who have a tradition of adobe. “I know that adobe is making a comeback among people of a higher economic strata – people who are looking at its affects on health, or maybe they’ve traveled to India or Africa and seen the value of these types of structures, or they have the means to involve themselves in the building of their own home, and they understand that adobe is just a better-quality material,” said Tort.

Dozens of adobe novices shed their shoes to help knead the "masa" to make adobe bricks. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)
Dozens of adobe novices shed their shoes to help knead the “masa” to make adobe bricks. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

“But for people of tradition to want to return to their roots and the ways of their elders and their stories and their memories – instead of letting themselves be deceived by marketing and the telenova image with the pretty house – it’s a pattern that’s hard to break.”

Elvira Hernández Escobar, 76, was building her adobe house when the earthquake came and knocked down part of it. She came to Van Lengen's workshop to learn more about adobe construction and ask for help. (Photo courtesy Tibá)
Elvira Hernández Escobar, 76, was building her adobe house when the earthquake came and knocked down part of it. She came to Van Lengen’s workshop to learn more about adobe construction and ask for help. (Photo courtesy Tibá)

When he begins talking with people in the village about their houses, they often say, “I really liked the house I had before better than the one I have now. But the adobe houses fell in the earthquake.” When he points out to them the cement buildings down the street that fell, and tells them about the anti-seismic techniques that are available with adobe, they often say, “Well, yes, I’d really prefer to have adobe.” “We’re in a moment with the potential to return the confidence for this material that it once had,” he said. “It’s a sensitive moment, so we need to do the work with sensitivity and care that’s necessary.” Tibá is currently raising money to restore several adobe houses in Hueyápan, including an iconic two-story house that dates back to before the Mexican Revolution. Take a look at their video to see their proposal and a little bit of Hueyápan.

Bioreconstruyamos Hueyapan, Morelos

TIBÁ México agradece cualquier aportación al proyecto. Nuestros alcances dependen en gran medida de tu apoyo. Cada aportación es importante para reconstruir el hogar de más familias. NOMBRE: EL CENTRO DE LAS ARTES CONTEMPORÁNEAS DE SAN MIGUEL A.C. BANCO: BANORTE, Banco Mercantil del Norte NUMERO DE CUENTA: 0608693062 CLABE: 072240006086930627 SWIFT CODE: MENOMXMTXXX Bancos intermediarios: (opción Dólares americanos) Bank of America Concord, CA. Swift BOFAUS6SXXX ABA 026009593 Standard Chartered Bank New York, NY. Swift SCBLUS33XXX ABA 026002561 Wells Fargo Bank New York, NY. Swift PNBPUS33XXX ABA 026005092 www.tibarose.com Posted by TIBÁ on Tuesday, October 17, 2017