By Tracy L. Barnett
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on bioconstruction, or natural building initiatives, in post-earthquake Mexico.
When the earthquake struck the adobe-rich town of Hueyápan in the foothills of Volcano Popocatepetl, a circle of mourners surrounded their dearly departed in the colonial-era Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. When the ground began to tremble beneath their feet, they made for the door – and just in time, as the nearly 500-year-old dome came crashing down around the dead man.
No one died in the earthquake here, the townspeople will tell you, but this moment will forever be seared into their memories. Never in half a millennia had the tremors that occasionally ripple through the region produced as much as a crack in the rock-solid Templo Santo Domingo. But this quake was different. More than 400 families in this little town alone were left homeless, and a millennial tradition of adobe homes was in danger of eradication.
A timely intervention on the part of natural building advocates has been aimed at countering anti-adobe propaganda and reinforcing the local love of adobe. At the same time that bioarchitect Peter Van Lengen was across town teaching 100 people how to make adobe (Fighting Adobicide in post-earthquake Mexico) and José Rosas was down the road in Tetela del Volcan teaching people to build with pallets and cob, a different team was facilitating the creation of a communal adobe factory – and with it, rebuilding community and ancestral traditions.
Artist and permaculturist Ivan Cazenave and filmmaker Sebastian Hoffman from Tepoztlán responded to the call for volunteers the day after the earthquake and had been collaborating with emergency relief since Day 2 in Hueyápan, As they made their way down a street looking for a place to help, they ran across a group of volunteers removing the rubble from a collapsed house and asked if they needed help. That’s how they met Luis Miguel Espinosa and began collaborating with the San Felipe neighborhood tequio, or shared work group. Together the neighborhood members and volunteer brigades set up a community help center called Amor Chiquito and began constructing more emergency shelters.
While Cazenave is not a builder in a professional sense, he knows his bioconstruction techniques. As a member of an ecovillage under construction near Tepoztlán where he helps coordinate development, Cazenave has been studying and practicing natural building techniques, including adobe, for several years.
He was also clear about the need to encourage autonomy and independence in order to make more resilient communities – something that is becoming increasingly essential in an era of climate change and shifting tectonic plates. It occurred to him after observing the situation for awhile that what was needed here was a good supply of adobe and technical assistance in restoring and rebuilding their homes.
So now he’s working together with Hoffman, Amor Chiquito, Espinosa and about 20 other families in the neighborhood to organize a collectively owned adobe factory.
“What we’re trying to do is accompany these families in the formation of a method that helps them organize themselves – for example, so that there is a direct relationship between the number of hours they work and the number of adobes they receive in exchange – and so that they all agree on the commitments and rules and what will happen in case of noncompliance,” he said. “Our goal is to help them organize it, and then it will be theirs.”
The idea is to create an “open-source” model based on principles learned from cooperatives, the traditional Mexican tequios and tandas, and other systems of collaboration. “We want it to be really simple, really easy to apply, and easy to replicate in other places,” said Cazenave.
For the most basic adobe factory, all you need is a big piece of flat land to dry the adobes; a waterproof roof or covering to keep them dry in the rain; and a source of good soil, water and straw. A mixer – either gas-powered or horse-drawn – is often used as well, but in the best case, the masa is mixed with human feet, say Cazenave and Van Lengen.
“It’s just like a loaf of bread made by a machine, and a loaf made by hand,” he explained. “When you mix it with your own feet and hands, something happens that is completely different from when it’s with a machine. The energetic aspect comes into it; feet and hands are warm, the machine is cold; dancing in the earth transmits warmth, and energetically, it works in a whole different way.”
The San Felipe/Amor Chiquito group is almost ready to launch the project, he said.
“We have the land, we have the water, we have an easement to bring the water and we have a container for mixing the materials. We are asking people whose houses have fallen that they don’t throw away the materials,” he said. “One of the great things about building with earth is that this material is eternal…. So if a piece of your home falls, you can just soak it in water, dissolve it, and form it again, either as an adobe or in one of the other earth-based construction techniques.”
Tragically, work brigades throughout the earthquake zones were quick to clear the rubble – adobe as well as cement and other kinds of trash and debris – and dump it into nearby canyons and rivers, creating an environmental catastrophe on top of the human one.
One of the most important things that first-responder bioconstruction advocates have done throughout the country is impress upon the residents the importance of recovering materials – adobe, brick, wooden beams, tiles, and many other materials can be reused to restore at least a portion of the original home, which takes longer but preserves the quality and something of a connection with the past, rather than the hastily constructed cement houses that are taking their place.
“Instead of dumping this material into the canyons and the rivers, we’re saying, save your adobes, because they’re gold – that is what you will use to rebuild your home,” said Cazenave. And besides building their homes, they are building skills and resilience, he added, echoing Santos’ point.
“If someone has a problem and someone else takes charge of the problem, you’re not really solving your problem,” he said. “What has to happen is that we need to support people in solving their own problem. Government paternalism can solve it I the short run, and it may seem like a benefit in the beginning but it’s not sustainable.
“We need to set up these adobe factories so they are sustainable; and after their houses are built, these factories continue functioning so they can sell the adobes and it can be a source of income. If we just donate the adobes these families will depend on those donations. It would be comparable to the government giving you bags of corn – if you grow your own corn, a bomb could fall in the middle of the city and you would be unaffected. When the individual cells have more independence, you have greater resilience.”
At the time of my visit the group had invited bioarchitect Lourdes Malvido Alvarez to visit and help them lay the groundwork by doing soil tests and diagnosing the problems with some of the local earthquake-damaged homes. Most of the problems she saw in her walkabout came down to three main problems, Malvido Alvarez said: The house lacked a proper foundation, it had not been well maintained, or it had been mixed with cement elements like columns or roofs that don’t work well with adobe at the moment of a quake. She recommended reinforcing the cracked homes with steel belts or wooden beams.
Malvido Alvarez echoed the sentiments of Van Lengen with regard to adobe, also one of her building materials of choice.
“Adobe is an ancestral technique that has been tested over centuries by trial and error – which is why we have to keep improving it. Here we had an earthquake that was so strong that the grandfathers say their grandfathers never saw an earthquake so strong,” said Malvido. “What’s interesting is that there are houses here of two stories with their original tile roofs that have been able to withstand this intense quake. What needs to be done now is to go back and teach the people again how to do what their grandparents knew how to do: how to build an adobe house properly, and how to care for it like our third skin.”
Building community from the rubble
To Luis Miguel Espinosa, coordinator of the neighborhood volunteer group, the organization of this group has brought sweet and unexpected rewards. His own house was shattered by the quake, but since a part of it remained safe and solid, his family is able to make do while he and his neighbors respond to the urgencies of other families who are more in need than they are.
“It feels good to be able to help, and I think really it’s what’s helped me – and all of us – to heal from this tragedy and move ahead,” he shared one morning over breakfast at Amor Chiquito, the hub of activity in Hueyápan’s San Felipe neighborhood, where Rogelio Estrada and his wife Maura have opened their home to traveling brigadistas, volunteer work brigades, from all over Mexico and beyond.
Now with most people having at least a roof over their heads, attention is turning to the adobe factory and the prospect of rebuilding. Luis Miguel and his neighbors are looking forward to rebuilding with adobe, incorporating the anti-seismic techniques they’ve learned from Van Lengen and Malvido.
Espinosa is hopeful that the collective approach they are taking will not only help Hueyápan preserve its architectural culture, but will help recover some of their traditions in other ways, as well.
The tequios, or collective work days, are one way that he sees his neighbors recovering the old ways.
“We are working together like in the old days, like our parents and grandparents did,” he said. “It’s an inheritance that’s been passed down to us, and it’s good to take it back.”