Island building

Recently I had the good fortune to visit a small island off the coast of El Salvador. The island, called “Isle de Meangueara”, can only be reached by taking a small lancha (boat) from the port town of La Union on the mainland. Everything the island uses arrives like this: food, drinking water, clothes, building materials. This is not surprising for islands, but what is surprising is the lengths they must go through to get these essential supplies.

There is no dock in La Union. The lanchas float in the shallow bay, and to get to them you must take off your shoes and wade out. All the supplies must be brought out this way, too. As I sat in the lancha waiting to leave, I observed a dozen men bringing out boxes and sacks on their shoulders full of supplies. They each made several trips, carrying heavy loads.

There was also a little floating cart that could be used to bring out heaver items. As I watched, men brought bags filled with sand to the lancha, 30 in all, each weighing well over 100 pounds. Then they brought 10 bags of Portland cement, again at over 100 lbs each. On a neighboring lancha they loaded several hundred cement blocks in a similar manner. All these building materials would then of course have to be unloaded on the other side.

These lanchas were not designed for freight. They more resemble a speed-boat than a barge, and are primarily used by the locals as fishing boats. They have high sides, so everything has to be lifted up and over. It is hard to describe just how much work went into getting these incredibly heavy materials onto the boat, and then off it again!

On the journey to the island I met two men who worked for a government agency responsible for building housing for the poor. They were currently involved in a project to build 40 houses on the island for people who currently had none. The recipients of the houses were required to help during the construction of the houses, and afterwords they would receive one to live in at no cost. The manager of the project, Walter, invited me to watch them unload the boat that was bringing materials later in the day.

This large-scale government project had a bit more money and a bit more clout, so they were able to hire a large barge to bring over nearly 1800 concrete blocks. (Interestingly the boat was an old World War II troop transport boat, the kind used during the invasion at Normandy.) It arrived at about 3 pm and the “beneficiarios” (families who were helping and would receive houses) were there to meet it. Each block had to be carried off the boat and stacked on the pier by hand. There were about 30 or 40 people helping, including young kids, mothers, fathers, and old men. They would each carry a different amount of blocks depending on their size and strength. Eventually people started dropping off for longer and longer breaks. I wondered if others were getting frustrated, feeling like not everyone was doing their fair share. The work continued on this way for at least an hour, and they were not even half way through the pile. I finally left, feeling pretty guilty that I hadn’t helped move 1 block.

Later that evening I ran into the group of helpers carrying blocks from the dock up the hill and into the village. There were only two cars on the island and apparently neither was available to help! It was at least 1/2 mile walk, most of it uphill. I don’t know if they planned to carry all the blocks that way, but if they did it would take days simply to get the materials to the building sites.

I visited one of the houses they were building. It was very small and square, probably about 150 sq ft, with a door and a couple of windows. It was entirely made of concrete, with a metal roof. From my perspective it seemed like an unpleasant place to live, more like a prison cell than a home. But the beneficarios seemed quite happy, and were obviously willing to do a huge amount of work to have one of their own.

I kept trying to think how natural building could help here. Wouldn’t it have been simplier to make adobe bricks out of local soil, assuming it was suitable (I didn’t do any soil tests)? Rocks seemed to be abundant on the island; certainly a skilled mason could have built a stone house? Or couldn’t lighter-weight materials have been brought to the island, like bamboo or even wood?

In situations like these there are so many complex factors that make seemingly simple solutions like these difficult to achieve. One factor is the concern people in this area (and throughout much of Latin America) have about safety: they want a building that no one can break in to. This requires a sturdy structure like concrete and rules out something more light-weight like bamboo or waddle and daub. Of course stone and even adobe or cob would provide this sense of security, but there are other factors in play. One is the common feeling that earth houses are a symbol of poverty. Thus a gift of an earthen house from the Government might not be received with such enthusiasm. Another concern is for seismic activity. All of Central America is seismically active, sometimes with pretty significant shakes. If the government is giving people houses, it wants to be certain that they will not fall down on the recipients. The engineers and architects have knowledge of and confidence in concrete block houses. Even though empirical evidence has shown that earthen houses can also survive strong earthquakes, there simply isn’t the scientific data to back it up.

There may be political factors at play as well. In Mexico, for example, there is a government program to put cement floors in every house in the country (many of the houses in rural areas have earth floors). President Calderon describes this “Firm Floor Program” as follows:

“We are going to make the greatest effort ever in Mexican history to take this step, and to bring people out of the poverty that involves sleeping on a dirt floor, so that they will be able to sleep on a concrete floor where children will at least be protected from disease, dust and scorpions.”

I’m not an expert on the subject, but I don’t know how a concrete floor will protect people from disease and scorpions. It is probably not a coincidence, though, that the cement company Cemex, one of Mexico’s largest companies, is currently struggling what with falling home construction and political problems with one of their plants in Venezuela. The government’s program to give everyone in the country a firm floor is almost certainly intended to help firm up the finances of Cemex, too. It is entirely possible that something similar could be at play in El Salvador.

There are more reasons still why this project on Isle de Meanguera plays out the way it does. In order to build 40 houses in a 6 month time period, they need to be easily replicable and built quickly. Modern industrial building products are well suited to those criteria. And finally, if and when the buildings need maintenance the government agency can be confident that someone on the Island or in nearby La Union will be familiar with concrete construction and could perform any needed repairs.

With so many pressures against a more natural approach, it is hard to imagine a project of this nature happening any other way. But what if it did? What if the government put the resources it is currently using to build the concrete block houses into teaching natural building? Would it not be possible to bring a crew of builders, teach several more on the island how to make adobe bricks or mix cob, and then engage in a massive building project on the scale that they are currently doing?

This approach would have several advantages. First it would be much more environmentally sustainable. The embodied energy of the imported cement-based building products is huge, when you consider first the energy required to make the cement and then the energy required to bring it to the island. Second it would likely be cheaper, at least in the long run. While there might be more up-front costs in training builders, ultimately they would no longer have to bring expensive materials from the mainland. And lastly, it would make the islanders more self-sufficient. With the knowledge of how to make comfortable shelters from the materials under their feet, they would not be reliant on government agencies for housing for the next generation.

The government program is obviously well intentioned, and is providing immediate housing for people who truly need it. But to borrow from a famous expression, give a man a house, and he has shelter until it falls down; teach a man to build a house, and he will have shelter forever. I truly believe that over the long run the people on Isle de Meangueara would benefit more from learning how to use the materials around them to build shelter, rather than relying on the support of the government and the building industry. Will the children of the “beneficiarios” be able to count on government aid to build their houses too? A program focused on using local resources for building would ultimately be less expensive, less energy-intensive, and would give the islanders a chance for long-term independence.