Designing and Building Sustainable ‘Transitional Housing’ in Quito, Ecuador
Catriona McGill (2010, Engineering)
During the summer of 2013, I spent two months in Ecuador. I travelled there with a group of 11 other engineering students from the EcoHouse Initiative, a student society based in the Engineering Department in the University of Cambridge. We spent 8 weeks in Quito working with the Latin-American NGO, ‘Un Techo Para Mi País’ (TECHO), which translates to, ‘A Roof over My Country’.
TECHO works in 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to alleviate poverty and promote social inclusion. 31.4% of people in Latin America live in poverty, 12.3% live in abject poverty and TECHO works tirelessly to aid these people in extreme poverty. The principal way in which TECHO aid the families most in need is to provide them with transitional housing; a basic, wooden house which can be constructed in two days by a group of volunteers. The EcoHouse Initiative acts as a technical consultant for TECHO, giving advice and improvements relating to their technical work. As the Director of the Manufacturing Team within the EcoHouse Initiative, my specific role was to research and improve manufacturing and construction processes, collect data that can only be found in the country and to create contacts within Ecuador to support the work The Initiative will do in the coming academic year.
With these objectives in mind, I left Heathrow on the 1st August on a plane bound for Houston, followed by a plane from Houston to Quito. After spending a day in Quito becoming acclimatised to the time difference and altitude, (Quito is 2800m above sea level – the highest capital city in the world!), we boarded an overnight bus with 70 other TECHO volunteers. We travelled to Monte Cristi, a poor community on the West coast of Ecuador, where we spent a week constructing transitional houses for families there. This was a very important experience for us to become acquainted with the construction method of the transitional house, but it was also very rewarding. We were divided into groups of 6 or 7 volunteers and taken to the family we would be building the house for. My group was to build a house for a grandmother called Lilia, with her son, Darwin Senior, and grandson, Darwin Junior, who currently lived together in a tiny wooden hut. The first day we dug holes for the piles (which form the foundations of the house) and put in place the piles, primary floor beams and floor cassettes. It was very hard work in the intense Ecuadorian sunshine, but we accomplished all we needed to for Day 1.
On Day 2 we put up the walls, the roof beams and nailed in most of the roof sheeting. We returned the following morning, just after sunrise, to finish the house and to present it to Lilia. This was one of the best moments of my two months in Ecuador. We had come to know the family so well and it was a huge pleasure to be able to present them with a house.
After hugs, kisses and tears all round, we moved onto our second family where we repeated the process. We built our second house for a young family with three gorgeous little girls. We stayed for one more day of construction after completing our second house, in order to have time to travel back to Quito to be ready to start work on Monday.
We spent the next few weeks working in the TECHO office in central Quito. We had meetings with suppliers, did a workshop with TECHO volunteers, visited existing TECHO transitional houses, made useful contacts,researched what sustainable materials are locally available and gathered data that can only be gathered when in the country.
On weekends, we would either visit places within Ecuador or we would act as TECHO volunteers when they had activities in communities within Quito. We visited Otavalo, (a nearby market town where we all bought alpaca jumpers), Papallacta, (hot springs on the side of a volcano), Mindo, (where we went zip-wiring over the jungle), and we spent a long weekend in the Quilatoa Loop, which was my favourite of all the activities we did. The Quilatoa Loop is a series of villages surrounding Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in Quito. We spent three nights here, and each night we spent in a different village. We visited the local market in Zumbahua, went hiking around the volcanic lake in Quilatoa and went horse-riding in Chugchilán. We also learnt some words in Kichwa, the local language.
We spent several Saturdays acting as TECHO volunteers. We built some steps in San Francisco, a very poor area of Quito, and returned there the following weekend to build a community centre and to do a workshop with the local children. This was great fun, and I spent the day playing children’s games covered in paint!
After several weeks of working in the office, we were ready to build the first prototype we had worked on. This involved a number of improvements to the current TECHO-Ecuador transitional house design, such as additional floor beams to be able to align the floor cassettes more easily, corner bracing to provide support when climbing on the walls and to keep the house square over time as well as a different type of metal roof sheeting with insulation already attached. We spent several days in a plot of land belonging to the grandmother of one of the TECHO volunteers, constructing the panels for the house which were then transported to the COVi foundation in La Carolina Parque, in central Quito.
We constructed the house over the duration of the weekend, with the help of several TECHO volunteers. Construction went smoothly and we finished within two days. The prototype house will be used as a classroom for the COVi foundation, an Ecuadorian project set up in order to rescue children and young people living at risk on the streets of Ecuador. The kids at the foundation are at risk from dysfunctional families, homelessness, exclusion, addiction and other problems, so it was a real pleasure to be able to build our prototype for such a worthy cause. The kids at the foundation helped with the painting of the house which was as much a treat for us as it was for them!
The following weekend we built our second prototype, which has a very different design to the current TECHO houses. It has a smaller floor area, but includes a mezzanine floor. The reasoning behind this new design is that TECHO often find the families can only provide small plot sizes which are too small for the current transitional house design. Our design is suitable for smaller plot sizes. TECHO was really pleased with the work we had accomplished over our two months in Ecuador, and will be implementing several of the design changes we suggested. They also sent us home with lots of specific requests for further work to be completed over the coming academic year. With regards to aiding the work that The EcoHouse Initiative will achieve over the next year, our placement in Ecuador was invaluable. We collected so much information and made all the necessary contacts in Ecuador that will allow us to acomplish our work combating poverty and climate change. I also made so many friends and had so many unforgettable experiences during my time in Ecuador. I am so grateful to the THA for making my trip possible.