Yesterday, armed with only a gun stapler, I helped make a house for a family in Oaxaca out of milk cartons and plastic soft drink bottles.
Techamos Una Mano (roughly translated as lend a hand) was formed in 2008 by a group of young Oaxaqueños concerned about waste and wanting to make a difference by transforming these throw away containers into housing for people who cannot afford to build houses of their own.
Before you get carried away and think we have made plastic igloos for people to live inside, I should mention that these houses also have wood frames, a packed earth floor and a corrugated iron roof.
Yesterday a diverse group of us (French engineering graduate, Polish girl post-Masters, Canadian electro-engineer escaping the winter in Vancouver and me) met under the midday sky in Conzetti Park by Andrea, one of the organisers of Techamos Una Mano.
We then drove north over pot-holed roads to the edges of Oaxaca city where outside a Pitico supermarket we were joined by another carload of helpers and continuing on in convoy we were met on the side of the road by the mother we were helping and her 8 year old son – they then climbed into the cars to direct us the rest of the way.
Walking up the dusty incline to the existing house I realized what a huge difference this new house would make to this family of 4 (mother and 3 sons under 10 years old). The family currently lives in 2 rooms, orientated side by side; one used for cooking and one for sleeping.
The walls, door and roof were made from corrugated iron sheets nailed to a rudimentary frame, with no windows, a dirt floor and large gaps between the walls and the floor. These rooms did not have any type of insulation; and so in summer were unbearably hot, and in winter were freezing cold. Andrea said that the family lost possessions every time they had a heavy rain as they just washed away through the gaps at the bottom of the walls.
I could see the new house frame already standing next to the existing house with the dirt floor levelled and packed down and men at work on a styrofoam roof layer as we approached. For the construction of housing four basic components are required: wood for frames and mounts, prefab NOVIDESA for the roof, labor and various other materials (cement, gravel, sand, screws, etc).
The equipment we needed to use was already on site – boxes of milk container tetra paks, flattened and with the plastic spout cut out and black plastic bags full of empty plastic soft drink and water (PET) bottles.
In an informal ceremony we were all handed our special house building tools: staple guns, or engrapadoras. Andrea explained how we should layer 2 tetra paks to create a tile – shiny side out – and starting from the bottom of the house, to staple these tiles overlapping all the way to the roof. Obviously someone knew the length of a tetra pak when they built the frame as the paks lengthwise fit the gap exactly. Once the outside of the house was tiled, we all headed inside where we repeated the same process, except we also added plastic bottles into the wall cavity for insulation. If today was sponsored by a word, like in Sesame Street, that word would be grapas (staples). It was a familiar refrain as we hunted new clips to continue our build.
It took us about 3 hours to complete the entire house – tile both outside and inside and add the plastic bottle insulation. The guys working on the roof had also covered the polystyrene base with sheets of red recycled corrugated iron. The next stages were to staple chicken wire over the outside, which would then be plastered over to make the building weatherproof, and the addition of simple windows and a door. It’s pretty amazing that something that took so little time, and was so simple would fundamentally change this family’s life.
This housing model offers several advantages over traditional construction methods – namely it is fast, with a simple design and no specific construction skills required once the frame is in place. It also uses eco-technology, as a way of addressing waste.
To carry out the environmental component of the project, storage facilities are installed in schools, in which people voluntarily deposited PET waste, paper and cardboard, glass, aluminum and tetra pak. This waste is collected and materials not required for the construction of these houses is sold to recycling companies.
After we left the family – the boys running excitedly through the empty rooms – and were heading back to the central city I pretty much peppered Andrea with questions. As she drove she mentioned that whilst we were building today she was approached by a guy about 70 years old who said he would also like to have a house built. She said that his shoes were wrecked, and if he walked across one of the neighbouring hills to meet us, it meant these were his best shoes – used for long walks, and so he would not have a lot. After she asked all the qualifying questions the organisation has, he was so overcome that he gave her a hug and started crying. She said it was really hard as that made her want to cry too “and then you can never stop”.
I think what impressed me most in this most extraordinary day was that Andrea and her business partner do not receive any income from doing this. They also have other jobs, and Techamos Una Mano is something they do simply because it is important to them. The organisation relies on grants and donations and so Andrea and her partner spend several months each year fund raising before they can start building again. They also find the families themselves by driving around older neighbourhoods (really, the sides of hills on the outskirts of Oaxaca) and asking qualifying questions to see whether the family is eligible for a house. One of the criteria is that the family must have their own land. To date, Tecahmos Una Mano has built 85 homes for people living in marginalised communities.
Another thing that I thought was great was that most of the volunteers are locals – in fact yesterday there were only 4 foreigners, the rest of the volunteers were made up from a local Oaxaca high school (including an exchange student from Jakarta, Indonesia), a group from a local gym and several students from a local university. They seemed really invested in doing something good for their wider community, and once the house was complete, headed off back into their regular routines.
The volunteer pool changes every week, however the work and the need does not.