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June 30, 2022

New Beginnings – Derek Russell, B.ARCH 2022

by dersrussell

I arrived into a state of upheaval. Flaming tires littered the road between Mariscal Sucre International airport and my new home in Tumbaco. As a result of a contentious election, rising inflation costs, and a waning quality of life, many indigenous activists from the Highlands took to the streets to voice their discontent. At a time of global economic uncertainty and recovery from an unprecedented pandemic, there couldn’t be more evidence that social progress and environmental equity are paramount in arriving at a just future.

Bamboo being offloaded onto the site


a city on the pacific coast of Ecuador, was my first stop on my journey with Fundacion Raiz. Six years prior, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the nation devastating many coastal cities poorly constructed by municipal governments and urban planners. Many buildings of concrete and steel failed under the sudden pressure, resulting in high casualty rates. Chris, a jewelry maker and one of my two project coordinators, told me stories of the shockwaves she felt in her home high up in the Andes, far from the epicenter. She couldn’t image what it must have felt like to the locals at the center of disaster. With her husband Manuel, they traveled to the devastated coast with the intention to provide aid. What they saw in the rubble was evidence of hope and resilience in the form of vernacular architecture, houses built from bamboo and local plants that survived the earthquake. They knew in an instance that their lives would never be the same, and with the support of Fundacion Raiz they gave birth to an initiative called the Casitas Emergentes de Bambu, or CAEMBA. Learning from the local craftsman, they were able to develop a design and streamlined manufacturing process for resilient housing that outlasts natural disaster.

A view of the existing housing being relocated


a Quechua term referring to collective work undertaken for the betterment of a community, is a driving philosophy for CAEMBA. As with most humanitarian aid giving, many ethical concerns are brought into question when those with privilege gift what they perceive as a necessity to a struggling group of people. It sets an inherent power dynamic, can lend towards imperialistic ideological impositions, and ultimately disengages with dialogue. By implementing the concept of Minga, Chris and Manuel combat these many colonial constructions with empathy and sharing. “How many architects can say they know every family they build a house for anymore?” inquired Manuel at the start of our build, citing an inherent lack of conversation in the construction process. “Here we know every family we build for, have cherished relationships with them, and are here to make a difference. Yes we build houses, but that’s only a small part of what we do, what we build are communities.” Here in Atacames, many of the families are destitute, squatting in shanty homes illegally beside a mangrove embankment. They dump their waste into the same water they fish from. Some women have turned to prostitution for stability, some men have turned to the illegal cocaine cartel. Each family that is receiving a home from CAEMBA has never owned property before or had access to proper sanitation. By working together with members of this community, Chris and Manuel hope to change that, inspiring others with knowledge of construction and material but also with dignity.

Pan de Mama Women from the trade school cooking a meal

Casa de la Mujere,

is an earlier project from CAEMBA in this same neighborhood of Atacames that has revitalized the local people. It serves as a community center for women, complete with a kitchen, craft room, event space, play area, and quiet room for nursing as well as resting place for both parents and children. Across the street is a maternity center for newborns and mothers. However, they chose not to stop there. In this space, they partnered with community organizers to create a fully funded trade school for the local women, imparting two-year degrees in areas such as: cooking, sewing, entrepreneurship, and craft. Upon my arrival, I was able to witness the first ever graduation from this community. When discussing her activism for women’s empowerment, Chris said, “It’s truly amazing to see the transformation that these women have undergone over the past few years. When we first started, these women were so shy. They grew up feeling like they were property, passed from their father to their husband with little say in their own life paths. Some only even have a second-grade education. Now they have certificates that prove that they are skilled, knowledgeable, and have agency over their own careers.” Once the new houses are complete, Chris and Manuel also make sure to write the deed to the home in the names of the women. For many, this is the first time in their lives they have actually owned something of significant value. Their smiling faces and revitalized energy speak volumes of the strides that CAEMBA has made to change the fabric of this community.

The lot

Me, helping build a foundation on siteBuilding in progress A collaborative process

Placing the final touches

Christina (Resident) securing a roof with a CAEMBA contractor


on two plots of land donated by city, this new CAEMBA neighborhood of 31 houses offers a vision of environmental justice. In collaboration with contractors knowledgeable in the building process, volunteers, and members of the family who will inhabit these future homes, everyone worked together in the building process. All of it can be done on the scale of the individual, without the need for heavy machinery. The building process is also a learning process, where locals are able to absorb new construction methods that they can apply to other areas of their careers. The houses are light but strong, being made of bamboo. They are also sustainable. Each house can be customized and changed depending on the tenants desires with a wrench and a hammer, all wall panels can be removed and reoriented, spaces for future doorways are also built into the design. An entire house can be built in a day, also deconstructed and moved. To ensure community stability, all tenants agree to a binding five year contract where they must remain as the owners of their home, after which they can opt to move or sell. However, families are highly encouraged to invest into their new homes, a safe space for generations of families to live. There is so much evidence that owning a stable home is one of the first steps in lifting families out of poverty. It allows folks to search for jobs, better healthcare, and gives additional time to other luxuries we often take for granted such as making their opinion heard in public office and other social programs that directly impact their lives. In only a week, an entirely new way of living was designed and implemented; a generation of possibility.

Day One: An empty lot

Day Two: A foundation

Day Three: A home

Family overlooking the construction of their new home Chris and Pasqual playing patty cakeA peaceful afternoon in the neighborhood

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