April 24, 2012

Organization Fights Housing Crisis in Nicaragua

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Cornell University Sustainable Design –– a student group that designs and builds environmentally friendly structures –– plans to embark on a project to create an environmentally sustainable neighborhood in a small rural area of San Diego, Nicaragua.

The group, in partnership with micro-finance organization SosteNica, is currently in the  research stage of “Sustainable Neighborhoods Nicaragua” –– a project that will incorporate different eco-friendly technologies into houses in San Diego.

According to Nora Wright, co-director of the SNN project, housing shortages are a huge problem in Nicaragua.

“We would need to built 25,000 homes a year to even start addressing the problem,” Wright said. “We are starting with 30.”

SosteNica selected 30 families to come together as a cooperative and hold one another responsible to pay off debts, with the goal of ensuring that everyone would have adequate and affordable housing.

Additionally, SNN has planned a number of trips to the site in order to meet with local families and receive input from them.

According to Wright, doing so will ensure that when SNN designs the neighborhood, the team is not bringing the “first world’s Western agenda” into the local community, but instead, trying to understand what community members hope to receive from the project.

“We want a real feedback system. We don’t want it to be a one-time deal where we do the project and leave,” Wright said. “This organization has a sustained relationship with the community, and will have this relationship for a quarter of a century.”

Kai Keane ’14, co-director of SNN, said that the group hopes to both teach and learn from local families.

“We are trying to design the building to make it scalable so that it is easy to build and easy to teach how to build,” Keane said. “We also want to learn from local families on how they build, so we can use local materials.”

On a recent trip to Mexico, 10 students from SNN studied a community that is promoting low-tech sustainable work in low-income homes. SNN hopes to use these technologies when designing its neighborhood in Nicaragua.

One type of technology that SNN hopes to implement is fuel-efficient wood stoves. Wright said these would address the fact that many people cook with open flames, which is both environmentally unfriendly and hazardous to one’s health.

SNN is also designing composting toilets. Many people in Nicaragua use latrines, which infiltrate into water and can be very harmful to the environment. By turning waste into compost, Wright said, the group hopes to create a positive impact on the environment, as well as increase the nutritional quality of soil.

Other sustainable technologies include a rainwater capture system — because the rural area lacks a sufficient water supply — and a parcel of land for fast-growing trees, which will aid families in collecting wood.

All sustainable technologies are being developed through student research. The students are being divided into five teams to tackle the issues faced by the community.

“We hope that by designing a whole neighborhood, we can bring more students throughout campus and make it a truly interdisciplinary project,” Keane said.

According to Keane, an important purpose of the project is to educate Cornell students on sustainability issues through working on “design-build” projects, which progress through phases in which students “research, design and build.”

SNN hopes to complete its research and begin building in the summer of 2013.

Gabriela Garcia ’14, a civil engineering major, is researching sustainable housing and is currently exploring how housing units can withstand earthquakes and climate hazards.

Garcia said her work with SNN was a unique experience that prompted her to pursue further research.

“So far, I have learned so much about sustainability, doing research and collaborating with other students, and I hope to incorporate what I am learning now into my future career as a civil engineer,” Garcia said.

Keane said he has also been profoundly impacted by the project. As a student, he said, he has been lucky to have the time to build a relationship with the community.

“[The] great thing about being a student is you have these four years to dedicate to this research. But [the] downside is that you only have four years,” Keane said.

Original Author: Lucy Mehrabyan