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CUBA: Ecomaterials for Low-Cost, Hurricane-Proof Housing

Patricia Grogg

SANTA CLARA, Cuba, Oct 9 2007 (IPS) - Low-income Cuban families now have a greater chance of having a home of their own thanks to a prize-winning construction method that uses strong, locally-produced alternative materials.

Marilú Figueredo in her house made of ecomaterials in Manicaragua, Cuba. Credit: IPS Cuba.

Marilú Figueredo in her house made of ecomaterials in Manicaragua, Cuba. Credit: IPS Cuba.

“The hurricane destroyed my house, but the one I have now is better and safer, and was built in around three months,” Marilú Figueredo, a mother of three who lives in Manicaragua, a rural district in the central Cuban province of Villa Clara, told IPS.

She is one of the beneficiaries of a plan for repairing and building homes that were damaged or destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Dennis, which caused damages to 120,000 homes in Cuba, 15,000 of which were completely levelled.

“I think that if another hurricane comes, I won’t have any problems,” she said optimistically.

The same confidence is shared by pensioners María Trujillo and Felicia Armenteros, and by Iluminada Rivero, who is divorced. The three women live in Quemado de Guines, a Villa Clara town that has been hit hard by hurricanes over the years.

The women’s new homes have replaced the precarious housing units they were living in two years ago. The new buildings are made of environmentally-friendly materials manufactured in their own towns at a low-cost, known as ecomaterials because they are both ecological and economic.

The concept covers a broad range of building materials, whose common denominator is the use of local raw materials or the recycling of waste products like sugar cane bagasse.

Strong results have been obtained locally with micro-concrete roofing tiles, pozzolana (CP-40) cement – named for the volcanic ash of the Pozzuoli volcano in Italy – made with the ashes of sugar cane straw, pre-cast hollow concrete blocks in which Portland cement has been partially replaced by CP-40, and low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-waste products as fuel.

CP-40 is an alternative binder that requires less energy than traditional Portland cement and therefore reduces climate changing carbon dioxide emissions.

“The key is that we have returned to our roots,” Professor Fernando Martirena told IPS. “In the past 5,000 years of human civilisation, the most widely-used and sustainable materials are red bricks, wood and roman cement. We are now using them again, but in conjunction with the advances made by modern science and technology.”

Ecomaterials provide alternatives not only for solving Cuba’s current housing shortage, but also for the problems that will plague many countries in the future, when oil and modern materials “like glass and titanium” will be unsustainable and unaffordable, he said.

Several times more earth must be removed to produce a ton of titanium – an extremely strong and versatile rare metal that is stronger than steel yet can be as light as aluminium – than to produce a ton of cement.

“Ecomaterials have shown to be long-lasting and attractive, and they strike a balance with the environment. By using them, we are reducing the size of our ecological footprint,” said the expert.

Martirena heads a team of academics from the CIDEM research and development institute at the Central University of Las Villas who for several years have been seeking low-cost ways to reduce the vulnerability of buildings to hurricanes while coming up with solutions to Cuba’s chronic shortage of decent housing.

This year, their “ecomaterials in social housing project” won the World Habitat Award, bestowed annually by the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF), an independent research organisation that promotes sustainable development and innovation in housing.

The prize includes 10,000 pounds sterling (over 23,000 dollars), but the most important aspect is that “the idea is awarded, and it is a good way of disseminating the techniques, to get people to learn about and use them,” said Martirena.

According to the BSHF web site, the Cuban project “has developed and transferred a range of innovative and environmentally sustainable building materials which can be manufactured locally in small workshops and are suitable for both rural and urban areas.”

The CIDEM project sets up workshops that train people how to produce ecomaterials in their own communities, as part of a local production system designed to be self-sustaining.

Local residents, and especially low-income families, have access to loans for producing the ecomaterials for their own houses from the Banco Popular de Ahorro (BPA) (popular savings bank), explained Belkis Delgado, a housing official in Manicaragua.

Although the technologies using ecomaterials are geared toward small-scale, decentralised production, to bolster the local economy by generating job opportunities, the project includes a strict quality control system, says CIDEM, which also provides ongoing technical assistance.

“The project has been successful because we have not imposed anything on people. Flexibility has been our motto, and we never aspired to taking over the role of existing institutions, but instead have sought to forge alliances around a common goal, while boosting local capacities and adapting ourselves to different local contexts,” said Martirena.

Omaida Cruz, in charge of cooperation in the non-governmental National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) in Villa Clara, said the initiative has bolstered local possibilities for development.

Around 20 Cuban municipalities are now using the alternative building techniques. In the northern part of Villa Clara alone, some 3,000 houses were built, repaired or renovated with ecomaterials between 2000 and 2006.

But “our production has alleviated, rather than fully met, demand, which is high,” said Lázaro Bermúdez, director of a workshop in Manicaragua.

In this district of 74,500 people, 60 percent of the 27,000 housing units are in poor or mediocre condition. According to officials, the biggest housing problems in this mainly farming area are in rural zones.

This year, the project will be extended to provinces in eastern Cuba.

“At this rate, by 2010 we could have between 40 and 50 workshops operating throughout the country. This, together with government plans for producing building materials, could resolve the current housing emergency within 10 years,” Martirena predicted.

The CIDEM project has received funding from foreign agencies like the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the European Commission, and the second phase of the initiative will also be supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

“Government support for these projects is also very important,” said Martirena. “For each dollar that we invest, the Cuban state provides seven, eight, or even 10 dollars. That is what marks the contrast with other countries, and increases the social impact.”

CIDEM began its work in Villa Clara in the wake of Hurricane Lili, in 1996. In 1998, after Hurricane Mitch caused unprecedented devastation in Nicaragua and Honduras, it helped organise projects for the relocation of local communities living in areas prone to flooding in those countries.

There are currently 19 ecomaterials workshops operating in Cuba, and another 15 worldwide, including Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador in Latin America, and Namibia, Nigeria and Mozambique in Africa. In those countries, a large part of the equipment used to manufacture ecomaterials was exported from Cuba.

The aim is to expand the initiative to Venezuela by means of a one million-dollar investment to install and equip ecomaterial workshops.

Cuba, a country of 11.2 million, officially has a housing shortage of 500,000 dwellings. But of the existing housing units, 15 percent in urban areas and 38 percent in rural areas are substandard, according to the 2002 census.

A government plan designed in 2005 for the construction of 100,000 units a year has been held up by red tape, which has slowed down the delivery of building materials to the families selected to build their own homes, as well as the lack of adequate plots of land to build on.

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