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ITALY: Building a Sustainable Future With Straw and Wood

Stefania Milan

FLORENCE, May 31 2010 (IPS) - Pescomaggiore village, destroyed by the earthquake that hit the mountain region of L’Aquila in central Italy on Apr. 6, 2009, is now being rebuilt by its 40-odd inhabitants with straw and wood.

Pescomaggiore village with its new straw and wood houses (foreground). Credit: Stefania Milan/IPS

Pescomaggiore village with its new straw and wood houses (foreground). Credit: Stefania Milan/IPS

“We wanted to rebuild a sustainable Pescomaggiore,” explained Antonio Cacio from MISA, the association coordinating volunteers and locals engaged in the project .

The houses have a simple wooden structure and straw padding but the roofs are clad with solar panels and there is a system to collect rainwater.

Called EVA, an acronym for Do it Yourself (DIY) eco-village, the project features seven houses are built on a section of land a short distance from the original village, now abandoned. The land for the project was donated by a former resident now working abroad.

EVA participated in Terra Futura (Earth of the Future), an exhibition of good practices on sustainability held annually in Florence, 300 km north of Rome.

This year’s edition, held May 28-30, featured a series of events dedicated to the Internet and social change and EVA is partially financed through online donations.

The project, with a total cost of 180,000 euro (221,000 US dollars), did not receive any governmental support. The government even refused to waive taxes. Donations of 107,000 euro (131,000 dollars) have been collected so far.

“Thirty-thousand euro (37,000 dollars) were collected through the project website,” said Paolo Faustini from Smarketing, a consultancy firm which volunteered to design the website. “Thanks to the website and FaceBook, we can ensure financial transparency, and allow donors to follow the development of the project.” “A volunteer who discovered EVA online put us in touch with an association which built all the wooden roofs in three weeks, free of charge. Alone she raised 26 percent of the total donations,” Faustini told IPS.

Since July 2009, about 150 volunteers have been working on the building site. They have come from Italy, Austria, Poland and Spain. Many donations in kind were made. The website listed the type and quantity of building material needed.

The earthquake, measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale, killed over 300 people and rendered 65,000 homeless. The Italian government decided to build 19 ‘new towns’ made of 205 earthquake-proof buildings for a total cost of 700 million euro (858 million dollars).

In October 2009, on his birthday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi handed over the keys of 400 flats, but most buildings are still under construction. About 5,000 people are said to be still dislocated in hotels along the Adriatic coast. Elders and children suffer the most from the situation.

The government’s reconstruction policy was heavily criticised by the locals.

“The government has literally evacuated the city and the villages. They built the new towns in isolated areas, on agricultural land, without any forward-looking planning, and without consulting the people,” Cacio said.

“There were faster and cheaper alternatives. Our straw houses cost 600 euro (735 dollars) per sq m, against the 2,700 euro per sq m (3,312 dollars) necessary to build the government flat,” Cacio told IPS.

EVA was developed by the Beyond Architecture Group (BAG) that specialises in eco-friendly buildings. Three young architects lived eight months in Pescomaggiore, five of them in a tent just like the local inhabitants displaced by the earthquake.

“The straw allows us to build houses quickly in an emergency situation. It is found locally, thus it is sustainable. It allows for a DIY approach, where even non-experts can participate. And it ensures excellent insulation: in this mountain area the temperature drops to minus 15 degrees Celsius in winter,” said Paolo Robazza from BAG.

“We shared the living conditions of the people displaced by the earthquake to experiment with a participatory planning and decision-making process that would be respectful of the locals,” Robazza told IPS. The architects donated their time and expertise.

Last March, a couple, in their eighties, moved into the first straw house. The second one serves as temporary home for the volunteers. Two more houses will be ready by the end of June.

Not all the original inhabitants have decided to stay in the new eco-village, preferring to move in with relatives. But some of them collaborate with MISA, which over time came to include farming activities, such as beekeeping, coordinated by an 80-year-old villager who moved out.

“We want to bring life back to this hill. We intend to create job opportunities in the tourism and farming field, and resurrect everyday life activities of the village, such as the bakery,” Cacio told IPS.

When the ancient Pescomaggiore will be eventually rebuilt, the seven eco-friendly houses will be reconverted for social and cultural activities.

Donors who contribute a minimum of 250 euro (306 dollars) become members of the ‘Tavola Pescolana’ (Pescomaggiore Roundtable), which will decide the future destination of the eco-village.

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