Natural Building – Alan Wright (Founder & President of SosteNica)

Natural building really is different.  Starting from the foundation, we are using stones and lime, not steel and cement.  If the stones are too small (as in our case) they don’t really create a foundation, just a pile of rocks.  That is not all that stable.  If the lime is not fresh, it doesn’t bind with the sand.  In fact, it’s really just crushed limestone with no bonding ability at all.  It’s all about the chemistry, and what happens when you heat crushed limestone then put it in water.  If done properly, the outcome is quite impressive.  If done incorrectly, leaving the lime in sacks to reabsorb CO2 for example, it gives natural building a very bad name.

On day one, when we arrived at the Nagarote construction site, we found high quality adobe blocks waiting in a storage yard next to our construction site where a stem wall had been poorly done — at least in parts.   We phoned the supervising architect who agreed to drive from his home to meet us, despite it being a Sunday.  Apparently, neither the maestro de obra, nor the masons under his charge, had ever worked with lime.  That technology has been abandoned for so many years.  Add to that, the sudden and unexpected death of the maestro de obra’s wife, and a deadline of approaching gringos, and you have a formula for poor workmanship.  So our Cornell contingent, after an impromptu meeting with the Nicaraguan architect, spent the first day undoing a significant portion of the stem wall, removing conduit for electrical outlets, forming up the demolished areas, and starting over.

The students have understood the science and, like fish to water,  have taken to the process of mixing mortar and laying stones.  They are hard working, good spirited, and never complaining.  Despite the heat, the wind, the sun, the cut fingers, the sunburn, the broken tools, and having to walk everywhere to get anywhere, they are optimistic, supportive of one another, and eager to tackle the next challenge.

That challenge comes when we meet with the complete team – the CEPRODEL decision makers, the maestro de obra and his team of masons.  Our plan is to reform and lay the stem wall, on top of which we will pour a conventional antiseismic bond beam complete with a ring of steel rebar.  From there, we will begin to lay the adobe blocks.

These first few days have convinced me of the wisdom of having contracted with one of Latin America’s premere natural builders — Eric Gomez — to guide the delegation as well as the construction process.  He’s an excellent teacher, patient, experienced, wise and funny.  At the same time, he relates well to the Nicaraguans — respectful, generous, flexible.  This project is sure to have bumps in the road, but I predict a positive outcome when all is said and done.


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