Casas de la Cruz

by Alfred von Bachmayr

A mission organization called Casas de la Cruz (CDLC), has been building houses for needy families in Anapra, Mexico, for fourteen years, and has the infrastructure in place to continue building at the rate of four houses per year. The organization builds houses with funding from their community in Kansas City, with student volunteer groups providing the labor. In addition they provide food for over 50 families each month and provide funds for families to send their children to school. A committee of women from Anapra administers all their activities, selects the families to be served and brings the pulse of the community to the organization.

In the fall of 2000, Builders Without Borders (BWB), assisted in the construction of a straw bale house in Anapra, for a local maestro, who had lost his home in a fire. CDLC representatives saw the house going up and expressed interest in constructing a prototype house, in the same way, for their organization. Typically, they had been building uninsulated concrete block and wood frame houses, but the residents had found them to be very uncomfortable in the extreme seasons of the year. BWB agreed to assist CDLC in the building of their next house in February of 2001. The 450 square foot prototype house was designed to be passively solar heated in the winter and protected from the intense heat in the summer. The building would have mud plastered, load bearing, straw bale walls, and roof trusses that were made from wood parts taken from disassembled pallets. The ceiling would to be insulated with straw flakes and the roofing would be corrugated metal. As planned, the building was constructed with the combined efforts of Maria and her two children (the owners), local community members, volunteers from CDLC’s mission organization in Kansas City, and BWB trainers. The building was completed in one month’s time at a cost of $3700 for materials and labor, excluding overhead costs for coordination and room and board for the volunteers.

Proposed Expanded Program
With the success of the prototype residence, CDLC is now interested in building more strawbale houses in the future and have committed to at least three more houses in 2003. A family of 10, two parents and 8 children, has been chosen to receive the next house, which will be built in March of 2003. CDLC has expressed interest in partnering with ZERI/SCI Inc. and Builders Without Borders, to expand their current house building program to include the creation of:

• A micro lending program to aid individuals and/or groups in the formation and initial operation of small enterprises that supply the program with needed materials and services.
• A revolving loan fund out of which micro loans and partial home mortgages are funded. Over time, as more houses are built and more micro loans given, the payments from the loans will grow the fund allowing for more loans and houses.
• An educational component that teaches natural building skills to those interested in creating their own space, a small business or other housing programs.
• The program follows the Zeri methodology which will provide the enveloping philosophy to utilize the waste stream for beneficial use while creating enterprise and protecting the environment.

Program Components
The strength of the program is determined by two factors, the fact that it is built upon the foundation of an existing program that has a long track record and that the proposed aspects of the expanded program have been modeled after other successful programs. These aspects include the owner sweat equity programs and revolving loan funds of Habitat for Humanity, the micro credit lending program of the Grameen Bank and widely used sustainable design principles and natural building techniques.

Specifically the program will include the following components:

• Simple electrical and plumbing systems in each house including a biological waste disposal system that utilizes waste water to grow landscaping and fruit trees.
• The opportunity for owners to finance amenities such as solar hot water heaters, solar stills, solar ovens and water cisterns.
• Designs that are developed with owner input and feedback.
• Owners of the new houses have to contribute a specified number of hours to the construction of the house through their family and friend network.
• Thermally efficient envelopes, passive solar space heating and sustainable, natural building materials and techniques.
• Metal roofs to assure longevity of the buildings
• The owners commit to mutually agreed upon conditions, such as their properties will be kept neat, they will be willing to show their houses to others who are interested, etc. This idea is taken from the Grameen bank that has 16 conditions all people borrowing money agree to.
• Simple rainwater catchment systems.
• A family selection committee consisting of members of the local community.

Program Context
This program has been designed to be more than simply a housing program for needy families. It has also been designed to address social justice issues, environmental issues and oppression. In previous projects, several things were observed that caused the inclusion of the additional components listed above. When housing is the sole focus and product, often the families still have severe economic challenges in their lives, keeping them in a disempowered state. Therefore it became apparent that in addition to the building of houses, opportunities could be created to provide a livelihood to people in the community by assisting in the formation of small enterprises that produce components for the houses. In this way, as more houses are built, more enterprises could be supported and more people could have a decent livelihood, keeping them from being subject to oppressive work environments.

In addition, it was found that volunteer participants coming to work on the projects from the United States often left the projects with an entirely new awareness of poverty and oppression. They often returned to work on additional projects or worked as coordinators for the organization. The project has become a vehicle for peoples of different socio-economic backgrounds to work together, acquiring knowledge of each other’s similarities and differences, while making lifetime bonds. In addition, individuals from more affluent backgrounds, when provided the opportunity to work with people living in poverty, often make the connection of how the lives they lead are perpetuated by inexpensive goods and services produced by the same people they are working with in these poor environments. They then often start to understand the need for social justice and the distribution of wealth. Their contributions then become the backbone of the program.

In order to perpetuate and expand the aspects described above, an educational component is factored into the program. It is meant to make knowledge available to peoples of all walks of life in sustainable building practices that house people comfortably and prevent environmental degradation. They can go on to build their own houses, start small enterprises or create other similar programs. Children need to be involved in this process, as they are the ones who will carry the weight in the next generation. This will be achieved by conducting instructional workshops throughout the process on a wide variety of subjects using the building as a hands-on model to learn from.

Program Funding
The funding for the proposed program would come out of the revolving loan fund that is funded initially by:

1. Individuals, foundations or corporations that see value in contributing to the program as has been experienced for the last fourteen years by CDLC.
2. Income from individuals paying for training or workshops conducted during the building of the houses by coordinators and trainers.
3. Mortgage and micro-credit loan payments paid back into the revolving loan fund by homeowners and funded businesses.

Over time, as more houses are built and more businesses financed, the payments from these loans, paid back into the revolving loan fund, will increase the size of the fund, thereby decreasing the need for contributions. This will build the strength of the program locally and allow for the empowerment of many more people over time.