‘Tiny Revolutions’ explores initiatives in grassroots architecture around the globe, addressing issues of affordable, sustainable and accessible construction techniques and design solutions for developing communities.
Winners of the 2016 Emerging Voices program hosted by the Architectural League, César Guerrero and Ana Cecilia Garza of S-AR were recently in New York City to talk about their practice’s vision, accomplishments and future challenges.
Influenced by the territories surrounding Monterrey — as well as the city’s ingrained history in industry and construction — S-AR’s projects inspire simplicity, well-being and a clean aesthetic. At the talk, they presented an ongoing initiative started by the firm, entitled Comunidad Vivex. The objective of Comunidad Vivex is to offer architecturally sound designs for construction workers to build homes for their families, taking advantage of their abilities to work with materials to create unique and personalized architectures for low-income families currently living in unsuitable housing conditions.
Casa Caja, designed by S-AR for Jesus and his family
According to Guerrero and Garza, many people illegally occupy plots of land around Monterrey and build houses with no real structure, triggering ongoing difficulties and tough living conditions. In response to homogeneous housing projects — built cheaply by developers and city officials around the country to address the spread of illegal settlements — Ana Cecilia asks: “If we’re all different, why do we have the same house?”
The first realized project led by Comunidad Vivex was inspired by and realized in collaboration with Jesus, a construction worker that had helped S-AR on the construction of Casa 2G. While talking with Jesus, César and Ana Cecilia realized he was constantly building houses for others, while he lacked a proper home for himself and his family — a common condition for construction workers due to a lack of credit access because of the temporality of their work and contracts with developers.
Interior of Jesus’s Casa Caja
The first step in Comunidad Vivex’s methodology is to find a family that is able to purchase a plot of land. Often, that land is found on the outskirts of the city, and the family pays the price of the plot incrementally over the following 20 years. S-AR then designs a model for the house and revises it with the family in order to best suit it to the needs of the members.
For example, in Casa Caja, the oldest boy’s room is separate from the rest of the family for reasons of privacy. With the expertise of the architect, the designs prioritize natural elements such as daylighting and passive ventilation to sustain the family in its long-term expenses and maintenance.
Above: model for Casa Caja; below: bedroom of Jesus’s son
The projects are made with inexpensive and easily available materials that construction workers in the area are familiar with. They are primarily obtained through external sponsors and donations. For two years, Jesus worked tirelessly during his free time to make the house of his dreams come true, assisted by friends and other construction workers. The construction process is a learning experience for people like Jesus who are taught to deal with patience, leadership and resource management.
Workers on the construction site of Casa Caja
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with this house. Maybe Jesus will paint it, maybe he will add a third floor. We don’t know what's going to happen, but the important thing is that Jesus has a house for his family and it has enough space to have a better life,” says Ana Cecilia.
“We think architecture can be an excuse to help this very powerful family. They just need a little push,” continues Garza. “With this project, they don’t have a debt, so they can start thinking about scholarship for their kids,” and to grow better as a family. Comunidad Vivex has realized three works to date, including Casa Cubierta, pictured in the second half of this article. Architizer followed up with the architects at S-AR to learn a little more about the project’s sustainability and potential for growth.
Above: Jesus and his family; below: workers on the construction site of Casa Caja
Architizer: Do you see the model of Comunidad Vivex expandable to different regions of Mexico and Latin America or is there something about the climate of Monterrey — and maybe the abundance of construction workers and materials there — that facilitates the mission of Comunidad Vivex?
S-AR: We think that Comunidad Vivex’s model is replicable in any place where resources — mainly materials and labor — exist as well as a commitment from both involved parties: on one hand, the architects who design the projects and empower the people, and on the other, the families or communities with housing needs and a capacity to build for themselves.
The program does not depend on Monterrey’s specific conditions; it simply began here, but we think that it actually could work in other parts of Mexico and abroad. The projects have the capacity to incorporate local cultural issues and local ways of making and understanding as well as respective technologies and materials.
The second realized project by Comunidad Vivex, Casa Cubierta
What do you find that families need most for their domestic spaces? When the participants work with you to rethink the design, what are some things they wish to adapt to their personal needs?
Mainly the family needs space that allows privacy because that is something that most of the traditional models of housing lack in Mexico. Nonetheless, it is important that the projects do not separate the family members or divide them. The point is that the projects help families to grow as individuals as well as members of a more complex society. Because of that, it is important that the houses’ design be comprised of spaces to be together and share activities, not just among family members, but also with extended family, friends and neighbors.
Francisco and his family in their new Casa Cubierta
To what extent do external partners contribute to Comunidad Vivex, by donating materials or becoming sponsors?
At this moment, almost all of our collaborators, donors and sponsors come from our city, but we have received donations from enterprises and individuals via Paypal from the USA because there is a very simple platform to do so on our website.
Comunidad Vivex is a nonprofit organization that can operate legally worldwide, and it was constituted in that way from the beginning. Social architecture projects are about people as main element[s], and it is difficult to develop projects if there is not a very close relationship with the people, with the families and community. Through their donations, people that contribute [to the making of the projects] become part of that community.
Model and concept for Casa Cubierta
In conjunction with its social involvement in Comunidad Vivex, S-AR has also published Catalogo Vivex, a pocket book that regroups various options for making homes and depicts personalized structures to discourage the construction of banal social housing developments and promote diversity, creativity and imagination for Mexican housing solutions.
See César Guerrero and Ana Cecilia Garza’s talk at The Architectural League here. Interview edited for clarity
Enjoy this article? Check out the first feature in our “Tiny Revolutions” series: Crowdfund a Nicaraguan School in El Jicarito.