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Save The Children Office Building

by Athena And Bill Steen
written for Designer/Builder Magazine


It is evening, the fragrance and smoke of “carne asada” rise from the mesquite charcoal grills of the taco vendors who line the streets of Cuidad Obregon, Sonora. Bowls of brightly colored salsas, radishes, cucumbers and limes top the tables. People can be seen everywhere – many of them sitting and conversing with friends. The rhythmic beat of norteno music, interspersed with songs of the Beatles and the 60’s, can be heard in the background. We are on our way to Wal-Mart to buy a bottle of good Tequilla and then to the local theatre to watch Walt Disney’s Mulan in Spanish. Looking for a quick and inexpensive bite to eat we choose to stop at one of the corner hot dog vendors instead of tacos. These local Mexican versions resemble the American hot dog in name only. Wrapped in bacon and grilled, it is served on a heated bun, topped with grilled and raw onions, mayonaise, chopped tomatoes, guacamole, finely diced mushrooms and cucumbers, crumbly white cheese, and a dash of chile sauce and salsa.
It is not the romantic Mexico that still lives on in the imaginations of many Amercans north of the border. Nor is it the modern and Americanized Mexico prophesized by the many who opposed NAFTA. It is a world where western influence intersects elements of both traditional and modern Mexico in a dynamic pattern of change. The speed and scope of change is fast, the form it takes, unpredictable.

What is predictable is that Mexico and the United States are walking their way to inevitable integration. Yet it is clear that Mexico will not be overrun by an assualt of western culture. As fast as the global marketplace introduces new products, the Mexican people take them, shape them and re-use them in their own unique way. They are a different people who see new ideas, products and goods through their own prism of reality. Magic and fantasy are more important than logic and truth. Time is not money. As we began to work in Mexico, we knew that straw bale building would bear little resemblence to what had been done north of the border.

In the developed world, straw bales were being used as an insulating wall material in combination with commonplace industrial materials and standard building practices. The need for speed and efficiency made sheetrock, OSB board, ready-mix concrete, fiberglass insulation, metal trusses and latex paint the common choices. Despite the use of natural straw in the walls, these buildings were largely made from manufactured materials with very little organic feel. Most straw bale buildings looked and felt very much like everything else being built. As the wife of a friend replied when asked how she liked her newly built home, “I had wanted a straw bale home and what I got was a house with straw bales in the walls.”

In the fall of 1994, the Sonoran branch of Save the Children, a foundation dedicated to improving children’s lives world-wide, invited us to help develop low-income, higher comfort housing in one of the poorer neighborhoods on the outskirts of Cd. Obregon. Since the city is located in the center of the largest wheat producing area in all of Mexico, we had an overabundance of straw with which to work.

Initially we were viewed as the straw bale experts from the United States who had come to teach this new building technique that was growing in popularity north of the border. We were treated with respect and politeness, but could feel quiet reserve and distance from the lower classes with whom we would eventually be working.

The culture and context quickly took hold of us. We became enamored with the aliveness and creativity demonstrated by people living under immense physical hardships. The ingenuity they displayed when confronted with a lack of materials or tools made us realize that we were there to learn as well as teach. Over the years our relationship with these people became an ongoing exchange between our different worlds. Our American perceptions of time, practicality, work, tools, building materials, organization, aesthetics, dreams and aspirations continually were challenged, and with time were forced to dissolve and take new form.

As our lives blended, new ideas, building techniques and the enthusiasm to experiement came forth. Options and possiblities began to appear that previously had not been thought possible. More importantly, their “lesser than” perceptions of themselves slowly began to give way. We became “friends and equals” rather than “superiors”.

Over the next several years our worlds were woven together with the threads of trust and friendship. Our working days were often long. The conversations often went late into the night as we sat together drinking dark Mexican coffee roasted with sugar. More often than not, baby goats and chickens ran underfoot while we waited for tortillas cooked on the outside fire, made perfectly round by delicate and experienced hands. In the background our children played endlessly together, undeterred by the lack of a common language. The blending of our lives found expression in what we built.

Initially, we built several small, one-room, load-bearing, straw bale structures. In the process, we learned what materials were easily available and cost little or nothing. In addition to straw, there was clay and a bamboo-like reed called “carrizo” (arundo donax). By introducing these materials into the building system we were able to replace much of the more expensive items such as rebar, cement and brick. We were able to build these structures for about $350. Shacks of pieced together cardboard, scrap wood, and corrugated asphalt panels often cost as much.

These early structures showed great promise. However, we continually faced the obstacle that the lower classes in Mexico often associate clay and carrizo with poverty. The instant we turned our backs, the mud plasters or earthen floors would be covered with cement. They wanted to have cement and brick houses like the rich, even though they acknowledged that they were unbearably hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Many joked that they needed to go outside in winter to get warm and in summer to get cool.

Eventually, several factors along with Mexico’s strong tradition of building with adobe made acceptance of our suggested changes easier. In 1997, there was a dramatic devaluation of the peso. The cost of cement almost doubled overnight. Suddenly clay, which was free and abundantly available became much more intriguing.

We also discovered that using these materials in new and different ways elevated them to the status of something exciting and unique rather than something inferior and common. Introducing traditional building techniques from other countries like England, Germany, or Japan that used the same materials enabled them to see that what they were doing had value. It was also through the natural adaptation of these new ideas and techniques that led to several innovations. One clear example of this was the develpment of a straw/clay block that has since become an invaluable building material for both them and us.

The Germans and other Europeans traditionally built large timber frames then used a straw/clay in-fill mix which was often finished with a thin coat of lime plaster. In combination with the common concrete structures, we tried introducing this straw/clay in-fill in place of low fired brick. After a couple houses, it became evident that the inherent difficulties connected to the needed formwork made the direct adoption of this system unrealistic. The method of mixing the straw/clay also needed to be simplified. Pitchforks, commonly used in the German system, were difficult to find and represented additional cost.

Rather than discard the system, the Mexicans took it and began changing it to be more congruent with their own traditions, skills and tools.
They began adding more clay than the Germans used. This allowed them to conveniently mix the straw/clay by hand in wheelbarrows without a pitchfork. They discarded the formwork, and reaching back to their age old adobe traditions, began making large blocks. These new blocks were mostly straw with just enough clay to bind it together. Anyone with a few scraps of wood for forms could make them, including kids. The bricks could sun dry easily and then be stacked with mud mortar, just like adobes. However, these straw/clay blocks were much lighter, larger and insulating. Their light weight made them easier to carry and to work with. The large amount of long straw made them much more water resistant than normal adobes or straw bales.

These straw/clay blocks indirectly led us to another significant innovation. Because Mexicans in general prefer very straight angular walls. The irregular surface of a straw bale wall reqired 3 to 4 inches of plaster to acheive the flatness they desired, making plastering with cement very expensive. They were willing to entertain the use of earthen plasters, but the amount of testing that was required to develop strong and crack-free mixtures of clay, sand and straw took the kind of precision and forethought they often weren’t willing or able to give.

A slight modification in the mix that was used for making straw/clay blocks proved to be the solution. By substituting short straw for long straw, we developed a mix that could be put on the walls at great thicknesses all in one coat. The high volume of straw kept it from cracking or slumping. The workability of the mixture made it easy to level by screeding with boards. The high percentage of clay made the mix very plastic, perfect for sculpting artistic moldings and designs Furthermore, it didn’t require the addition of sand to make it work. The lack of cars in the poorer neighborhoods always made the transportation and acquisition of materials difficult. Sand was often one more thing to be moved and bought. Finally, the mixture was easy to make and required no testing.

Both the straw/clay blocks and plaster mix became techniques used in all future construction. The financial advantage of both was tremendous as the straw and clay had no cost. The skills were easily learned and no special tools were needed.

Despite the advantages of using straw bales and these techniques, the suggestion of “poverty and lower class” hovered over our projects. Some of it had to do with the fact that everything we had built was located in poor neighborhoods and that none of these projects had been finished to a level that showed the incredible artistic potential of the materials. We had reached a point where we needed something that exhibited these qualities and didn’t need to be built out of economic necessity but out of choice. We needed a demonstration building where people could see, touch, and directly experience just how beautiful and comfortable these materials could be – a place where they would leave wishing they had one.

That opportunity came when Save the Children of Sonora offered to build a new office. They gave us the reigns and said we could do what we wanted. It gave us the chance to synthesize the many options and possiblities we had envisioned during the first several years of our initial building efforts. With no restrictive building codes or regulations to deal with, we were free to follow a different path than the one dictated by most modern-day construction.

A simple floor plan was faxed back and forth between us and Save the Children in order to define the space needed for the specific activities they carried out on a regular basis. Once this was established we organized these spaces around a classic Mexican courtyard design with a central patio. All the exterior walls would be straw bales, to keep as much of the intense desert heat out. The interior walls would be straw/clay block which would take up less floor space and offer some interior mass. A concrete structure would support the heavy roofs with the bales or straw/clay blocks as in-fill.

The central courtyard with its fountain, palm thatched porches, banana trees and tropical vegetation would facilitate natural cooling. All rooms would be well vented to allow hot air to escape. The openings to the courtyard would draw in the cool sea breezes that blew in the summer across the small lake in front of the office. Sixty foot tall bamboo from India would be planted to shade the west and east walls. Buganbillia would splash shade and rich magenta color on the north and south entrances.

The walls would be earthen plastered. A beautiful palette of clays from the nearby mountains would provide color such as; tierra vaya, a soft yellow, traditionally used for roofs, mortars and floors, and tierra sata, a dark rich red, often used in contrast to the bright whites of limewashed walls. Mica would be added to give sparkle to many of the finished clay plasters.

To maintain a breathable yet durable surface on the exterior, lime would be plastered over the substrate of earthen plaster. All the lime would be prepared by slaking quicklime on site to make putty. The lime plastered walls would be “frescoed” for color by painting a mixture of plant and mineral pigments with water on the damp lime plaster.

The building evolved into an exquisite combination of natural materials, textures and colors – soft, vibrant and alive.

The actual design and construction of the office building was equally alive and dynamic, and unlike modern construction, in constant flux. The only drawings had been a basic floorplan that determined the arrangement and size of the space which in turn determined the placement of the structural concrete columns and foundation. From that point on, everything was decided on a room by room basis. The exchange and integration of ideas never stopped and continued until the completion of the building. Design and building were not seperate. It was impossible to tell where one stopped and the other began. Consequently, there was room to respond to something and change it when it didn’t feel right. Window openings would appear and disappear, become larger or smaller. Door openings moved and at times, walls would rise or fall as needed.

As the building evolved and took on life, it began to dictate the most appropriate solution or direction. When the walls of a room were completed, the roofs and ceilings were matched to the span, shape, size and feel of each room. The abilities and limits of the materials at hand further defined what was possible. Every roof took its own unique shape and form. Each step along the way was a chance to do something different, to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations. Every room was a chance to try a different plaster, paint, or floor. It became a play that we enjoyed.

None of this would have been possible had we been working with standardized industrial materials. The concrete structure was fixed, but the clay, straw, carrizo and stone could easily be easily modified without sophisticated tools. They willingly allowed themselves to be molded and shaped as needed. Little more than shovels, hammers, handsaws, bale needles and trowels were used. A hammermill was needed to chop straw, but much of the work required no tools at all. All of the mixing, plastering and straw/clay block making was done by hand. People worked side-by-side, hands in the mud. Hard work took the place of noisy machinery and expensive tools. Speed and efficiency were sacrificed for a slower pace reminding us that in Mexico, time doesn’t always equal money. The site was quiet, the sound of human voices replaced skil saws, drills and mixers. From the lack of haste and noise emerged ample space for conversation..

We continually walked a fine line between the creativity inspired by the lack of tools and the frustration evoked by their absence. In the words of our co-worker Emiliano Lopez.

“Trabajando sin la herramienta, trabaja uno con mala mente. Pasa uno mas tiempo pensando que trabajando. Trabajando con poca herraminta, uno tiene que ser muy creativo, siempre pensando y buscando nuevo soluciones. Trabajando con mucha herramienta, la mente no trabaja. Pierde uno toda creatividad.”

“Working without tools, one works in a bad state of mind. One spends more time thinking than working. Working with a few tools, one has to be very creative, always thinking and looking for new solutions. Working with a lot of tools, the mind doesn’t work. One looses all creativity.”

The building progressed under an unending process of compromise, blending and integration. Sometimes we achieved genuine consensus, other times we struggled. If genuine consensus was missing, we would verbally agree and then our co-workers would do whatever they wanted as soon as we returned home. Window and door openings that were to be rounded and curved sometimes became flat and angular. The shaggy eve of the palm thatched porch was partially given a clean and precise crewcut. Important foundation details to keep out termites were ommitted. The exactness and precision needed to make some plaster and paint formulas was regularly replaced with “a handful of this and maybe a little of that.” We had to learn to laugh and shake our heads whenever we discovered that our expectations had once again given way to unexpected change. Compromise was everything. People and their concerns had to be taken as seriously as the building itself. Relationship was crucial. We gave a little, they in turn and in the end people and community were being built alongside the building.

As the office began to near completion, it was clear that it had become something unpredictably more than any of us had preconceived. Our worlds, cultural prides and differences had combined to make something more than a building. Our working and being together had redefined the way we see the world, the way we live and the way we build. The lives of everyone involved were forever changed.