Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Edible Schoolyard and Medicinal Garden

Food shortages from periodic transportation strikes continue to burden the poorest people in Nicaragua as the daily allocation of imported food supplies becomes increasingly unpredictable. Current CAFTA trade protocol and poorly managed supply systems within the Sandinista Government fuels and further elevates the hardship. While people are not conspicuously starving for the most part, these circumstances have lead many to seek a greater degree of independence through small farming operations and local market and non-market solutions. Off the grid so to speak.

Harnessing Nicaragua's plentiful rainwater (3,500 liters per square meter annually) into simple collection systems will offer myriad socioeconomic benefits in the form of food security and future sustainable development. Currently little is done on a residential scale to capture and deploy stormwater for economic purposes. some households own a plastic bucket or two and use the caught water to wash clothes or in some cases for basic food preparation.

Following the easily replicable installation of an off the shelf vinyl gutter, (16 meters for $135 in this case on the western side of the existing school's roof) and a series of 50 gallon drums ($10 each) which were painted by La Prusian school children and placed in the landscape to function as water storage containers.

The collection system will accommodate a generous irrigation program for a productive community farm and garden located in the center of Casas De La Esperanza project #1.
The planting scheme builds on the inspiration of the previously discussed tree preservation areas and subsequent discoveries of rings formed on the ground surrounding productive trees. (See images) These rings and all paths through the Nicaraguan Landscape generally speaking are shaped in the quest for food. Fruit harvesting exhibits this phenomenon especially well.

A 2-meter (on center) grid is transposed onto the central open space of the first project site and planted with carefully selected fruit trees. 10 Guava, 10 Papaya, 10 Starfruit, 5 Coconut, 10 Orange, 3 Lime, 10 Mandarine, 5 Guava de Fresca, 10 Pera de Agua, 10 Avacado 5 Guavanna, and 5 Palma Robeliana, a gorgeous native Nicaraguan Palm specimen.

Linear plantings perpendicular to the central open space exhibit one of each fruit tree and spatially define the yard's expanse. A varying degree of enclosure will evolve as the trees establish, mature and are harvested by the community. The grove will become an illustration of temporal pedestrian circulation. Paths will form as people harvest fruits and maintain the trees. Those paths will in time act as swales in storm events and continue to be transformed annually by the variety of Nicaragua's climactic personality.

Three wee ones planting a Starfruit Specimen.

Fruits aside, the clinic to the north of the school is in desperate need of basic supplies, (personnel included). Yesterday for instance, a doctor was to be on site for a weekly visit at 8 am... but never arrived. 10 Mint, 6 Aloe, 5 Thyme and a beautiful eucalyptus plant were installed at the south and west edges of the clinic beneath the diffused canopy of the existing great Mango tree to help start a pilot planting regime that could help mitigate the lacking medical resources. Every plant selected has many uses, both culinary and medicinal as well as structural and otherwise economic.

Many volunteers will be building on the momentum of the project and incorporating many of its educational aspects into the curriculum. Along with the construction of the edible schoolyard and the medicinal garden, we have included a book of plant characteristics, uses, the plants name in various languages, its nutritional values, cultural derivation and other fun facts for the various age groups that are exposed to the project.

Not Your Average Two Days

It's been an exciting couple of days. We implemented the rainwater catchment system with the help of the volunteers and community. What is important to note, before we get into the collection of images from the past couple of days, including this one of a painted cistern, is that the whole system is inspired in many ways by what the community is already doing.

Consider this makeshift gutter system in front of a family´s home along the road. While roofs are regularly used to channel water into blue plastic barrels for drinking water, it´s more unusual to find in La Prusia a gutter used to direct the rainwater. We hope that our rainwater catchment system at the school amplifies local viable practices like this one.
Monday morning began with collecting, cleaning, and cracking open lids of the tin barrels with the help of volunteers and community members, including
Doña Cheba (pictured below). When we were planning to simply throw away the lids from the barrels, she reminded us that they could also be repurposed in useful ways. For Cheba, they make fine surfaces for making tortillas.
Together, with the volunteers, we used the edible gardens and cisterns as an opportunity for the kids and community in general to learn about the link between roofs and water and gardens.
It was a long but exciting day. Cheba (who happens to have the nicest garden in La Prusia), her daughter, and other community members set in motion the whole planting process.
We also tested the gutter and its relationship to the cisterns and gardens. The singular shoot of water was a big hit with the kids.
Ultimately, some 20 school kids and several community members helped us plant the trees--coconut, avocado, aloe and so forth--and then we armed the kids with paint to have at the old tin barrels turned cisterns. What started as a fairly organized assembly-line type scenario, in which kids pressed their tiny painted hands onto the tin barrels, quickly turned into a blur of excitment and frenzy.

It was rewarding to work with community members, young and old alike. Their personal touch, as part of a relentlessly pragmatic and didactic system (however modest), is perhaps the most important imprint we can leave on the first site. Naturally, we´re still working through several important questions. Maintenance of the whole system will have to be built into the project. That's part of an ongoing conversation among the volunteers and La Prusians.

Meanwhile, on the second site, the intrepid A-chang nearly finished the structure for the community's first composting toilet. Local construction worker El Gato and volunteer architects, Jaime and Ines, will take over the project. What's especially exciting about the next step: a corrugated zinc cladding system that provides ventilation.
For A-chang, ladders are overrated.

In other news, the shed raised more questions than we could reasonably answer in the past couple of weeks. The design will continue as an international collaboration among folks in La Prusia, Boston, and New York.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Rainwater Catchment

We are working on a prototype for a rainwater catchment system at the school on site one. We located it there after talking with several volunteers. The idea is to showcase one of our studio's key site-wide principles--the catchment and reuse of rainwater--through the highly visible and communal program of the school. Also, a mock-up of a retrofitted water-catchment system at the school would hopefully bridge site one and site two, building momentum around both projects. Construction on site one is still underway, but some families are already starting to move into their homes.

Like a home, a school is more than a discrete object. If it is truly part of a system in which environmental, social, and economic factors must all be weighed carefully, then the design of any one individual object often has to defer to the overall system. And so, after visiting several hardware stores in Granada and beyond, we stopped designing the gutter itself. Ultimately, rather than fuss with the actual construction and cost of a GSD-designed gutter, we went with an off-the-shelf model that we could tweak. Sure, we fell in live with the zinc panels and the idea of folding them in a simple and clean way to channel water. But for a retrofit project, even the act of folding and connecting the sheets proved to be much more costly and labor intensive than the white vinyl store model. In the end, our modifications to the gutter amount to creating a rain chain and extending the gutter on the south side to create a long singular shoot of water into the cluster of barrels below and surrounding gardens and swales. Downspouts are common here, rain chains aren't. The simple and cheap addition will make visible the water from roof to barrel to garden. Total cost of the gutter for a 16-meter plus facade and several barrels is about $200 (USD). (See photo below of the crew picking up the gutter from the hardware store here.) Total cost of the plants--ranging from eucalyptus and thyme to star fruit and papaya--is expected to be just over $300 (USD). We´re picking up the plants from a Caterina-based nursery first thing tomorrow.

We also continued the search for barriles--Spanish for tin barrels--that we started a couple of days ago. Initially, we looked in Granada and then traveled just outside of Managua to scope out elements for our water catchment system, combining that trip with other research into materials and plants. Containers come in many forms, but in the end, we decided against a big plastic cistern (ranging from $250 to $500 USD for a 2500-liter tank). Instead, we opted for the old used barriles at 190 cordoba each, which is just under $10 USD. Clustered together, these recycled old barriles can be beautiful and functional.
Of course, how the barriles sit in the landscape and relate to each other is also part of the design. Tomorrow, we'll actually start clustering them on site. Also, hearing that another school eventually would likely be built on the site, we diagrammed the area with an extension to the existing building. It´s speculative, sure, but it helps us think about potential next moves for this communal space.

While there is clearly a need for cisterns for potable water, we view this first project as a modest prototype for what´s possible. The cost for a cistern for potable water is considerably more and requires a certain level of maintenance to go with it. Also, there´s the outstanding idea of having a cluster of families build a communal cistern as a first gesture on the site and excuse for participation. For now, the modest containers at the school are simply for irrigation and laundry purposes as well as construction, while it´s still going on. One of the volunteers expressed the other day how helpful it would be to have a supply of water on site for all of the ongoing building. And given our limited time here, we felt it was valuable to make the simple but powerful connection between water catchment and edible gardens. With the rise of global food shortages, promoting and supporting local food cultivation is becoming increasingly important. Apparently, Nicaraguans rely on exports for some 60% of their daily food, accordingly to Chris Shanks, co-director of Project Bona Fide, the nonprofit that runs the 43-acre cooperative farm that we visited last week in Ometepe. Fundamentally, this project is about water management and food security.

Fruit Loop

We were struck by this mimosa tree on site two, just beyond the current tool shed. The ring around it marks the natural footpath formed by locals (mainly Carlos) collecting fruit. Where the fruit drops, people follow. Here, through this dirt ring underfoot, the tree's natural preservation area and canopy drip edge comes to life. No paper diagrams here! Like every other project we've taken on in studio, tree preservation remains central to the design for the new shed/community center.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Developing the Shed

After an initial design with lots of energy we were asked by Angel and Oscar to calm down just a bit and bring it back to La Prusia. We are no longer working with an elevated path but we are still offering the option of a two story building for the workshop/La Prusia Community Center (previous offices), while also doing a one story design.

The constant is the machine space and storage (in aqua) that moves closer to the front building to save as many trees as possible (per Nicaraguan law as well as general tree-hugginess). Next to the machines we are placing the first composting toilets in the site (in orange), which we began building today. In the front we have the workshops (blue) in the bottom, and in the two story option, the La Prusia Community Center (LPCC) on top (in red and pink). In the one-story option the LPCC moves across the street to continue the presence along the road. The buildings on the front still have space to accommodate the sale of food and goods for the benefit of those working in the workshops and LPCC as well as others that may be traveling the road.

The final piece of the new design is the proposed relocation of Carlos' house (yellow) to the front of the site so that he can have better control and security over the machines and the site in general.



Sections Looking North

Sections Looking West
The Composting Toilet
Stacking out the site and talking to Hugo about Materials

Returning from Ometepe

We are back from Ometepe in one piece and believe me that was definitely not a given. We (at least half of us) climbed the 5 steep, slippery, yet beautiful Kilometers to the crater of volcano Maderas.

It says something about us when we climb a true global natural wonder, but we are far more impressed by a composting toilet at its base. This toilet is in Finca Bona Fide, a research center for cultivation and design in the tropics. This project shows how smart landscape management can lead to a sustainable way of growing things and smart space planning. Further reading is definitely recommended.

Composting Toilet - Finca Bona Fide