Bamboo Health Clinic in Rural Guatemala


After a short tuk-tuk ride over beautiful mountain passes with panoramic views of Lake Atitlan, I walk up the steep main road of San Pablo La Laguna until I hear the familiar sounds of hammers, saws, and the words of Kakchikel, Tzutujil, and Spanish.  As I enter the job site, the smells of the horse manure and fermented prickly cactus juice needed for earthen plaster greet my nostrils.  By the time I arrive from San Marcos at eight, the local crew who start at six are already taking their first quick break.  I say hello in my broken Spanish then make my way down to the carpenters’ area to see what they need me to do today.

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Commuting from San Marcos to San Pablo every day is a constant reality check. This town is much more economically disadvantaged, and as such the amount of foreigners dwindles, the adobe and tin-roofed houses get smaller and simpler, and there are no signs for yoga schools or fancy hotels.  There are old women half my size carrying bundles of firewood twice theirs, the street is dotted with house-fronts selling bread or vegetables, and the men can be seen hiking to the mountain with machete and pickaxe in hand.  Here in the central highlands of Guatemala, Spanish is a second language and much is still handmade.

The building we are creating will provide a service that does not yet exist in this small town: access to healthcare that is more than just a pharmacy or an underfunded, understocked and overcrowded public health post. This new bamboo-framed, earthen-walled medical clinic will help to fulfill this need here, and it is just the beginning. Besides providing work for locals, it is a long-term asset for the community.

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The clinic in San Pablo is just one example of the ways natural and sustainable building projects have created lasting benefits for the communities in which we work.  Charlie Rendall, the contractor responsible for seeking out and managing many of these projects, is also one of the driving forces behind the new natural and sustainable building school we are developing right here on his land.DSC_3112 copyDSC_3295

Over the past ten years, he has trained locals in bamboo building, an art that did not previously exist in this area, as well as helping them to hone their carpentry, masonry, and other building skills.  These same people are now teaching others, who are in turn teaching me.  The knowledge begins at a source, and the cycle continues on indefinitely.  In just a week of work, I may learn how to make and finish window frames, cut bamboo joinery, and even try my hand at creating a traditional earthen wall.

These projects provide a platform for foreign volunteers like myself to work alongside indigenous craftsmen, learning as we go, both about building and each others’ cultures.  These are the types of interactions that we remember forever.  Now, we are creating a formal school infrastructure where we can train more locals, provide a well-stocked workshop, and host people from all over the world who want to learn the art of natural building.  This creates stable employment for local builders, as well as proliferating both modern and ancient techniques of natural and sustainable building.

DSC_3260We are laying the foundation for lasting positive shifts in knowledge, and your support could go a long way toward helping create a vibrant community of natural and sustainable builders here.  Together, we can shift away from concrete blocks and tin roofs to lasting structures of bamboo, earth, and stone.  And in the process, we can support marginalized Guatemalan communities.

-Isaac Fairbank

Eyliese’s Internship

Hi, and please welcome Eyliese, who just finished a two-month natural building internship with me here in San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. Here is her version of the encounter:

Hello, my name is Eyliese Jiunta and I am currently an undergraduate student at Green Mountain College in Poultney, VT majoring in Renewable Energy and Ecological Design.  My studies concentrate on the economics, policies, and applications of renewable forms of energy, as well as design of products, buildings, and systems that aim to emulate ecological systems of sustainability. Basically, I learn how to design things in a sustainable way, and learn enough about renewable forms of energy, mostly solar (PV and Solar Thermal systems) to be able to implement them into my designs as well as understand their place in the world and how to make that place a little easier to attain. I like to think that I’m learning to design for a better future, however cliché that sounds.

The best part of the Renewable Energy and Ecological Design (REED) program, in my opinion, is the empowering ability to take a design, whether it be for a bike trailer, or a solar garage/vehicle charging station that you’ve created, and to have the ability to see it through its design, prototyping, and finishing phases. There is nothing more satisfying to me than to begin with an idea that can help solve one problem, small or large out there in the increasingly toxic world, and to take that idea and back it up with real research, data, trial and error, and to create a beautiful solution from it. This is what gets me excited. This is the outlet that I’ve discovered for my inherently artistic way of looking at the world, coupled with my desire for solutions to be practical and simple.

As a part of my program, I am required to complete an internship during the summer between my junior and senior years.  The internship is supposed to give real world experience in the field of our choosing, as well as a glimpse into how others are out there designing solutions. Lucky for me, I managed to land an incredible opportunity working with Charlie Rendall in the highlands of Guatemala, learning the intricacies of bamboo, plaster, and earthen building, how to best deal with the unique policies that surround construction here, how to project manage like a pro, and how to always embrace a design opportunity that crops up, however small.  Basically how to build with a sustainable material, run a tight ship, and manage to still have fun with it.

Charlie currently has quite a few projects underway: a Tai Chi Temple, a medical clinic, a Yoga Studio, a hotel, and a few various others. Quite the spread of different applications for bamboo – like I said, always keeping it interesting.

Most of my attention has thus far been focused on the medical clinic that is being built in San Pablo, a neighboring lake village. So far, I have had the opportunity to help with drafting the plans and dimensions of the building using Rhinoceros, a CAD program that intimidated me at first, but I would now dare say I feel almost comfortable using. Almost. I also built a 3D model of the building, which has proven pretty helpful for showing to Vicente, the site supervisor, and JoAn, the director of the clinic, a better way of envisioning the space than with traditional floor plans. I have also been involved in design decisions, detail drawings of the Bambareque (a hybrid of bamboo and barajeque, two different building types) wall system, and site visits.

So far, it has been a whirlwind of an experience. Charlie and his team are definitely doing it. They’re actively out there, getting clients, stretching the limits of a sustainable building material’s applications, (they’ve made bamboo hammer trusses!!!), and doing it all while enjoying their lives. That’s one thing that has stuck with me the most. For all of the bouncing from one project to another, getting materials out to this off the beaten path location, juggling budgets, there is clearly a feeling of a life being lived and enjoyed here. That is what I so often find others and myself from the States compromising. We get so caught up in “making a difference”, and stretching ourselves so thin that the cracks start to show that we forget what we’re doing it for. We forget that in order to be players in creating a sustainable future, we need to live in a sustainable present. I can see that a lot of it stems from front-loaded preparedness, being smart and efficient and thorough in the beginning and not cutting corners. This really does pay off later in the game, and the stress levels seem to stay manageable. That is one lesson I will definitely take away from here. That and how to solder electrical wires together, power-wash an entire house, and harvest bananas.

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to hear a lecture by Jeremy Rifkin, a writer, activist, and the founder and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends. At this lecture, Rifkin spoke of The Third Industrial Revolution: a long-term economic sustainability plan to address the triple challenge of the global economic crisis, energy security, and climate change. He described nourishing the “hubs “of sustainability that are cropping up all over the world (they’re there, and they’re getting stronger, I swear!), and then using our increasingly efficient methods of communication to connect these hubs and form a new way of living that is based off of symbiotic relationships in nature. Well, this little hub of bamboo builders is definitely worth connecting and sharing with. There’s energy here, a spark of the future we want, and it deserves to be put on the map.

Natural Building Internship

I’ve recently had the good fortune of being asked to build several new projects in and around the village where I live: San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala, and also of meeting a talented carpenter and architect, Steve Selby.

The upshot of which is that I am able to offer an informal internship to people interested in getting hands-on natural building experience.

The internship would be a great way to learn natural building techniques on very original and experimental buildings, with some talented and experienced folk, in a very beautiful place, with a great community of both foreign and local residents. It also provides the opportunity to learn both Spanish and a very transferable trade at a time when natural building is booming, and in a place where building codes are thankfully still a long way off!

I’ll need to flesh out the description a little but in short I’d need someone who could offer their assistance five days a week, for six hours a day. Tasks would include site visits, supervision, documentation, drafting (both hand drawn and computers) and accounting.

You needn’t be a specialist or have a ton of experience but, to make it worthwhile for yourself and our team here, you’d need to be walking fit, independent, flexible, have basic computer skills, and of course be willing to get stuck in and learn whenever possible. Minimum commitment would be six months.

I may be able to offer some kind of accommodation later in the year, although currently our space is limited. A rustic one-bedroom house here rents for about $100 a month, although you can sometimes get free rent for house-sitting, especially during the rainy season (May-October).

If you’d like to know more, please send me a message!

Thanks, Charlie

Building with Cane – Arundo Donax

It’s not bamboo but looks like it.

It’s great stuff for cheap building – plane old cane embedded in mud, it can last up to 60 years.

Lots of folk around here (Guatemala) use it for cheap fencing but it rots fast, breeds woodworm and can look grim fast.

Much better in a bajareque earthen wall. For maximum hardiness, harvest only mature stalks on the full moon.

It’s not all good though – it grows so fast, burns when dry and the roots are fire resistant so it’s often responsible for spreading big fires and also for spreading like the wildfire resistant weed it is.

Arundo donax – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Going Live

It’s ready at last!

I’ve spent the last seven weeks hiding out in my office and slowly building my course website while Guatemala’s October rain pours and pours outside. I’ve also been making regular visits to my jobsites up the mountain – two constructions and one food forest – whenever I’m needed or the rain lets up to allow me to go.

But mostly I’ve been on the computer, coding HTML, photoshopping pictures, uploading web albums, and figuring out all this newfangled social networking that I’ve avoided very succesfully for the past seven years since I moved to Guatemala.

Me, Charlie, faceblogging
They call this being sociable nowadays!

I think often of the irony of how much time one has to spend in an office to go back to nature these days, but while I loathe the repetitive strain injury I’m developing in my mouse hand, and try in vain to slow my slide towards excessive caffeine dependency, I’m still fascinated by all this technology and the connectedness that it’s achieving between us humans.

I’ve doubled my number of facebook friends (it’s eery how the friend finder can dig into my past much better than I can!), started my first blog (yep, this is it!), published my sixth website, and reconnected with the outside world again. What strikes me the most is how the Internet is finally beginning to be used as an effective political tool by resistance and lobbying movements – witness the Arab uprisings, the Occupy Wall Street campaigners and the success of Avaaz. I just hope that the satellites don’t fall from their orbits just yet and that this unprecedented freedom of communication continues long enough for us to figure out how to manage and sustain ourselves and this extraordinary planet we live on.

So, while I still can, I shall launch my course website and cross my fingers that these modern tools can help me connect with enough people who want to rediscover the ancient human arts of building with natural materials and gardening the forests – so please help me by sharing this blog and the website with people you think will be interested – a big thank you :-)

Click here to go to the course homepageA final, shameless plug of my website – just click’n’go!