This project initially came about to full fill a need for adequate bilingual education to the community of Merida, Maderas National Park, and Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. Public education in Nicaragua is approximately three years behind international education standards. The long-term goal is to improve Medida educational standards and provide bilingual leadership skills for the local children. Hacienda Merida has supported and partially funded this project. The goal is to select children from economically disadvantaged families and give them the opportunity to begin learning English as a second language in a private public school setting.
Architectural designer and sustainable design specialist, Aaron Chevalley, was introduced to the project with the intent to design and deliver an environmentally sensitive and unique project that will hopefully be replicated in the coming years by both Hacienda Merida and community members. Construction was taken on by local laborers and building specialists along with the ongoing support of volunteer groups over the initial stages of the project.
Aaron, a specialist in constructing earthquake resistant earth bag buildings, proposed the earth bag structure as an alternative to the more traditional and unstable brick and mortar construction. Hacienda Merida has been working for five years on a very successful trash collection project where community members fill and deliver plastic bottles filled with trash in return for pay ment. Hacienda Merida currently has more than 3 tons of garbage disposed of inside plastic bottles and has been looking at various ways to use the bottles for community development projects. The latest being tables and chairs for the Hacienda as well as the local public school. The plastic reduces the volume of concrete needed. They have also incorporated the plastic bottles into the concrete floors of the dining area at the Hacienda.
Locals, visitors and employees are encouraged to collect garbage in plastic bottles. They receive $.20 cents for each bottle collected. This has attached a fiscal value to the bottles and generated a micro-economy for garbage in the locality on the island. Attitudes towards garbage collection have been profoundly affected. It is estimated that 100 people have been actively involved in collecting garbage on a regular basis, demonstrating a behavioral change in the population. The local area has markedly less litter on the roadsides as a result. This is direct evidence that community development has resulted from the initiative.
The earth bag construction and plastic bottle re-use were two ideas brought up independently of each other. After the initial introduction to the site and a meeting with the architect, the decision was reached that the best solution was to incorporate both materials and methods into the school construction. The earth bags have been used as structural columns for roof bearings and the bottles were used as the infill between the earth bag columns. Thus the earth bag and plastic bottle school house was born.
One of the primary necessities for constructing an earth bag structure is the need for accessible and clean soil. The soil was obtained using the dirt dug for the leech bed of the future septic system. Thus two crucial development projects were combined, enhancing the efficient use of local resources and materials.
The projectâ€™s success will be determined by the improvements to the school community and the community as a whole. The community will reach a consensus on the most efficient means of structural construction, either earth bag, plastic bottle or combination. The school is being built in phases. Many locals have arrived on the site asking questions and observing the construction. Most of the paid working crew has found both methods labor intensive, but all have agreed that both are very stable, inexpensive, and viable construction methods. There has been dialogue with the construction crew about possible alternatives (specifically using earthen plaster as the material for rendering). Overall the community has shown a rise in faith for this method and some parents of the school children have started considering using one of these methods for their own dwellings. There will be ongoing construction by the school community to increase the number of classrooms.
One example of the impact of the project was observed as a group of children next to the Hacienda were collecting their own bottles, filling them with sand, and attempting to stack them in a row. Similar to what we have been working on at the school site. When asked what they were doing they said they were trying to make a wall for their aunts' house.
The earth bag typology has definite advantages for structural purposes while the plastic bottles hold a more environmental advantage as they are easy to come by and filling them with trash helps the cleanliness of the surrounding area. If this effort can be alleviated by creating an industrial process for filling bottles with shredded trash and/or instituting donation/grant money to be used in payment for trash filled bottles then it is certain this typology could begin fixing the problem of excess plastic waste and improving community infrastructures and housing conditions at the same time. Alternative uses for these bottles will help alleviate the toxic burning and landfills on the island. If used properly, plastic bottles packed tight with sand can have structural qualities, however it is uncertain as of yet what the structural loads of bottles filled with trash can achieve. It is noted that in order to obtain the maximum structural capacity from the bottles it is important to keep the bottles airtight and as dry inside as possible.Earth bag constructed housing can be very beneficial for construction in remote locations by both preventing water infiltration during the rainy seasons and because it can be implemented by relatively unskilled labor. Although bulky, it is a very good structural alternative (for earthquake resistance and cost restraints) to concrete columns and rebar cages. They also have the potential for being used as water proof and termite resistant stem wall systems, cisterns, retaining walls, and interior flooring.
The projectâ€™s success will also be demonstrated by the adoption of these techniques as sound, economic alternatives to the traditional construction. This project has been more economical than similar scale brick and mortar projects. The major cost factors include the concrete footing and stem wall, concrete rendering, ring beam, and roof. All of these factors can be worked with as an increase or decrease in final cost. See the budget proposal for specific components of the building project. A concrete ring beam above the earth bag walls has been completed.
The project needs to move forward with ground improvements including signage as the road will paved within the next year increasing amount and speed of traffic in front of the school. Most of the local population, including the students use the road for walking.
Ometepe Island has recently been declared by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. Increased volume of tourists is expected. The island has dazzling diversity formed by two volcanoes rising above Lake Nicaragua and linked by an isthmus covered by wetlands. Ometepe is the largest volcanic island in the world with two volcanos located in a freshwater lake. Proficiency in English will provide the means for local students to participate in the tourist industry in an economically meaningful way and increase family incomes. Todayâ€™s children living in Merida, with English as a second language, will be able to compete with foreign workers for gainful employment in the tourism industry.
Long term commitment in behalf of Hacienda Merida will ensure sustainability by providing for cost overruns, electricity, clean chlorinated water, maintenance security and long term administration for the school. Hacienda Merida will continue to actively engage in fundraising with the visitors and writing grant proposals. The addition of classrooms and ground improvements of the bilingual school will set the stage for future funding for the completion of a fully functional free bilingual elementary school for children between six and twelve years old. The final long term project will take six years to complete and will house 72 students. Each classroom design will have a capacity 12 children with one or two teachers with in each classroom.