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At this stage I am looking for suggestions for this event and some idea of attendance figures. It should be a great time for both masons and bakers to get together as this trend tosards viable micro bakeries takes off across the country, in fact in most western countries simultaneously.
Contact persons are myself, and Dave Miller at the Millers Bakery 5833 Lunt Road, Yankee Hill, CA, 95965 (530) 532 6384.
(Editors note: Bill Steen is the co-author of "The Straw Bale House". The report below was posted to the strawbale listserver. Casas que Cantan (houses that sing) is an ongoing project to provide low cost straw bale housing through sweat equity. A donation of $500 provides all of the required construction materials to allow a Mexican family to build their own straw bale house.)
Greetings to all,
For those who are interested, I suppose it is time for a report on how things went with the "Casas que Cantan" project in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico. Apparently Paul Salas beat me to it long ago and covered many of the technical facets in his report to the list back in January. So....I won't add further details at this time. Sorry to take longer than we had hoped to let you all know how things went, but immediately after our return we went to work on editing the next issue of The Last Straw and here we are.
It was the biggest group that we have ever taken to Mexico, but one of the easiest and most fun. As you might well imagine, coordinating an event that mixes 25 non-Mexicans with about 20 Mexican participants on a daily basis is quite a challenge. Transportation and meals are major events in themselves. However, we all survived in good order. Every year the interaction between the Mexican people and the people we bring gets easier. In addition to those who came from the States and Canada, we had 3 participants from Japan. The Japanese and the Mexicans really seem to enjoy each other which is actually quite fascinating when one stops to realize how dramatically different their cultures are. After observing Japanese eating habits when in Mexico, I can safely say that anyone interested in opening a Mexican style taco stand in Japan would most likely do quite well.
Bob Bolles never made it due to back problems. We "sorely" missed him when it came time to excavating the wells and he never sent the shovel that he promised. However, the residents of Xochitl said to tell him that he is welcome anytime and to make sure that he doesn't forget his shovel when he comes. Carolyn Koch of cob/straw bale/water reed thatch fame drove all the way from Michigan to lend her expertise and ended our stay there by giving lessons in water reed thatching to the gals. We also had Molly Miller with us who was a long time editor of Mother Earth News before departing for her new position as editor of Natural Home Magazine. One of the biggest hits in Xochitl were the samples of bamboo floor tiles brought by Molly's friend David Adamson, who distributes natural building products. The women of Xochitl thought the floor tiles were perfect surfaces upon which to make tortillas.
We had other friends and a diversity of different folks with us. Once again we had our friend Ray Winders, a retired rebar inspector from California, who joined us for the 4th year in a row. He just thinks Mexico is one of the most amazing places he has been and he can never stop commenting on how many things he can see there that he can't see at home. And he never stops reminding me how happy he is that he didn't have to work inspecting rebar in Mexico. However, the most amazing aspect of Ray's visits is that 4 years ago he adopted a family with two daughters and has been sending them $150 a month ever since and managed to help recreate their lives.
Most of the participants who came stayed with us for a two week period. During week one, we were able to work on two buildings simultaneously. One that had been started earlier was at a stage perfect for additional plastering while the second was built from the ground up. The second of the houses was built for a young couple named Carlos and Rosario. Up until this building we had been using recycled concrete pieces for the foundations, but this time we shifted to using stone due to easy accessibility. I shared Paul Salas's account with our Mexican co-workers and upon reading the part where Paul describes the Spanish foundation method called "tapia" they were quite perplexed. They couldn't figure out why their foundation had anything to do with the Spanish and for that matter they wanted to know who the Spanish were and when they had been in Mexico. Needless to say we had a few good laughs over that discussion.
We made a basic change on the house built for Carlos and Rosario in that it was the first one on which we decided to try a metal roof. It raised the cost of the building from $500 to $650, but it was an immediate hit and it appears that the folks there want to keep doing them. The straw clay roofs finished with lime plaster can be successfully done, but prove to be a little too difficult for the amount of unskilled labor that we are working with.
Paul Salas brought pumps for two wells to be dug in the Xochitl area. One was completed several days after he left and is ready for installation of a pump, but as things go in Mexico, trying to get the fellow who has the pumps to bring them out to the site has been slow going. But for now, at least the site where live Carlos and Rebecca, there is water that can be drawn by buckets. The location for the other well was selected by the community "willow branch" dowser who predicted that the water depth would be at 6 meters. Excavation has begun and theoretically will be completed within the next two weeks, if water is found at that depth. When the well is completed we will be able to dedicate it in the memory of Pam Bolles.
An extra benefit of all the activity taking place there in Xochitl is that we were able to pass on sufficient funds to begin construction of a chapel as had originally been suggested by the list members. So as it turns out, Xochitl will ultimately have both the chapel and several wells. Dewey, where's the glass?
As I am writing, the memories of the two weeks we spent there flood my mind, but that which I remember most vividly is the image of Carlos and Rebecca, who had lost their young daughter several months before. During the two weeks that they worked with us, they went through an amazing process of transformation. By the end of the two week period one could see the light coming back to their eyes. Working side by side with everyone, the letters they received, the numerous gifts brought on their behalf and the new well by their home, all these factors combined to infuse a tremendous amount of vitality into their life. Once again, it appears that they have a life with hope and meaning.
The other image that sticks in my mind is that someone remarked that the Mexican women resembled a group of swallows building their nests out of mud and straw. The image stuck and soon several of them were being referred to as "Las Golondrinas de Xochitl" (the swallows of Xochitl) who are building houses that sing.
In addition to the two houses and the wells, we re-plastered Rebecca and Carlos's house with a new coat of lime plaster that was prepared from carbide lime that we acquired from the local acetylene gas plant. For more on carbide lime see the new issue of TLS. Carolyn Koch also led a thatching session with water reeds to cover a little gate that leads to their house. And in conclusion, on the final day, all were treated to a Sonoran style "comida" or mid-day meal of grilled "cabrito" (baby goat), salsa, beans and homemade tortillas (not made on bamboo floor tiles).
Thanks to donations made by various folks we were able to purchase several sets of doors and windows for houses that had been started earlier - purchase the materials for the roof of another house that is being built of straw clay blocks - and give a month's worth of work to Carlos and Rebecca to help prepare for another project next month.
We'll be going back next month to build a nubian style vault on a small 3x5 meter building out of straw/clay blocks. Working with us will be a woman named Simon Swan who studied with Hassan Fathy and has been doing this type of building over the last few years in southern Texas. The idea behind this effort is to see whether or not the technology can be easily transferred to the people of Xochitl and whether or not the aesthetics of such a building are acceptable.
We also secured drawings from the children there to serve as the cover of the "Casas que Cantan" CD.
Presently, there are 10 houses that are close to completion in Xochitl. All of these have been made possible by the efforts and contributions of those of you on the list-serv who have contributed over the last year and a half. What is amazing to us is that the whole effort continues to grow. It has gone through its ups and downs, disagreements, slow learning and assorted difficulties, but "Casas que Cantan" project keeps going. Most importantly it keeps improving, slowly, but nonetheless it continues improving at a steady pace. And perhaps even more important still is that there is learning taking place as to what works and what doesn't.
The honests are simple and basic, far from perfect. The form they take has been a balancing act between our ideas and theirs, their skill levels and the materials at hand. It will take time before we can honestly say that we know what works and what doesn't. Cooperative efforts sometime take a little longer, but in the long run they are usually more solid. Casas que Cantan is a ongoing experimental effort that learning what it takes to bring different worlds together.
And before I forget Rob, they are still waiting for the drawing of Bullwinkle so that they can formally christen "Casa Moosehugger" with the right emblem. They had to substitute a scorpion and didn't feel like it was sufficiently Canadian.
Thanks to all of you who have made this possible, Athena and I really find it amazing what has happened there over the last year and a half. The people of Xochitl appreciate it more than you can ever imagine. Its really amazing to see what can happen when people take it upon themselves to give up an evening of entertainment or the like and send a few dollars to people a lot less fortunate than themselves. There have been no big foundations involved, no formal grants made, it has come from people and families willing to extend a hand to others who are really not much different than themselves. Yes, there are houses that are being built, but more importantly there are people being built as well. In the long run, it will be that which matters. And a number of people who didn't have glasses now have them. If you happen to remember him, the older gentleman Don Juan is no longer mistaking vegetables for weeds as he gardens.
And another thanks to those who came as participants to our January workshop. It is the one way that The Canelo Project can recoup some of the expenses that we incur during the course of the year. In addition to the work there, we have unofficially adopted the many members of a large extended family that we work with and who are the ones that make everything possible regarding the work in Xochitl. In short, what that means is that when Athena and I want to go for tacos, 15 to 20 of us can end up going for tacos. But no complaints, it is far better to eat in good company than to eat alone.
Our thanks again to all, Bill (for Athena as well)
Date: February 15, 2000
I was contacted today by a guy who was in your website and read the House Depressurization Workshop you have posted. Turns out he has a very similiar problem (as we know a lot of people do, but they may not realize it) that I was working on and he asked for some help. I received tons of help and tips from Norbert and that information is still being of help today, over a year later.
Just wanted to provide you some (positive) feedback
and that your site is helping the public. Great Job!!!
Date: February 11, 2000
Date: Wed, Feb 09/00