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Post by Silvia Soonets [Proyectos Arqui 5] on Caracas

Last year, a friend invited us to participate in a self-build housing program. It was then, that we heard, for the first time, about Miranda´s Certificates for Building Materials . (Certificados Mirandinos de Materiales de Construcción).

With this program, the provincial government aims to support the people’s self-construction efforts, giving them construction materials. There are several types of certificates, each one with a specific amount of money, to be used in a specific way, either improving an existing house or constructing a new one. The building process is to be supervised by a professional, architect or engineer, who visits the site several times to provide technical advice and to ensure the materials are used as agreed. People never touch money, but the certificate allows them to pick up materials in hardware stores affiliated to the program.

As professionals in charge of a particular area, we would be expected to teach building technics, adapt the typical house design to each case, approve the bill of materials and ensure the completion of the house. At first sight it seemed that our experience in the upgrading projects could be useful and that it was just another way of approaching the typical problems inside informal settlements. It was worth a try; we accepted enthusiastically and started to work immediately.

Nevertheless, at the end of the first site visit we started to become a but doubtful.

The settlement, just outside the state’s capital city, Los Teques, is mostly a rural sector, with few houses, small and simple, without any infrastructure.  Since the program did not include any infrastructure, new bathrooms were supposed to simply let the water run freely, and  connections among houses were steep paths with evident erosion. The houses we advised resulted in hotter (remember the hot tropical climate in Venezuela) and uglier than the existing ones that were supposed to be demolished. Despite our guidance and warnings, there was no time, no money and no interest in solving any of the latter issues. The result? We were helping to build the informal settlement somebody would potentially improve in ten years.

Despite our doubts, we continued visiting several communities. After two weeks, seven communal meetings, almost one hundred individual visits and many signed forms later, we had to accept that the program was not that successful. Aside from the fact that our fees could not cover such a huge effort; no matter how hard we tried, it seemed impossible to achieve any positive impact. No one seemed to want our expertise other than for approving the bills. If anything, it appeared that we were making the problems worse. We decided to cancel the contract, losing the work done. From our point of view as architects, the manner the project was structured, the lack of an integral design (involving infrastructure, urban amenities, etc.) with regard to housing it was a lost opportunity.

Yet, perhaps it wasn’t from the politician’s side? More than six thousand dwellings were built; the new houses said to be “safer” and “cleaner” than the existing ones. Although, additional costs needed to improve the neighborhood are not even being considered, the votes of grateful beneficiaries are real, present and accountable for the next election.

And of course, the land, the rivers and the trees do not vote.

The colleagues we have that are still working in the program, admit the problems, but hope that most of them can be reversible in the future. A clear advantage  through this initiative, is that based in the peoples capacity for building , there are six times more houses built than through ‘formal’ system…

By now we should be able to design a program and process that is able to dig deeper into existing problems, and still give politicians the votes they need to reach the always so elusive “political will”.

3 thoughts on “Architeture vs. Politics: Is it possible for them to agree?

  1. It seems to be a good idea to support the self-help building process with technical input. But why not introducing a good-old sites & services component to this initiative? Is it the obvious answer of not having enough budget or something else?

    • Yes, you are rigth, but , as the houses were already built, it would need an upgrading project, aiming first to the services issues and later to the houses. It takes time and money the program does not have. But mainly, the comun improvements are not as efective as the indivual ones in political terms.

  2. Pingback: Affordable design services | {FAVEL issues}

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