Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sustainable Building: A Family Business

I came to Brazil prepared to learn a lot about sustainable building at work during my internship.  What I did not come prepared for was the amazing amout of interest, support and involvement in the field that my family here has shown.  In my earlier visits to Brazil, I'd never realized just how many of my aunts and uncles work in some part of the building industry.  I certainly had no way of knowing that nearly all of my cousins would end up studying in a building related field.  We have everything from architects, to engineers, to construction managers, to building inspectors, to building operation managers to interior designers in the family, and they're all interested in sustainable building. They're always asking about the work I do, for advice on making their buildings more sustainable, and telling me about all the cool projects they've been involved in, or about the issues they face in the Brazilian building industry.  It's fantastic that this is something I can share with them!

This past weekend, I went to visit some cousins in Sertãozinho, a small town in the interior of São Paulo state.  My uncle and cousin there have teamed up to start a small family side-business building low-income houses.  The central bank, where my uncle works, loans up to R$ 80 000 (just under CAD$ 50 000), on a low-interest, 20-year plan to allow low-income families to buy their own houses.  My uncle and cousin have gotten the process streamlined.  First, my uncle helps the family choose a lot.  My cousin, who is finishing up her architecture degree, works with the families to design their homes. Since she is not yet a certified arquitect, she gets her plans approved by a local architecture office where she is doing an internship.  Then she sends the plans to my uncle, who files for funding from the central bank.  My uncle also works part-time with a general contractor, overseeing the projects.  They try to keep construction costs as low as possible by reusing materials from other projects, or buying end-of-line products from manufacturers. The whole process takes between 4 and 6 months, and the average house, including the lot it sits on and interior finishes and appliances, ends up costing around R$ 100 000 (or about 60 000$ Canadian). 

After spending an evening looking over my cousin's shoulder while she worked on some plans, I accompanied my uncle to check out the progress on some of the projects currently underway.  The first house we stopped at was nearly done, only missing painting on the inside.  Unfortunately, since it was so close to done, the contractors locked it up so that the stuff inside wouldn't get stolen, so I couldn't get any pictures of the inside finishes.  Here it is from the front:

These houses don't have many windows, for safety and cost reasons.  Unfortunately, the lack of operable windows means there's very little climate control inside.  These houses are doubtless broiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter (they don't have any heating or air conditioning). 

Next, we stopped at a house that was about halfway built.  The structural walls were all up, and the roof was partway finished.  There were still no floors, paint, fixtures or appliances in the house.  Here's what it looked like from the outside.  As you can see, it's made of structural brick, the most common building material in Brazil

And here is a view from inside of what will be the kitchen.  This whole house had maaybe about 25-30 square meters of floor space, and was going to house a family of 6.  One funny thing about the design (which my cousin was furious about) was that the family insisted on having a walk-in closet in one of the rooms.  However, because the house was so small, the walk-in closet occupied nearly half of the larger bedroom.  It's funny what features people cling to when designing a house.

While visiting these houses, my uncle mentioned that a lot of the lower-income houses being built in Brazil today do not have solar hot water, which has been popular in Brazil for the past several decades, because the solar hot water systems, which cost maybe about R$ 1500 (800$ CAD) are too much of an initial investment. It's sad that such a widely available, easy-to-install, cost-saving technology is not available to those who need it the most. 

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