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Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua

by SosteNica
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Sustainable Cookstoves for Homes in Nicaragua
Ramon and Ada
Ramon and Ada's home

At long last, Ramon and Ada Sepulveda have a home.  Their's is an experimental sustainable home, designed by SosteNica and paid for by our generous donors.  Like so many experiments, it took longer to build, cost more than budgeted, and includes more features than originally anticipated.  All in all, they are happy with their new home and SosteNica learned a lot about sustainability, as well as about home construction in general.  Today, we are happy to share with you, and all of our supporters, some details of the final product.

The home was originally planned to enclose 387 square feet.  Proving the dictum "If you build it they will come" once the construction had begun, Ramon's mother-in-law and nephew elected to join them, to live in the house.  That decision made a larger (581 square feet) footprint advisable.  The loft space was also enlarged, pushing the final construction price up from $13,000 to $16,000.  Included in that final price was a fully functional composting toilet, as well as 107 square feet laundry area where the family will bathe, wash clothes, and do cleanup from cooking.  They call it the "wet zone."

The home had originally been designed to include solar electricity, but the elevated construction costs made it necessary for them to connect to the grid instead, at least for now.  They did embrace other eco-techs however, including a 5,000 litre rainwater capture system.  The final window count grew from a planned 32 square feet to a generous 172 square feet.  376 square feet of floor space is covered in ceramic tile.

Important lessons learned by SosteNica in the process include:

  • stay in constant communication with the future home owners;
  • make sure that the eaves are large enough to protect earth walls from hard rainfall
  • quality control before and during construction is easier than error remedy after completion

Perhaps the biggest take aways were three:

  1. Nicaragua, and every other country in the world, needs to take sustainability (green) issues into consideration when planning housing, whether for wealthy or for low-income families.
  2. SosteNica, while committed to modeling sustainable solutions for housing, is best built for extending credit, rather than overseeing the actual construction of affordable housing.  
  3. The single most important factor contributing to a shortage of affordable housing is the market alone cannot produce a quality product that a low income family can afford.  A non-profit like SosteNica does not have the resources required to subsidize the difference between "cost of construction" and "ability to pay”.

We are very grateful to all of our generous supporters who contributed to this effort.  The donated funds not only enabled the construction of an experimental model home for one family.  More importantly, the made possible a laboratory for design and experimentation that will serve for many projects in the future.

Home Site Layout with Eco-Technologies
Home Site Layout with Eco-Technologies

    Nicaragua, a nation of just over 6 million, continues to suffer from a staggering housing deficit. At present, 650,000 families require new homes, and the number is growing. SosteNica has grown passionate about sustainable housing. Thanks in part to gifts received through GlobalGiving, SosteNica has developed an eco-sustainable housing proposal -- one which is holistic in nature and based on low carbon building materials. Our project proposal responds to a range of inadequate "affordable" housing solutions found in Nicaragua.  Low-income communities endure squatter settlements, overcrowding, absence of public services, informal urban growth, contamination and environmentally damaging building materials.  Our design incorporates adaptation to climate change, economic resilience and contributes directly to a more adequate social housing solution. Key social, economic and ecological design features have been incorporated into our design, the full description of which can be seen by clicking on the link below. 

    While SosteNica began its construction efforts with CEPRODEL, it wasn't until 2012 that, supported by Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), we actually put trowel to mortar. The result was our magnificient EcoCentro in downtown Nagarote, a two story adobe office from which we run all of SosteNica's agro-ecology programs. Ricardo Cruz has led the housing program work, collaborating at one point with FUNDESONIC. He now heads a bigger vision to develop larger residential projects.

    The Nicaraguan government, in an effort to address the housing shortfall, has created a Social Housing Fund to promote the construction of adequate housing solutions by granting direct subsidies and benefits for low-income families. More recently, the government signed a loan contract with the Inter-American Development Bank, borrowing $70 million (US dollars) to build 75,000 new affordable homes in the next 3 to 4 years. This funding will be administered by the FOSOVI (the Fondo Social de Vivienda) and will subsidize construction projects in public-private initiatives, in urban developments as well as financing the private sector and NGO’s that work to reduce the social housing deficit. Law No. 677 and its reforms allow for ample margin to encourage the construction of a wide variety of products. One of the direct subsidies will be to grant $2,000 (USD) in cash to the homebuyer as well as to reduce by 3 percentage points the commercial mortgage interest rate. These subsidies, among other factors have contributed to making construction a growth industry in Nicaragua. Over all construction in 2015 saw an increase of over 20% in square feet built when compared to 2014.  

    We expect to contribute to the national conversation in 2016.


House lot includes kitchen, laundry and composter
House lot includes kitchen, laundry and composter

Our construction site at Piedras Quemadas lies at the base of the Masaya Volcano.  It endures deposits of sulfuric acid smoke, volcanic ash, tremors and even earthquakes.  These challenging conditions have required slight modifications, but not compromises, to our design.  Sulfur corrodes sheet metal roofing.  In response we have chosen a rust proof volcanic pumice roof tile that is strong enough to carry a load of volcanic ash deposited by periodic erruptions.  The threat of tremors has obliged us to reinforce the walls using double pressed earth block as well as reinforcing columns every six meters.  The lack of sewage treatment in the area has obliged us to get creative with grey water treatment and on site waste management -- notably a two chamber composting toilet.  In short, our design and the site are perfectly suited.  The core home has two enclosed bedrooms, a sleeping loft and an open dining/family area which can be enclosed if the owners so choose.  The open area kitchen keeps smoke and heat from entering the sleeping areas.  The bathing and clothes washing area is in a separate corner of the property as is the dual chamber composting toilet. Throughout the property are garden areas for producing fruits and vegetables.

The complete package is productive, beautiful, healthy and minimizes waste or contamination.  SosteNica and FUNDESONIC are in the final stages of negotiating the details of the next phase of construction.   

basic house design
basic house design
Artist rendering
Artist rendering

We have learned many valuable (if expensive) lessons from our first round of construction with the Sepulveda family.  Our Sustainable Affordable Housing design team in Nicaragua have been hard at work refining the blueprints for our second round of construction.  The drawings, shown here, reflect the many improvements that will make the next house construction stronger, as well as better insulated, while using even less steel and cement than the first design.  The foundation bedding uses black volcanic rock found on site.  The floor is elevated by almost 8 inches (20 cm) to avoid flooding or the entry of volcanic ash in the event of eruptions of the local Masaya volcano.  The walls employ double thick earth block creating a thermal buffer from Nicaragua's tropical heat.  We will use "sweat equity" to reduce costs, teaching the home owners to lay block, using as mortar, the same earth as the block material.  In addition, the walls are reinforced with buttress columns every 9.84 feet (three meters).  Finally, the entire structure is held together with a bond beam ring atop the walls onto which the volcanic tile roof will be afixed.  

The UNI (Nicaraguan National Engineering University) has partnered with SosteNica, hoping to use this project as a teaching and research platform for students and faculty.  The leaders of the community Brigada 21 (also known as "Piedras Quemadas" or "Burned Rocks") continue to express tremendous enthusiasm.

Because we see this project as, first of all, one of empowerment, we will delay ground breaking.  Even as the design elements are refined and put into place, we will be working with the community, including children, on issues such as gardens and food security.

Areal view
Areal view
Current Housing in "Brigada 21"
Current Housing in "Brigada 21"

Sometimes life doesn't go the way you expect.  The same can be said for development work. In our recent Social Housing Project, SosteNica partnered with CEPRODEL in the credit department and with FUNDESONIC in the area of adobe block construction.  We spent many months designing and engineering an innovative pressed earth block home with volcanic rock tile roof and a loft sleeping quarter in a format that would allow our chosen family to add on rooms as their young family grew.  We designed a "nucleo humedo" -- an outbulding that incorporated all of the water related eco-technologies -- grey water treatment, composting toilet, rain water capture and filtration, clothes and dish washing area, and shower.  When we broke ground everything looked like a go, but often, life doesn't go the way you expect.

With the walls up and the roof ready to be installed, the Sepulveda family offered, and SosteNica agreed, that they should purchase the half finished building outright, and continue the construction under their own supervision.  

This unexpected turn of events has allowed SosteNica to take the resources donated to build our first model home, further improve upon the design, and begin working with very poor families in a veterans' neighborhood "Brigada 21".  The residents of this neighborhood are so eager to move beyond their plastic and sheet metal homes that they have donated a plot of land for the construction of the first model home.

Once again, SosteNica is working with some of Nicaragua's leading earth architects and progressive University faculty to design and implement affordable housing that is more than just affodable.  Our goal is to make this project into an educational opportunity.  

Every human on earth needs adequate shelter.  There are multiple strategies for meeting that need.  We plan to work with many of the 300 families living in and around "Brigada 21" to create a demand for environmentally sustainable housing, building with earth, minimul concrete and steel, maximum eco-technologies and edible landscaping.

While we were sorry not to complete the Sepulveda home, we have reached an agreement that is mutually beneficial -- one that will allow them to oversee the project in a way that meets their needs while we can refine our design and work with an even more needy community, eager to embrace the advantages of earth and natural construction.  The possibility of using a single home to inspire dozens of families to create a new low-income building model in Nicaragua holds tremendous potential for the future.  Stay tuned for more unexpected developments!

Partially complete Sepulveda home
Partially complete Sepulveda home

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Organization Information


Location: West Chester, PA - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Alan Wright
Project Leader:
Alan Wright
West Chester, PA United States

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