"Small is beautiful." So goes the title of British economist, E.F. Schumacher’s manifesto. While his appropriate technology movement has been eclipsed by a wave of social entrepreneurs who 'Design for Extreme Affordability', Schumacher's mantra is alive and well in Bogotá, Colombia. Located on a small farm tucked between the foothills of the Eastern Andes, Fundación Organizmo is a crucible where diverse methods in sustainable architecture blend with locally sourced and recycled materials to create housing that is as simple in engineering as it is elegant in design.
After studying architecture at the Parson’s School of Design, Fundación Organizmo’s founder, Ana María Gutiérrez, recognized the barriers between the aspirations of ecologically conscious community developers and the skills required to build high-quality, safe and affordable housing. “People get really excited when they see pictures of superadobe houses online, so they watch a 15 minute video on YouTube and think that they can build their dream home, but it’s not that simple,” Gutierrez cautions, “that’s why we’ve created this space for the exchange of practical, hands-on knowledge in bio-construction.”
Organizmo was born out of impromptu amateur workshops in sustainable architecture techniques, led by Gutierrez on her family’s farm. Over the past four years, transient volunteers and apprentices have mastered skills in a variety of techniques - including plastic bottle houses, superadobe, geodesic domes, solar-dried bricks, and more - leaving behind an eclectic village in their wake, and introducing their newly learned skills to developing communities around the world.
“Once we impart the fundamental principles of a given technique,” Gutierrez says, “apprentices can adapt architectural forms to the unique characteristics of their respective communities.” Indeed, one Organizmo fellow from the arid Guajira province of Northern Colombia, and another from the Amazon may both learn how to build a superadobe eco-dome in the mild highlands outside of Bogotá. Applying the same technique within different climatic and cultural contexts, however, produces two distinct solutions to the same fundamental problem: the lack of high-quality and eco-friendly housing.
Organizmo addresses this problem through regular workshops at its campus, and also by partnering with government agencies to bring sustainable housing directly to communities in need. But whether they are helping to build recreational spaces out of recycled materials in a peri-urban neighborhood, or blending new techniques in bio-construction with indigenous practices in the Amazon, Organizmo faces new challenges not experienced when working with like-minded individuals on their own turf.
“We try to strike a balance in meeting the demands of municipal stakeholders, while also delivering culturally-relevant and acceptable habitat solutions,” says Gutierrez. This often takes time, with up to six months dedicated to raising awareness amongst community members, alone. But by nurturing associative, participatory and hands-on skills in bio-construction, Organizmo creates projects in social innovation that are wholly adopted and maintained by the communities they serve.
This type of behavior change is no easy feat, especially when considering that the material ambitions of impoverished Colombians are not so different from those of their middle and upper class counterparts. Organizmo’s answer is not to mollify these populations with the cheapest available solutions in adequate housing, but rather to enable communities to harness the fruits of local ecosystems, in order to create homes and public spaces that consistently grow and improve as communities prosper.