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Desert Rain

Monday, February 18th, 2013



When architecture students ask for advice early in their career, I usually tell them to join the Peace Corps, travel, work in construction…..in short, gain non-architecture experiences that will later make them a better architect.  Architecture as a profession requires multiple perspectives on how people live and a breadth of knowledge about the innumerable factors that impact their lives and the spaces in which they live.   Personal experience, I believe, is the best way for architects to gain those deeply insightful perspectives.


As we prepare for RAW Oaxaca 2013 this year, I was reminded that even though our personal experience – of place, people, weather, etc – is critical for designing meaningful buildings, architects are almost always required to design for circumstances or conditions beyond their own experience base.  This year’s project will bring this dichotomy to life for the RAW team.  


RAW Oaxaca 2013 will focus on water – water collection, water storage, and shelter from water.  Water in San Pablo Etla, and especially in the La Mesita Eco-reclamation Project, is a precious commodity that needs careful management.  During the rainy months of the year, San Pablo Etla receives over 5 inches of rain per month, similar to the average monthly rainfall in Miami and Juneau (and a whole lot more than Seattle or Portland).  That’s a lot of water!  During the workshop in March, however, when RAW students will be there gaining a first hand understanding of the site, water will be scarce.  Rainfall accumulation in March is less than 1/2 inch per month, on par with Phoenix or San Diego.  This presents a challenge to our team.  How do they design a water focused project for conditions similar to Miami, based on personal experiences gained in a climate similar to Phoenix?  It’s a real design challenge – gaining an understanding about the site conditions in real time, while using their personal experience gained elsewhere to anticipate other site conditions. This is a critical skill for designers to learn and one that will serve them well in their career.

The Last “official” Day

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Post by Brian Hedberg, BA 2011, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Day 6. The last "official day. With an impending deadline and a project that looked far from finished, we decided to get up early Friday morning to get a jump on the day. We still needed to lay the third floor and assemble about three quarters of the outer layer (the skin). The third floor was scary work. Because of the building's angle, I needed to lean out over the 20 ft precipice to hold 2x4s in place for Paul to anchor in place. For Paul, this either meant stretching and contorting his body on top of the existing third floor truss supports, or doing the same while scaling a scaling a monstrous ladder. Meanwhile, Adam, Charley, Cyrus, Omar, and Eddie were wailing on the skin, and Sam, a RAW student from a previous year led a team of Oaxacanos to remove the wood arch support from the tunnel that had been made the previous day.

At the end of the day I was exhausted and a little bit disappointed that we didn't finish, but also relieved that the end was in sight– that we wouldn't be leaving the kids of San Pablo with an unfinished leaning tower of death. This may sound like a joke, but as the project pushed higher and higher into the sky without any railings or siding, there was a general sense that we were building a terrifying (or terrifyingly fun) playground. This sentiment died a little bit as the skin went up, but I still have my suspicions that building would pass through all the red tape in the US. 

Near sundown, we rushed from the sight to a pizza party at the funky, modern home of U of Minnesota Architecture professor Lance Lavine in downtown Oaxaca. The U of M students had gathered to see a presention on our project. It was a hilarious impromptu presentation that featured about as many pictures of Omar's hair or me making weird faces as it did shots of our project. It was nonetheless gratifying to the fruits of our week's labor examined and presented to other architecture students, many of whom seemed jealous that we were able to build something real, instead of studio models. Or perhaps they envied our mustaches, which were clearly bushier and more numerous than theirs. Either way, it was a good night, with surprisingly good pizza, guac, salad, and cervezas for all.  

Enclosing the Structure

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Post by Omar Davis, Masters of Landscape Architecture 2014, Harvard University

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday morning we were still feeling quite behind on our progress. The second floor was nearly finished but the third floor didn’t exist. The tunnel was cemented together but required the coverage of many cubic yards of earth. The skin-like walls of the tower needed to be attached. And the bridge needed to be hoisted up into place! We started in the morning with much gusto but by lunch found that we were still moving at an insufficient pace.

During lunch we discussed what tasks were inefficient and how we could reorganize our work. At this stage of construction were were slicing so much wood for the floors and walls that we decided to set up a cutting station.  We developed a system to make measurements by placing planks on the structure, handing this wood down to the station for cutting, and sending it back up to be screwed in place. This system employed a number of RAW students and Oaxacaeños in a fantastic assembly line. Trading commands and requests, planks and power tools, we fell into a rhythmic flow of materials and information. By the end of the day we covered much ground and felt a sense of comfort, knowing that we could use the same system at the very beginning of the next day.




One of the highlights of Thursday came toward the very end of the workday. Our tunnel got its much-needed coverage from a very large ‘helping hand’. Carl, the skilled ‘retro’ operator, was called in to carefully place earth on top of the tunnel to build a ramp and embankment.  I began to appreciate the finesse and dexterity required to operate an ungainly machine of seemingly unlimited strength. The tunnel was covered in less than an hour and we were finally able to walk across the top with much confidence!

With the sun hanging low in the sky, spilling orange light onto the site, we marveled at our ability to rally and reorganize our forces.   Although we are far from finished, we built an organizational framework that we will use to complete the structure in the days ahead. 

Hump day

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Post by Eddie Kahen, BArch 2013, University of Southern California

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Maestro maestro maestro…finally it was my turn to run the show (well, kinda). The surprise treat for my special day? I was feeling a little (a lot) under the weather. Headache, coughing, nasally, congested…oh yeah, and my contacts ripped!


The day started out with my list, a set of goals that were seemingly feasible yet inevitably unattainable. My goals for the day: decking on all three floors, finishing the  tunnel, and figuring out the skin…. How? Split up into teams and chop it up, and gett help from our hard working and willing Oaxacan amigos!  Result? Typical "architect's desired work: actual work" ratio… BUT, the yielded results were still quite nice.

We got our first floor done, we finished the tunnel, we placed our structure for the second floor, and we finalized our plan for the skin. Wednesday is hump day, meaning you work extra hard because the work week is almost over and the weekend is almost here. Fortunately for us we had extra motivation to work hard…a dinner / pool party hosted by RAW supporters and San Pablo Etla residents, Bill and Mary Stecher. (Bill is a retired architect and has coordinate all sorts of things with the community for the project.)

So once our workday ended, we headed down the hill to take a nice dip in the pool just as the sun was setting across the valley. Truly a beautful view. Calm, peaceful, relaxing, and refreshing! We were greeted with ice cold beers, fresh chips, salsa and guac, followed by delicious tamales. We were even treated to a Mezcal Tasting Tour. The evening provided a nice little midweek bonding session and morale lift as we looked on to the finish line.

To quote Ice Cube, it was a good day…


- Eddie

Teamwork, trusses and tacos

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Post by Cyrus Rivetna, BSAS, University of Illinois and MArch candidate, Lawrence Technological University

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 – On-site construction.

We started the day with an excellent fresh omelot and Oaxacan cheese cooked fresh for us at the hostel.  When we arrived at the site, we began assembling the truss on the ground; we completed one side, then needed the entire team, including our Oaxacan friends to turn the truss over to complete the reverse side.  By late morning the truss and center post were complete and ready to be hoisted into place; but first it was time for a break for lunch.  Sarai arrived with unbeliveable "tacos dorado con queso y flor de calabaza" (fried tacos with flowers from the squash plant), and fresh pineapple mint juice. After that, we all needed a short siesta.  

The rest of the afternoon was spent hoisting the tower into place.  All of us "gringos" were hesitant when the Oaxacans tied the rope to the truck with the intent to pull the truss up, but we were assured not to worry, and that they knew what they were doing.  Sure enough the structure was up in a few minutes with one rope tied to the back of a truck.  We quickly assembled one of the diagonal braces, but the other required a short pause to widen one of the foundation holes. Fortunately, Eduardo the backhoe driver was onsite, and able to dig through the solid rock to get the hole at the right depth and size.  By the end of the afternoon, the concrete was poured, and the structure was up and standing proud, but by design, was looking like it was about to tip over.  The day ended just before sunset, with the entire group enjoying shots of locally made Mezcal, provided by Roberto.

 - Cyrus

Back in Oaxaca with RAW – Real #Architecture Workshop

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Posted by Charley Umbarger, Bachelors ENVD 2011, University of Colorado, Boulder

As a veteran of 3 Real Architecture Workshops, being back in Oaxaca with Paul Neseth, Adam Jonas, and Barbara Hahn feels like homecoming. It's good to be back. This year's program will expand the the facilities of La Mesita, the restaurant and national park entrance-point perched above San Pablo Etla, north of Oaxaca City that served as last year's site for the lookout El Mirador. We are now two days into a leaning tower playground structure intended to accommodate exploration, sugar highs, hide-away spots, and tag.

I hit the ground running this year in Houston, literally and figuratively. My delayed flight left me 8 minutes to sprint 70-some gates across two terminals in time for a generous gate agent to re-open the flight for me. I boarded to a round of applause as Barb had been pushing for me from inside the plane. 

Once in Oaxaca, our 2012 team began to assemble.  In the days leading up to the workshop, Paul and Adam were busy overseeing the gathering of materials and preliminary excavating. Brian, Eddie, Cyrus and Omar trickled in from every direction and Sunday morning we found ourselves at a ceremonial community breakfast of tamales and emoladas in the presence of local ex-pats, retired architects, and RAW supporters, Jim Austin and Bill Stecher. After a day of planning, modeling and figuring we took to the tools and spent Monday in the sun preparing structural joints in the telephone poles which will be the skeleton of our tower. Stay tuned.

- Charley

Look Out Pisa

Monday, December 19th, 2011

During our second design/build workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico this coming March, our team of RAW students will have a mere 6 days (72 hours to be precise!) to design and build a complete project.  To be successful (and we will), a lot of planning and collaboration is required before anyone arrives in Mexico. We've been in contact with the community of San Pablo Etla for several months, discussing possible projects and design ideas that support the ongoing development of their communal lands for eco-tourism. This upfront programming and schematic design is essential so the client can sign off on the project, the materials and site are ready, and we are off to a running start on the first day.


Of the many possible projects we discussed for next spring's workshop, we happily settled on the creation of an eco-playground. The project will be built close to the RAW Oaxaca 2011 project, El Mirador, on la mesita (the little mesa) overlooking the Etla valley. To accomplish the combined goals for RAW the community, we’ve proposed a tower concept centered on three design parameters:


1.  Discovery – Tower structures lend themselves to exploration and discovery for children.  The act of climbing in, around and through a tower offers endless opportunities to discover the qualities of a space.  As we think about the structure to be created we are excited about the challenge of designing an interior scaled for children, not adults. The complexity of ladders to connect floors. a top deck (with railing) for viewing, and everything in between offers all kinds of design opportunities.


2.  Playfulness – To spark the imagination of the children, the tower will lean to the side and appear to be balancing on one corner. It suggests that nothing is as it seems on the surface – a good place to start when creating for children.  For you students who enjoy designing sculptural, Gehry-esque architecture, the exercise of designing and making complex three dimensional structures will be a good lesson.  


3.  Variability – The topography and geography of the site lend themselves to a variety of potential access points and connections to the surrounding landscape. We will need to design and develop a bridge and several main paths that weave up, down, around and under the adjacent hill, while allowing for the less established paths that the children will create up and down the terraced hillside.


From an architectural perspective, we like the project because the simple form will be both striking and subtle.  We’ve never built anything quite like it and the hidden complexity will offer tremendous design opportunities and challenges for RAW students. It’s success will rely on the well thought out detailed design that is accomplished during the workshop.  We are excited about creating a space for unstructured and creative play for the children of San Pablo Etla, and the community is too. They have already honored the project with a name: “La Torre Inclinada de Bambu".  Move over Pisa, the “Leaning Tower” of San Pablo is on its way.


Designing & Building the Architecture of Play

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Planning for Oaxaca 2012 is well under way.  Just today, we received an email from our friends in Oaxaca asking about materials we’ll need in March.  “We need a rough estimate of the bamboo that you will need. Diameter?, length?, quantity?” they asked. 
Bamboo? That sounds interesting, but for what? you might wonder.  Following several months of discussions with the San Pablo Etla community about ongoing goals for the site, the availability of resources, and the individual benefits of different projects, the decision to design and build an eco-playground was made.  While there were a number of good projects to choose from, in the end, the playground was chosen for three reasons:
  • It allows for a high degree of creative liberty. (that’s good for us)
  • It fills a need for recreation & play spaces for kids.  (that’s good for them)
  • And, it can be accomplished within our short – 1 week! – workshop timeframe. (that’s good for everyone)
A couple of things I've noticed about kids and architecture make me especially excited about designing and building a playground for kids.  The first is the honesty by which kids experience architecture. While adults have filters for what they “should” think, kids are unencumbered by social norms and respond openly to their environment. Kids know what they like and are refreshingly honest in their response. The second is that kids are drawn to discover and when it comes to architecture, the best spaces are those that lend themselves to discovery over time.  Whether a tree, hay loft or urban back alley, the limitless variation of surface, form and structure offers a rich environment for kids' developing minds. (I'll have more thoughts on that in the coming months.) In the meantime, I'm thrilled to partner once again with the community of San Pablo Etla, in the foothills of the Sierra Norte mountains, and anxious to lead a group of young architecture students as we design and build the architecture of play. 
- Paul

RAW show at UNC-Charlotte school of #architecture

Monday, September 19th, 2011

It's both humbling and gratifying to have past participants take pride in and get excited about the learning and work they do at RAW and want to share it with their fellow students and others. This week UNC Charlotte students, Sairy Sanchez, Andrew Baur and Keihly Moore showcased this past summer's RAW design/build workshop, the Hearth, outside of Custer, South Dakota. Sairy, Andrew and Keihly shared a cool overview (it's kind've big) of the workshop and time lapse videos (1) (2) (3) of the design/build process. It sure looks like we worked fast :)

Students also had some thoughtful things to say about their RAW experience: 


I learned to be more confident about my ideas and strengths. In school we often get categorized and known for one thing we're good at. But at RAW, every student was encouraged to try different aspects of design, construction, leadership, and teammwork, which allowed me to get to know myself better in all those areas.


RAW Dakota was one of the most valuable learning experiences I have ever received. For me, the workshop definitely took me out of my comfort zone, but it helped me realize that you really can do anything if you're willing to try it!


In school, most projects we do are individual. We alone come up with the design decisions that meet the program criteria, we choose the materials, and anything else that goes into the project. Only one person is making decisions. In real life, however, architecture is a team effort. Working collaboratively at RAW helped us get an idea of what working for a firm or on site will be like. We have to listen to each other and cooperate.

We will post more feedback from the students later. In the meantime, if you are in the Charlotte area, head on over to the architecture gallery at Storrs and have a peak!

Adding to the lore of the land

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Tuesday + Wednesday July 26-27, 2011

Today was the only fully cloudy day we’ve had the entire trip. Rain came later in the afternoon, a light sprinkling for about at hour. We worked through it. The mood of the group seemed to match the skies – not as cheerful, quieter, more still. Partly I think this is due to how tired we all were (late night last night) and the fact that the end was near and we didn’t want it to come any nearer.

After a while we slowed down in our work, perhaps subconsciously savoring it, not wanting the moment to end. We were so used to the go-go-go schedule, it felt strange to be running out of things to do.

Our last steel corrugated wall panels went up much easier today. My hands figured out how to trick the tin snips into cutting a much smoother, consistent edge, even if it was 1/8”-1/4” at a time. I was proud of that cut, dog-gone-it! I hope I will have filled my quota for cutting steel corrugation for at least a year or two! The top trim piece fit nicely, and the trim on the windows completed the frame in a most complimentary way.

We finished early, cleaned up, and even had time for the birthday cake (three birthdays in 2 weeks!) Charley and a few others made an extra covered wood storage area, and positioned it in harmony with the other buildings, at the back. As we were moving it around, feeling out the right place we must have looked silly. It’s interesting that you can just “feel” a good place. I think we take this feeling a bit for granted.

It was nice that we weren’t rushed; we had time to absorb and just be. Since I tend to be a perfectionist on my design projects, I sometimes carry them to the wire – so this was nice to have time on our side.

We showered (cold, because the sun wasn’t out, even though at times the clouds glowed from behind) and it was raining as I showered, and since the showers are open to the skies, it was like a double shower, of two different spray consistencies, and perhaps not surprisingly, the temperatures were quite similar. The best thing about cold showers on a cold day is how warm and reset you feel when you put clean clothes on.

After a delish dinner, we all followed Julie and the sage smoke scent on the “official” path to the finished spaces. It felt like a light hearted, quirky procession to me. We were all glowing. (At least I liked to imagine we were.)

Not to be left out, Justin and Nate hooked in with Skype and gave their share of birdmans (silly game involving pushups) and virtual hugs. They were silly and the mood was so warm. As we all tucked in the gathering space, Paul and Barb did a great job of the final presentations. All 13 of us got a wedge of the tree we used for the columns with our reward written on it. Awards ranged from Charley’s Most Improved, to Eli’s Most Cheery, to Andrew’s The Bull Award. (Earlier he said his arms didn’t look this way because he was lifting puppies!) We all signed our names under the wedge, and Paul presented this to Julie. Paul also made Jeannie (our amazing chef) a bowl out of the same 65 year old tree (yes, Tim and I actually counted the rings, giggling as we counted from opposite directions knowing how silly we looked holding the round section between us as we stared intently at it). We also got to pick out a piece of rose quartz, which is believed to have heart-healing properties – activating the heart energy. We could all certainly feel it.

Julie had good words to share, reminding me of what I like most about architecture – transforming ideas and visions into physical realities, calling materials to act as our vision, enabling the place to be shared with others. From the client’s point of view, Julie said it was fun to be able to see us take her visions and piecemeal thoughts and turn them into a creative space that we can all collectively call our own. She ended with declaring the two spaces sacred, which was truly a touching moment.

I can feel that I am transformed. I am tired, yes, and my hands remember well all the steel corrugation, but, I think what sticks with me the most now is the story, and, now having accomplished our goals and worked through all the problem solving together, I’m filled with a new kind of energy.

We light our inaugural fire pit and the multi-tiered seating around it is perfect; perfect height and perfect distance from the flames that cast a warm glow to add to our own smiles.

The space feels really good, especially filled with people and laughter. It’s the first time we can truly experience the space in a social way, without worrying about connections, materials, and process of assembly first and foremost in our thoughts. It really can be intimate and accommodating for larger groups, just the way Julie imagined.

Later on, as some turn into bed, others decide to sleep our last night there. We return, sleeping bags in tow, and stoke the fire. It feels odd going to the site without having to work. This night is different then the other group sleepovers we’ve had. The fire changes the dynamic. People cluster in smaller groups and find their own little nooks and spaces to be in. We are there together, but in our own spaces.

Being here, living the work we were doing truly did rekindle my love of design and reminded me of how much I enjoy being outside. I am reminded how much I love woods, how comfortable I feel in them (even with the mystical unseen threat of mountain lions and the sound of the coyote pack). I love the way the trees capture the wind. Julie has had people out who have said the trees have spoken to them about their history, and that oddly comforts me. There is also something about the energy from the rocks. And perhaps its all riding on your won belief system, but I’d like to think they hold an intrinsic power.

I’m especially proud of our reuse of materials – the process in building is repeated throughout. Who says the formwork has to be thrown away immediately? And the bracing and supports? Those are perfectly good rough sawn 1×6. Perfect to form our kitchen wall composition. So, in a way, the buildings can tell their own history through their materials – and it extends beyond its life already! I think this is partly why it feels good. For me it was a real treat to work so closely with wood, chiseling it out, piecing it together, working around the knots, and with the grain.

Oh and my favorite tools, you ask? Chalk line, for one, and chisels for another. The speed square was also extremely valuable too…

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Adam, Tim and I had one last yoga session on the high rocks above the abode. The terrain was challenging and unlevel, as usual, but the views and the breeze and the openness were unmatched. Stretching up there seemed to make my molecules stretch even farther – the expansiveness of the sky is catching. We joked that we could design a yoga session around the idea of construction…. “stretch your arms out like a beam, making sure to remain level…”
On the quiet trek back down to camp I felt lighter and springier. The small stand of aspens glowed white in the morning sun, set against the meadow and ponderosas.

Over the course of the last 2 weeks I also appreciated the small conversations about health I had with Jeannie (our amazing cook). A bee/wasp stung me on my left arm on 2 separate days (I’m pretty sure he just accidentally backed into me.) Jeannie pulled out the OLBAS healing-everything oil from Switzerland. Peppermint and ginger were two of the ingredients. Strong in scent, it was used for many cures. I rubbed a drop on my stings and it provided relief. Another day after lunch I had a sharp stomachache that came on suddenly (I’m still not sure of the cause). I sipped on 2 drops in a 16 oz. glass for a ½ hour and within short order it was gone. Other people were able to clear congestion using the same stuff. Amazing.

Lastly, silence is also something we don’t get enough of. We have the radio playing constantly, or music. There needs to be silence to balance everything (even if it is just within us.) The nights here were so piercingly quiet; at first I could not believe it. No crickets, no frogs, no cicadas. Occasionally there was a coyote pack that could be hear from the hills. I could definitely get my fill here in this place, but as I think about my home in Charlotte with the street out front, a main corridor for sirens, I can’t imagine it. Perhaps I’ll also have to work on cultivating the silence inside as well.

Speaking of silence and, now buildings, reflecting on the experience of just being in the site, absorbing the silence surrounding and taking advantage of the new sense of shelter, in the perfect ways…just a little from the hotness of the sun, and just a little from the sprinkling of rain. The openness of the clerestory still embraces the forest, still connecting, still letting the silence in. I remember, in one conversation around the fire, it was said that architecture should enhance your experience of the place. These structures have done just that, making the site more usable and accessible. They also help to tell the story of the place, through their own making, adding to the lore of the land.

And, with that bit of alliteration, I shall sign off for now.

I'm pleased as punch to be apart of this story with these super people!

All the best,


I am in a dual Masters program in Architecture and Urban Design at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. I am participating in the RAW Dakota 2011 workshop in Custer, SD July 13-27, 2011 and blogging about the experience. Please add any thoughts or stories of your own! Thanks for reading! – Keihly Moore