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Archive of Environmental Responsibility

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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

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

Trust. Teamwork. A Shared Experience.

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Returning from our first design/build workshop in Oaxaca Mexico, we have a moment to pause and reflect on the rich and memorable experience of the past week and to express our enormous gratitude to all those involved in making it such a success. 

From the students, who brought their unique talents, energy and enthusiasm, and not a small amount of humor!, to the project day after long, hot day; to the members of the San Pablo Etla community who worked side-by-side with our team and seemlessly anticipated many of our needs with hospitality and a mezcal for good measure, to Primitivo and Maestro Fillio, the community leaders, whose commitment to a vision for the future of the community made the project even possible, to John Harlin and Adele Hammond who made our time in Oaxaca three years ago magical and led to lifelong friendship and especially to John for his inspiration to build tree houses in the forest he hiked and loved, to Jim Austin and Bill Stecher for their support and guidance in negotiating the project vision, and collaborating with us and the community to make sure we got all the big and little details just right, and finally to the RAW team – Adam, Julie, Siri and Paavo who helped in innumerable ways.  Each played a vital role in creating El Mirador, a small but significant structure helping to mark San Pablo Etla's commitment to preserving and sustaining their shared natural resources. 

When we initially approached the SPE community last fall about designing and building a treehouse to support their eco-development initiatives, we did so with many fond memories of our 6 month residence three years ago in Oaxaca which often included hiking and biking in the foothills above San Pablo Etla. 
Through Jim Austin, a long time resident of San Pablo Etla, we established a dialogue and began building a relationship of trust that took us all the way through to a completed project that happily progressed without setback. Though the original proposal was for a treehouse, we learned about a month prior to the start of the workshop that the more important priority was for a gateway structure to the reclamation efforts already underway, and part of a larger vision of sustainable eco-development and tourism. Our initial disappointment of not building among the trees turned to relief as we realized the significant logistical challenges to the more remote site, even with our great students!
The students were amazing in every way. All were open-minded, flexible and as driven to leave with a completed project as we were.  Much was learned, and not just about design. They learned about similarities and differences of life in Mexico, about  working collaboratively, creatively and efficiently within a tight timeline, and about how shared experience creates deep and meaningful relationships and learning. They came to us with little fore knowledge of the demands of the workshop, and in some cases with limited international experience. They went outside their comfort zones physically and culturally  - experiencing a different quality and pace of life that including sharing a daily toast and a bowl of grasshopper soup at the closing fiesta. 
A couple  of participants had no formal training in architecture but shared a curiosity and a willingness to learn as were drawn by the opportunity to create something concrete and tangible with their own hands.
I would have to say that it was an experience unlike anything I've done before. Having the ability to personally connect with a community, spend time getting to know them and the trust to build on their land, it was such a huge blessing in so many ways. Culturally, personally, physically- it was extremely challenging, but I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be stretched and pulled to see what comes out of it! – Caitlin K.
We left Oaxaca, exhausted from an intense week of work, energized by what was accomplished and grateful for the opportunity to connect with so many wonderful people, students and local folks alike. We are looking forward with excitement to the possibility of returning for RAW Oaxaca 2012! 
- Paul & Barbara