Impressions of Ecuador

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Impressions of Ecuador

A visit to South America sparks ruminations on zero-energy homes and sustainable building practices

Posted on Aug 25 2017 by Martin Holladay

For the last year and a half, my son Moses has been serving in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He teaches English at a high school in Cañar, a town in the Andes with a mostly indigenous population. Recently, my family traveled to Ecuador to visit him.

My wife Karyn, our son Noah, and I flew to Quito. Moses met us at the airport. After two nights in Quito, we took a bus to Cotopaxi National Park, where we stayed at a rural hostel. The following day — three days after leaving Boston — we hiked to the top of a 15,489-foot volcano named Rumiñahui.

As we climbed up the last 2,000 feet, I will admit to being a little short of breath. (In most cases, the transition from sea level to an elevation above 15,000 feet should be made more gradually, to avoid the huffing-and-puffing — or worse, altitude sickness — that some hikers experience in high-altitude air. But we made it to the top.)

Moses on the hike up Rumiñahui.

There’s nothing like this type of sudden transition — moving in a matter of days from my familiar office chair to the high-altitude air at the top of the Andes — to clarify the mind and restore one’s spirit.

Even near the equator, temperatures are cool

The town where Moses is living (Cañar) is at a more reasonable altitude of 10,229 feet. During our visit, morning temperatures started out at 42°F, with afternoon highs reaching 52°F. While these temperatures aren’t particularly cold — especially for visitors from northern New England — buildings in Cañar are quite different from those in Vermont. For one thing, Ecuadorian buildings are uninsulated. For another thing, buildings in Cañar lack space heating systems.

When outdoor temperatures are in the low 40s, Cañaris wear jackets — and sometimes, scarves and gloves — indoors.

One morning in Cañar, when my family was seated at a particularly cold restaurant, I mentioned that the implementation of air-sealing measures might result in warmer indoor temperatures. Noah, my youngest son, is familiar with this type of unsolicited comment on building design issues from his father.

“Dad,” he said, “you’re always talking about zero-energy buildings. There aren’t any heating systems in Ecuador, so the heating fuel use is zero.”

That shut me up for a while.

Moses's apartment is located in a 100-year-old mud brick building.

Transitioning from wattle-and-daub to concrete

Many of the older buildings in Cañar, including the 100-year-old building where Moses lives, are built of mud bricks.

Some of the old buildings in Cañar have another type of wall — a variation on wattle-and-daub.

Of course, most newer buildings have concrete block walls and concrete slab floors. Rafters are made of either wood or steel, and roofing is either clay tile or steel.

As is typical in less-developed countries, contractors often find ingenious ways to save money. One trick is to reduce the volume of concrete used for slab floors by adding rocks to the mix.

Most kitchens are quite simple. I took this photo of the kitchen cookstove in the home of a Cañari family that invited us to lunch.

One of the benefits of international travel is that it can provide a global perspective on simple questions like, "What is a kitchen?"

Here's a photo of another kitchen in Cañar.

Inca stonework

The best-preserved Inca site in Ecuador — the Temple of the Sun at Ingapirca — is located a short drive from the town of Cañar, on the top of a hill with commanding views.

The Cañari people have a centuries-old culture that predates the Inca invasion of 1463. The invading Incas forged a new social and cultural system in the subjugated area: one that merged Cañari traditions with those of the Inca conquerors.

Having read for years about the skill of Inca masons, I was especially interested in examining the well-preserved stonework at the Temple of the Sun. As at Machu Picchu, the stone walls of Ingapirca are so carefully fashioned that it’s impossible to slip a knife blade into the unmortared joints between the stones.

Cuenca is a beautiful city

From Cañar we traveled to the city of Cuenca, renowned for its graceful colonial-era architecture. The city’s historic center is a mix of public parks, impressive churches, and centuries-old two-story buildings, many of which include a central courtyard.

A picturesque river flows through Cuenca, adding to the city’s charm.

Fernando Pagés Ruiz and Martin Holladay

Down to the Pacific coast

When we reached the coastal city of Guayaquil, we stayed at the home of Fernando Pagés Ruiz and his wife Martina. Fernando is a developer and longtime Fine Homebuilding contributor; he’s also the author of a Taunton book, . A few years ago, Fernando moved from Nebraska to Ecuador to pursue a business opportunity.

Fernando and Martina were gracious hosts, showing us around the city of Guayaquil and answering many of our questions about Ecuador. Inevitably, Fernando and I lapsed into shop talk, comparing our perspectives on low-income housing solutions.

Blue-footed boobies

Galápagos Islands

From Guayaquil, we traveled to the Galápagos Islands. A visit to the Galápagos Islands is like a visit to the dawn of time.

Visitors to the Galápagos have the opportunity to travel by Zodiac to the beaches of uninhabited islands, where thousands of nesting seabirds show no fear of humans. When we put on our snorkels and jumped into the water, we found ourselves face-to-face with huge schools of tropical fish, playful sea lions, diving cormorants, massive green turtles, marine iguanas, and fast-swimming penguins.

Is there any connection between green building and a visit to the Galápagos Islands? Perhaps. The richness (and fragility) of the ecosystems on these isolated islands are a reminder of how degraded most of the world’s ecosystems have become. After all, the huge salmon runs on the Connecticut River and the thundering herds of bison that used to fill our North American prairies are gone for good.

A visit to the Galápagos Islands reminds us that most North American development schemes that brandish the “sustainable” tag have no idea what the word “sustainable” really means. Almost all of us come from a cultural tradition that has ignored issues of environmental responsibility for centuries.

Ideally, an understanding our environmental failures will remind us of the need to adopt a lighter environmental footprint.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “An Introduction to Pressure Diagnostics.”

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Image Credits:

  1. All photos: Karyn Patno and Martin Holladay

Aug 25, 2017 8:26 AM ET

Home away from home
by Paul Kuenn

Well done Martin and thanks!

I guided on those great mountain tops from '82 to 2000 and miss them much. Hope you took in some of those quake proof scaffolding approaches (hemp tied tree limbs...). The refugios (mountain lodges for climbers) are comfortable once you had enough folks in them for body heat. The best is the 1800's train station on the back side of Chimborazo if you are ever back near Riobamba or Ambato.

Aug 25, 2017 8:40 AM ET

Response to Paul Kuenn
by Martin Holladay

It sounds like you are much more familiar with the mountains of Ecuador than I am -- you must have enjoyed guiding!

I have a few photos of staging in Ecuador -- not many. Here's one from Cuenca.



Aug 25, 2017 10:12 PM ET

Sad & funny but true
by Paul Kuenn

My guiding friend Rodrigo who owned the train refugio had just started building his new home across the dirt road from this beautiful station. They were just beginning to add the clay/straw mix in between the timbers and had the thatch roof already protecting the walls. So lots of exposed wood at this point. On fourth of July to celebrate the US he set off the first firework rocket of the night without thinking about wind direction (American guides always know which way the wind is blowing). Yep, you guessed it. Went straight for the roof and "woof". No fire brigade within 20 miles of rough roads. Within minutes his terrified face turned into a big smile and he let out his usual gregarious laugh. Everyone said "what are you going to do?" His cool reply "Guia de alpinista, always prepared for adversity and ready to start over". Big applaud from the crowd watching it burn.

He did indeed start rebuilding a week later! A lesson to be learned in humility. I've just begun digitizing all my slides. I'll send you some Martin. I'm sure I have some classic building methods.

Aug 27, 2017 11:46 AM ET

Low Income Housing
by Andy Kosick

I honestly think I enjoy your travel pieces as much as anything you write. Perspective might be one of the most important aspects of green building. The mention of a conversation with Fernando Pagés Ruiz made me realize I would be very interested in your views on low income housing solutions. GBA spends a lot of time discussing single family houses that probably half the US population could never afford, and while these are good proving grounds for technology and concepts, few things seem more important to a sustainable building future than affordable housing. I have no idea how to frame the discussion but please consider a future blog post on the subject. Thanks for sharing these trips with us readers.

Aug 27, 2017 11:59 AM ET

Edited Sep 15, 2017 8:02 AM ET.

Response to Andy Kosick
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the feedback; I appreciate it.

And thanks for the blog topic suggestion. It's a good topic, so I imagine that you'll see a blog on low-income housing in the future. [Later edit: Here is the link to the article you requested: Low-Income Housing: Problems and Solutions.]

For anyone interested in previous travel-related blogs, here are some links:

A Caribbean Island Transitions to PV

Construction in Cambodia

Tales From Armenia

Rethinking Durability

Geothermal Energy and Narrow Streets

When the Gas Pipeline Shuts Down

Energy and Construction Photos from Greece

Building Houses and Saving Energy in Nicaragua

Aug 30, 2017 9:32 PM ET

great piece, great trip
by Dan Kolbert

I'm jealous. Thanks for sharing it with us, Martin.

Aug 31, 2017 11:01 AM ET

Response to Dan Kolbert
by Martin Holladay

Yeah -- we had a lot of fun.


Sea lion pup.jpg

Aug 31, 2017 4:40 PM ET

Affordable Housing in Ecuador
by Fernando Pages Ruiz

Andy Kosick , you'll be happy to know I'll be posting a piece on one affordable housing development in Ecuador that combines agriculture with low mortgages to help residents make ends meet.

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