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Building Lightly in El Tejar


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by Will Bloomer and Taylor Dearinger, DBA Designers

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The lively Spanish colonial streets of Antigua, Guatemala, the team's home base.

The Build Lightly team outside our hostel in Antigua.

Click any image for a slideshow documenting the design-build process.

 

At the start of the year, we joined six other architects and design professionals from across the U.S. to participate in Build Lightly Studio’s Design-Build program in El Tejar, Guatemala.

Build Lightly is a design/build collaborative that pairs architecture professionals with participants to design, construct, and deliver projects to community clients in various locations around the world. The program was led by the co-founders Miriam Gee and Luke Perry.

Volcan de Agua and Acatenango in the distance over the dense urban fabric of Guatemala City.

We are inspired by DBA’s commitment to design thoughtful spaces for all people that empowers communities. As members of DBA_Lab—DBA’s research and exploration group—we seized this chance to be active citizens and engage in a new and exciting design problem at a different scale. This was an opportunity to put our DBA expertise in community engagement and collaborative design to the test and further develop skills that we could take back to San Francisco.

We learned some key lessons in the quick eight-day build that will invigorate and inspire our daily design work.

OVERVIEW

The Client:

Students and instructors of the FUNDIT music program (supported by NGOs: FUNDIT, PEG, and LEAF International). The FUNDIT program employs music as a tool for personal growth and empowerment for local children and teens.

The Program:
A music classroom to meet the current and future expansion of the FUNDIT music curriculum.

The Site:
The rooftop of the local Cedin school directly adjacent to the current outgrown FUNDIT classroom.

The Challenge:
Create a space that is acoustically sound, thermally comfortable, and can adapt to the anticipated growth of the music program

Existing site conditions from across the CEDIN school courtyard.

The children of the FUNDIT music program perform for Build Lightly on the first day.

 

Lesson #1:      Know your Client

On this project, the client whom we prioritized was the students. The first task our Build Lightly team undertook was to listen to a musical performance by the students in their current classroom. We interviewed them, asked them what they wanted to see, what they thought could be improved in the new space, and why they loved music. Design is best when it is collaborative and fosters a personal connection. Getting to know the students helped us understand who we were working for, which inspired us to put in the time required to make something in which everyone could take pride.

Sketching was a critical part of the design process.

After meeting with the clients, we moved into charrette mode. We determined the different design challenges and split into small groups to focus on each area. We dug deep into the sound, structure, and light for the new space, and settled on a parti—a guiding scheme. Our simple solution brought in natural light, acoustically balanced the space, and embraced the existing concrete block wall that would anchor the new construction. We presented our ideas and explained in our best combination of Spanish and rapid sketches what we planned to do. Once the client team was satisfied and supportive, we immediately got to work.

Will of DBA_Lab transports gravel to the roof.

 

Lesson #2:      Be Open and Flexible

Some of the specialized materials we planned to use were very difficult or impossible to find. We were forced to accept that certain materials we were familiar with in the US were not available and instead found another way to meet our needs. For example, typical acoustic paneling did not exist locally, so we built our own out of speaker fabric and batt insulation.

Dimensional lumber cut to order in a local timber yard.

Before we arrived, basic materials such as wood studs and concrete were on order. The most familiar construction material in El Tejar is concrete block, and families of the students had generously donated many of the concrete blocks.

We bought and collected windows and doors that were spotted off the side of the road. Other more unique items had to be ordered last minute and only made it to the site with the help of a curious and generous stranger with a truck. But we still faced the task of getting the materials onto the roof. We deferred to the most efficient local method, using a swinging bucket and assembly line of people.

DBA_Lab Build Lightly Material Transport from David Baker Architects on Vimeo.

Jeremias welding the steel roof structure together.

 

Lesson #3:      Work Alongside the Experts

The Build Lightly crew came down to Guatemala with a wide range of expertise that the team drew from consistently. Yet we constantly had to sit back and learn from the local builders. They would often laugh at our attempts, but were endlessly patient, generous, and always there to help us improve our techniques.

Pablo and Bernandino, brothers and local masons, helped supervise the Build Lightly team.

We were fortunate to have a committed set of local and expert craftsmen who donated their time to help us out. Leonel, the mason foreman, showed us how to place concrete blocks with just the right amount of piedrin, agua y concreto. Pablo and Bernadino, the masons, flew through laying block on the back wall and showed us the best methods to secure our glass blocks. Jeremias somehow fit welding together our steel roofing structure in between his other jobs. Sara, the director of the music program, started out in a more typical “client” role, but quickly shifted into material sourcer and construction assistant, helping nail and assemble our acoustic panels up until the very last moment.

The Build Lightly Team and local experts.

Every day that we were on-site, we arrived a little bit earlier and left a little bit later, attempting to complete everything that we just didn’t get to the day before. We were well-fed—four meals a day—by the school families. These meals allowed us to take breaks, reflect on our progress, and focus on what needed to be completed next. We got to talk and laugh with the local craftsmen and enjoy home-cooked Guatemalan cuisine.

Take a minute, make a sketch, talk it through with your team, make a decision, and move forward.

 

Lesson #4:      Find Opportunity in the Chaos

The design-build process is beautifully chaotic. In the rush to get everything done, we constantly faced moments when we needed to think quickly and creatively on our feet: The column is just a bit too wide, the glass block has already been laid, we ran out of that material… not a problem. Take a minute, make a sketch, talk it through with your team, make a decision, and move forward.

Will of DBA_Lab stretches for every possible inch to join the two framed walls segments

Throughout the building process we kept our design goals in mind. Whenever possible, we tried to rely on natural light and orientation. The corrugated metal roof protected the classroom from sun and rain, but we transitioned the roof to corrugated transparent plastic along the wall to bring in the sun. We added playful glass blocks to bring in light from the north and added jalousie windows along the west to allow the students to control their air and light. For lighting the space in the evening, we repurposed leftover corrugated plastic to create hanging pendants as the final touch.

Busy Build Lightly builders work hard on the end of the fifth day.

While light was important, the ultimate success of our classroom would be defined by its acoustic quality. We filled the two wood-framed walls with batt insulation and covered them with fabric found in the local market and secured with wood trim. We suspended fabric-wrapped acoustic panels from the classroom’s ceiling and west wall to absorb sound bouncing around the room. The crisp sound of an impromptu performance by the students on the final night served as proof of concept.

BuildLightlyGuatemala from Ethan Lacy on Vimeo.

The last-minute addition of colorful carpet tiles helped tie the room together both aesthetically and sonically.

 

Lesson #5:       Celebrate When You are Done

In the design/build process, at some point you just have to stop. We worked up until the very end, and we were incredibly proud of what we had accomplished. The final—and critical—step was to celebrate with the community that made it happen.

The FUNDIT music program students performed an incredible classroom opening party show featuring the instruments that will soon be stored above.

The children gave the Build Lightly team a performance on the final night, showcasing their musical skills on violin, drums, guitar, and marimba. Members from Leaf International, which had helped fund the project, came down from Asheville, North Carolina to show their support. Surrounded by the community, our partners, the children and families, and the Build Lightly team, we officially opened the new classroom with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Everyone gathers to inaugurate the new classroom.

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The panorama shows the hanging acoustic panels, storage closet and the existing wall of the previous music classroom.

Activate public space! Taylor of DBA_Lab tests the concrete climbing wall in a new urban park in Santiago, Guatemala.

 

P.S. Don’t forget to explore: Eat the food, hike the volcano, and soak it all in.

Even a little bit sunburned and exhausted from eight intense days of mental and physical work, we could not have been happier with our time spent in Guatemala with Build Lightly. Back in San Francisco, we are ready to bring this same spontaneous creativity and “think on your feet” problem solving to DBA.

The Build Lightly team enjoying the view of Volcan de Agua.

 

Will Bloomer and Taylor Dearinger are both architectural designers at David Baker Architects and active members of DBA_Lab. You can contact them at willbloomer@dbarchitect.com and taylordearinger@dbarchitect.com.

DBA_Lab goes to Guatemala!

The Build Lightly team outside our hostel in Antigua.

Existing site conditions from across the CEDIN school courtyard.

Existing site conditions.

The children of the FUNDIT music program perform for Build Lightly on the first day.

Presenting our ideas in our best combination of Spanish and rapid sketches to the client.

Will of DBA_Lab presents ideas to the group during the charette.

The parti concept sketch, an L in plan and section.

Sketching was a critical part of the design process.

Measure twice (or four times), order once.

Miriam Gee of Build Lightly Studios shares an idea with the team.

Will of DBA_Lab transports gravel to the roof.

Concrete block, the typical construction method in El Tejar.

Dimensional lumber cut to order in a local timber yard.

Clay tiles—or "tejas"—dry in the sun. The local tejas give El Tejar its name.

The Build Lightly Team and local experts.

Leonel carefully supervises the proper mix of concrete mortar.

Pablo lays block along the back wall.

Bernadino pours mortar into the bond beam for the west wall.

Pablo and Bernandino, brothers and local masons, helped supervise the Build Lightly team.

Jeremias welding the steel roof structure together.

Take a minute, make a sketch, talk it through with your team, make a decision, and move forward.

Strategizing the next task.

Act fast. Additional bracing was required to support the splintering formwork.

Taylor of DBA_Lab "carefully" adjusts the column with a hammer

The first corrugated metal siding panel is added to the wood stud west wall.

Taylor of DBA_Lab drilling into the roof of the CEDIN School to secure the new classroom.

The framing comes together on the end of the third day.

Build Lightly Studio celebrate the framing at the end of the day with a jump!

The only way to get the materials up onto the roof, pulleys!

Removing the roof panels to make space for the new classroom.

Will of DBA_Lab stretches for every possible inch to join the two framed walls segments

Busy Build Lightly builders work hard on the end of the fifth day.

Team members secure the corrugated metal roof on the classroom.

Taylor and Will rip boards to put the finishing touches on the classroom.

The local electricians finish hanging the lights and the much-needed outlets in the classroom floor.

Taylor of DBA_Lab puts the finishing touch on the wooden wall slats.

The recently completed corrugated siding and jalousie windows shine in the Guatemalan sun.

The panorama shows the hanging acoustic panels, storage closet and the existing wall of the previous music classroom.

The last-minute addition of colorful carpet tiles helped tie the room together both aesthetically and sonically.

Bright hand-woven fabric behind the wooden slat siding softens the room's sound and looks great.

A panorama of musical classroom completed by Build Lightly Studios and DBA_Lab.

The suspended chandeliers were made on a whim from leftover clear plastic corrugated roofing.

Afternoon light coming in through the Jalousie Windows.

The red poured concrete floor is the final touch on the new FUNDIT music program classroom.

A great new music classroom ready for music!

Celebrate throughout the process.

The FUNDIT music program students performed an incredible classroom opening party show featuring the instruments that will soon be stored above.

Talented musicians test out the acoustic quality of the new space... it sounds great!

Young guitaristas perform for the Build Lightly team.

Everyone gathers to inaugurate the new classroom.

Tired but proud Build Lightly designers and builders.

With more design skill than musical talent, the team sticks to air guitars.

The lively Spanish colonial streets of Antigua, Guatemala, the team's home base.

Kayaking in Lake Atitlan with three volcanoes in the distance.

Breath the air, swim in the water.

Activate public space! Taylor of DBA_Lab tests the concrete climbing wall in a new urban park in Santiago, Guatemala.

Palacio in front of the Plaza Mayor in Antigua.

Known for its charming colonial architecture and cobbled streets, Antigua is a must-see.

Volcan de Agua underneath the Santa Catalina Arch. The Arch dates back to the 1600s.

Volcan de Agua and Acatenango in the distance over the dense urban fabric of Guatemala City.

In guatemala, when in doubt add color.

Sunset view from the top of Volcan Pacaya.

The Build Lightly team enjoying the view of Volcan de Agua.