Over Winter Break, members of RPI’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World traveled to Ek’Balam, Mexico, to assist the community with their sustainability efforts. To display the various technologies the community could employ, ESW members designed and constructed an “eco hogar”—essentially, an ecological display house.
According to Vice President of Projects Victoria Vernacchio ’16, not only did the developments displayed in ESW’s eco hogar have to satisfy the wants and needs of the community, it also had to accommodate visitors. She explained that the village of Ek’Balam lies directly next to Mayan ruins that have gradually become a major tourist attraction. Vernacchio added that, while the Mayan lifestyle is “very sustainable,” the village did not have a trash system to handle the increased volume resulting from tourism. She said that the village now has to deal with a “giant trash heap.” In response, the members of ESW helped the villagers design and construct a composting toilet system and a compost pit for food waste.
Along with those innovations, the team helped the villagers install a solar powered hot water system, a solar powered lighting system, and a storm water drainage system. The solar panels employed for both the water heater and the lights were donated to ESW by General Electric, according to Project Leader Alex Allen ’14. She added that these panels were installed last year by a team led by co-president Sam Brown ’15. The drainage system was necessary because the soil of Ek’Balam is comprised primarily of compact clay. To address the issue, they dug trenches, which were then filled with rocks and plants. This created a “rain garden” that is able to absorb a significant amount of water in a brief period of time.
Vernacchio said that before they implemented any designs, the team performed a site assessment to determine exactly how to do so. The assessment included plotting how water moved around the village, analyzing the area’s topography, and designing a fencing system for local fauna. Allen added that all proposals were then presented to Maestro Carlos, the headmaster of the school-owned land on which the eco hogar was developed.
Both Vernacchio and Allen emphasized that the entire project was based on two main points. The first was that the team needed to make sure the villagers would continue to use the technology provided without also destroying their culture. As such, the team kept a hands-off approach to any actual construction. They showed the villagers how to use the various tools they needed, and then supervised while the villagers finished setting up the eco hogar. The concept, according to Allen, was to prevent their equipment from suffering the same fate as a stove that had been donated to the village in the past—it eventually ended up in the corner of a building, literally gathering dust. They wanted the villagers to repeatedly use the technology, which could eventually be implemented in individual homes. “Iteration is key,” said Allen.
The purpose of designing an eco hogar, rather than actively renovating homes in the village, was to avoid damaging the local culture. Basically, Vernacchio said, they wanted the innovations to adapt to the culture, rather than forcing the culture to adapt to the innovations. “They don’t want to be treated like a charity case,” said Vernacchio. The downside to their approach, though, was that it took time. However, the ESW team was willing to take the time. “Do it slowly, and do it right,” said Allen.
The team of eight individuals included seven undergraduate students and one graduate student. They received $4,000 in funding from the School of Engineering to progress with the project. They also worked with the Foundation for the Development of Sustainable Societies, which “had already established a firm base with the village.” Both Vernacchio and Allen agreed that this base provided significant help in regard to convincing villagers to help, although the team did spend some time to gain rapport with the locals.
The team plans to travel back to Ek’Balam at a future time. For more information about the team, its project, or any other aspect of RPI’s chapter of ESW, visit the chapter’s Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ESWRPI/.