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Nicaragua Project Description -
High Quality Low Cost Housing
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Self-Help vs. Professional Building:

Self-help construction has disadvantages as well as advantages.

  • Knowledge gained by building is lost since once the person completes their own house they stop building. This is especially serious when there is an investment in training and education as we are planning.
  • Advanced training is discouraged and long experience with a consequent development of refined skills is inhibited since a person does not work at the same job over a number of years.
  • Production per person hour is lower than with specialized labor.
  • Self-help may inhibit the development of local industries and skilled craftspeople because of the reduced demand for these services on the cash market.
  • People may have time when they don't have money, so they can afford self-help housing.
  • Self-help can be used by large numbers of people right away without the lag implied by development of a cash economy.
  • Most rural housing is already done this way.
  • It increase peoples involvement and sense of ownership. They may take better care of their homes. They can provide personal touches and adaptations that probably cannot be provided in any other way.
  • Current rapid inflation seriously complicates cash budgets, contracts, etc. These problems are largely avoided in a self-help project.
  • Low paid workers can in effect earn high paid construction wages. ie. the value they create with their labor is much greater than they normally get paid.
It seems clear that some amount of self-help is always desireable. In cases where people have been able or required to pay for their houses and have not participated in their design and construction, it seems that something has been lost. The issue should not be whether to use self-help, but how much to use and where. What is the right mixture.

There is however one deciding argument in favor heavy use of self-help housing in Nicaragua as well as much of the developing world. There is no other way to improve the living conditions of a large number of people in the short term. When the internal economy is more developed it may be desirable to have more professional builders and a more specialized division of labor. At this moment however the system of trade does not exist, people don't have the cash to support a large professional building force. This will have to come later. Our work in training builders and developing local industries should help the process.

We plan to resolve some of the drawbacks of self-help building by integrating professional builders into the process. Some people will be trained to work with the users on the construction of their houses. These people will be paid, and when they finish with one group of users they will move on to another project. They will gain experience both in construction and in working with self-help groups.

In the case of the cooperatives an interesting solution to some of the problems has presented itself. The cooperative has assigned a fixed group of people to work on the housing. That group will construct all housing (and probably other structures as well) for the cooperative. It is clear that they have at least 5 years of work ahead of them. This eliminates three of the four objections to self-help housing listed. The education is not lost as they will continue working for a reasonably long time. They will have time to refine their skills and knowledge to a higher level. They will increase their efficiency of production.


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