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Nicaragua Project Description -
High Quality Low Cost Housing
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Executive Summary:

The objective of this project is to design and demonstrate a way for every Nicaraguan family to have good housing, and to do this with the resources Nicaragua has right now: material, human, and in hard currency.The approach emphasizes the use of local materials, development of local skills and human resources, utilization and improvement of traditional building methods and designs, and education.

The use of local resources is critical. Terms of trade on the international market for small and developing countries have been unfavorable and unpredictable. For example, Nicaragua's products bought 22% less in 1985 than in 1984. The approach we have demonstrated, by relying on local resources, puts the production of housing within the control of the Nicaraguan people.

A pilot project was initiated by MIDINRA Region VI, in cooperation with Groundwork Institute, and the agricultural cooperative Jose Benito Escobar II. Work started in March 1986. A demonstration house was constructed, members of the cooperative were trained in construction, and a plan for extending the experience to other cooperatives and other sectors of the population has been prepared.

The results were even better than anyone had hoped. The cost goal for the houses set by MIDINRA was C$600,000 (based on costs in March-May 1986) for a 36m2 house. This budget was low. Not only did the demonstration house meet this budget, it was also 3 times as large as anticipated (97.5m2), of high quality, durable, aesthetically pleasing, and with superior structural characteristics. Further, it was built almost exclusively with local materials produced by the cooperative members themselves using raw materials located on or near to their farm. Thus the imported component in the project is very low. In addition, the amount of cash that the government must supply is also very low.

It was possible to build housing that is both high quality and cheap because we used self-help labor and materials that are local to the zone. How much labor? With 10 persons it requires 7 weeks of on site labor and 4 weeks of materials production. What is the impact on the time of a family building its own home? If every family in Nicaragua devoted 2 days per week to building their house (2 days from the whole family, not for each member of the family) then every family in the country could have a new house of this size and quality within 6 years. This would be a result unprecedented in the world.

How much cash does the government or bank need to supply?C$300,000 per house would guarantee a stable, well financed program that would be reproducible for large numbers of families nationally. This amount might be reduced when the program has been fully established.

What are the cash and imported components? C$70,000 for the purchase of nails, lime, cement, gas, oil and miscellaneous items with an imported component, C$61,000 for tools (which will provide productive capacity beyond the housing), C$31,000 for purchase of 100% local materials. The balance allows paying for some labor, unanticipated costs, and provision of an adequate safety factor.

What is the value of this house? How does its cost compare with other government built housing? To build a similar size and quality of house using conventional methods would cost about C$3,000,000. The government currently has contracts on houses of about 1/3 the size (36m2) for C$900,000. A self-help project (ie. most labor cost not included) at 36m2 has a budget of C$290,000. The Plan Techo, which is 36m2 and has no walls, has a current cost of C$225,000. (* these prices are from March-May 1986, inflation will render them low within a matter of months.)

This means that for a cash cost close to the cheapest program currently underway a house can be produced that:
(1) is three times as large, (2) is of higher quality, (3) will not merely meet emergency needs but will also build the country's capital wealth and (4) provides a basis for solving the long term housing needs of the country.

Feasibility of actually producing the housing is more important than the money accounting. A "cheap" solution that uses imported materials is useless since there is not enough hard currency to address the whole country's needs. The important thing about this solution is that it is feasible with the resources Nicaragua has now. It is possible for the poorest campesinos in Nicaragua to create high quality housing for themselves.

It is possible to create housing of such high value because the principal component is the labor of the users and the local materials in their zone. Campesinos who today are being paid C$400/day are able to create for themselves a home that has a value of C$3,000,000. The true value of their labor is being realized. Put another way, if they were to sell their house for its current value, they would be paid over C$5000/day for their time. A wage they had no hope of earning in March '86 when these cost estimates were made.

Is this a bare minimum, stop gap solution? No, these are high quality homes. Buildings of similar construction elsewhere have lasted over 100 years. These homes can be upgraded as standards of living rise and will last for the lifetimes of many families.

The tremendous need and the scarcity of resources leads us to seek minimum solutions. There is sometimes an attitude that while poor people should have "decent" housing they cannot have wonderful housing. We disagree. This housing is beautiful. It is economical, just, and a wise investment. Beauty is not an "extra" or a luxury, it is an integral part of the success of this program. As the project demonstrates, it is also possible.

What are the problems? It uses a lot of labor. It converts this labor into a product of high value to the country. The amounts of labor are feasible. The difficult part will be providing the training and organization necessary to do the work.

How can this be done? We have already demonstrated that the training can take place in a short time. The coop members, campesinos without special construction skills (but with the wonderful talents, strength, and ability to learn that we believe is typical of the people of Nicaragua) built one house themselves in about 3 months. The work is high quality and they now are reasonably skilled. With the completion of one more house, they should be fully qualified. What is needed is a means of transmitting this training to a large number of people, cooperatives, etc.

We suggest as the next step starting a combination training program/construction project. It should involve about 6 cooperatives contributing about 60 workers. They would build between 12-24 houses for their cooperatives over a 6-12 month period. Each team would build a minimum of 2 houses, providing the same training provided in the demonstration house. In addition to building housing for their own communities they would also be expected to participate in the training of the next group. We would thereby train builders and teachers at the same time.

One should note that the war makes it difficult to allocate the labor and other resources for this work at the same time that the displacement of people by the war increases the need.

In addition to providing housing and education the project produces important social benefits. Quality housing is an important incentive to agricultural workers who would otherwise seek jobs elsewhere and/or migrate to the city. The participation of the people in the creation of the housing means they value it more highly and strengthens their ties with the agencies that help bring it about. The housing produced is a concrete achievement by the government that people value and understand very well. The fact that it requires very few outside resources increases people's control of their own lives. In addition, the organization and skills obtained are transferable to other work.

The model house demonstrated that high quality can be achieved using local materials and improved traditional construction systems and that people can learn to do high quality construction in a short time. It was also possible to verify that import costs were low, that cash costs were low, that the labor investments were feasible, and the overall cost was low.


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