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Dissemination of adobe technology in a housing reconstruction programme in Peru


This article describes a housing reconstruction programme in northern Peru after major flooding in 1983. The objective of this programme was to implement and disseminate improved adobe construction technologies through instruction, training and technical assistance in rural communities that were relocated after the floods.

The project was carried out as the field dissemination part of a research project developed by the Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) from June 1984 to May 1985.

Organizations and people involved in the project included:

- Development Corporation of Piura (CORDE-Piura)
- Development Corporation of Lambayeque (CORDELAM)
- Agency for International Development (AID) and its office of foreign disaster assistance
- Catholic University of Peru (PUCP)
- National Training Institute for Construction Workers (SENCICO)
- Architect Federico Mevius
- Anthropologist Flor de Maria Monzon
- Engineers Juan Ginocchio, Luiz Gonzales and Duval Zambrano.


Between November 1982 and June 1983, six months of heavy rainfall caused the most dramatic flooding of this century over the coastland of northern Peru. Rainfall was the heaviest recorded to that date, approximately 30 times greater than the average.

The damage was very extensive, affecting approximately 1200 km of the coastal area, and specially the Departments of Tumbes, Piura and Lambayeque. The total losses were estimated at US$1,250 million, mainly in agriculture, highways, bridges and industrial installations. At least 100 people died and thousands lost their homes. Most of the damage in housing occurred in rural adobe houses whose roofs were unprepared for heavy rains and because of flash floods in towns near the river banks.

The interest of the Government after the disaster centred on the reconstruction of highways, the rehabilitation of agriculture, and the rehabilitation of basic water and sewerage services in the cities. No specific programme was established for housing reconstruction.

In order to implement the different reconstruction programmes in the areas affected by the natural disaster, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Offices were created. International institutions supported programmes dedicated to the relocation of towns and reconstruction of houses, which in part compensated for the lack of help to the low-income strata. In exchange, some State participation was required. In addition, labour was required from the people participating in those programmes.

The basic objectives of the housing rehabilitation was to relocate the towns on land safe from river floods. During the emergency stage, the affected people had built temporary shelter using canes, plastic sheets and cardboard, some of them in higher areas and others close to farming areas, although some people abandoned the area and moved to other towns or cities. This situation lasted one year until the beginning of 1984 when people started to move to the new location.

Technical Innovation in Adobe Construction

The Catholic University of Peru has studied, through several research projects, the way to improve the seismic resistance of adobe houses, from which practical recommendations have been obtained for their application in the field. The most important recommendations refer to the inclusion of a cane mesh inside the adobe walls and the addition of straw and coarse sand to the mud used as a mortar.

Other recommendations refer to the use of a concrete foundation and a wooden ring-beam attached to the vertical canes and the wooden roof beams. The objective is to provide additional strength and to avoid sudden collapse which is the main cause of casualties during earthquakes in this type of construction.

Additionally, an improved method of manual fabrication of adobes was recommended which gives a more resistant adobe unit. It mainly consists of using a mould with a base, instead of the bottomless mould traditionally used.

The programme’s main objective was to find out whether the improved adobe model developed in the laboratory, which had successfully endured seismic actions, could be reproduced in the field, this time constructed by the users and workers, following traditional building systems.

The dissemination activities were centred on three rural towns: Nuevo Tupac Amaru, Chochope, and Canasloche; and one main city of northern Peru: Chiclayo. The programme lasted one year, from June 1984 to May 1985.

The technical team in the field consisted of three engineers and one technician specialized in adobe construction; later on, an anthropologist joined the team to conduct a socio-economic study of the communities involved.

Between June and July 1984, the technical specifications were prepared by the team in the city of Chiclayo. This was an indispensable requirement for the allocation of funds for the acquisition of materials. The object of the technical specification was to develop a basic house module, which could be expanded later on by the people. The module was allocated 25 square metres, which was smaller than the traditional size for a house but which fitted the budget limitation of US$300 per house unit. The design considered a concrete foundation, adobe walls and a roof of wooden beams, cane and mud.

Dissemination Activities

The first contact with the communities was in July 1984, in the town of Nuevo Tupac Amaru. The new technology and the conditions for aid were explained to the settlers; they signed an agreement to work on the construction of their houses.

The first step involved fabrication of adobes. The proposed technology meant more work and thus slower production, causing an initial rejection of the new technology by the adobe makers hired by the beneficiaries. A similar attitude was adopted by the masons at the time of erecting the adobe walls, due to the cane mesh inside them. This fact, together with the low importance given to the seismic resistance of their houses, made acceptance of the new design by the settlers difficult.

In Canasloche, there was a total rejection from the beginning of the programme and not a single adobe was fabricated with the new technology.

The results in Chochope were different; the first contacts with the community were made in September and until November there was no great activity because the population was not totally convinced about the project. The initial differences of opinion towards the project were softened by allowing the people to fabricate adobes in their traditional way but with the dimensions required by the project and to make changes in the architectural distribution of the module.

In order to gauge the acceptability of the new technology in the different environment of a major city, a dissemination campaign was implemented in Chiclayo. It consisted of radio programmes, newspaper advertisements, and some television interviews.

The campaign motivated several individuals and institutions to ask for more information, but the variety of cases made it necessary to study each one individually. This task required personnel with enough time to analyse and solve each of them and only one project was implemented, the construction of a medical centre in a rural village.

As time went on, the Development Corporation was worried about the low level of participation by the people of Nuevo Tupac Amaru and Canasloche, and consequently about the unused materials already bought and stored, which were not delivered to the beneficiaries because they did not accept the new technology. In view of this fact, the decision was taken to give the materials for use in the construction of houses with the traditional technology.

In Nuevo Tupac Amaru, the people started to use the foundation materials but, after that, the construction of walls decreased again.

In Canasloche, the people were not able to use the materials for the foundations because of a lack of water in the town.

In Chochope, the construction continued and some months after the end of the project, there were more than one hundred families involved in the project.

Programme Evaluation

Even though the objective of the programme was to disseminate a new technology through its application in the field, it is natural that its success depends not only on the technicalities of the new construction system, but also on the conditions that technological change imposed to the reconstruction programme and vice versa.

The administrative system

The community selection, number of beneficiaries, management of funds and acquisition and distribution of materials were the responsibility of a governmental institution that was unprepared to manage a reconstruction programme with community participation and did not take into consideration the socio-economic conditions when planning the programme.

The bureaucratic requirements that had to be fulfilled for the acquisition of materials delayed their delivery in spite of the emergency situation.

The programme was planned as an aid to reconstruction, giving the beneficiaries a minimum housing module to start the construction of their house. But due to the delay in its execution, some people had already built basic houses in the traditional way and others had adobes to initiate the construction. For these individuals the programme was not convenient because it did not take into consideration the previous work they had done in making their adobes or partially building their houses.

The social and economic influence

The results obtained in the three rural towns in terms of house units built with the new technology were very different. In Canasloche, not a single house was built with the new technology, in Nuevo Tupac Amaru only 14 houses (10%) were built and in Chochope 69 houses (69%) were in construction at the end of the project.

The amount and the condition of the aid were the same for the three communities, but the socio-economic reality was different in all of them. In all the communities the main economic activity is agriculture. In Canasloche and Nuevo Tupac Amaru, which are located 4 km apart in the same area near the coast, the agriculture activity had not yet been restored after the floods. Also, because of the type of farming, their activity is continuous all year around. In Chochope, located in a different site at higher altitude, the agriculture activity is seasonal, demanding only seven months a year. This activity was almost normal and the people had a more stable economic situation.

In Nuevo Tupac Amaru and Canasloche, the settlers did not have much confidence in the technicians and engineers because of a recent bad experience which had resulted in a unused construction because the opinion of the farmers was not taken in account. In Chochope, the presence of the engineers was more appreciated.

One of the main objections to the project was the reduced size of the module which was against their traditions, and one of the reasons for the greater acceptability of the project in Chochope was to allow the participants to increase the size of the module provided that they assumed the increase in cost.

The perception of the earthquake hazard was very low in the area since a strong earthquake has not occurred for more than 50 years. This was the reason why the settlers objected to the use of the cane mesh inside the walls; the lectures given to the community explaining the need of the reinforcement against earthquakes did not convince them to assume the increase in the labour cost.

These attitudes demonstrate that people do not easily invest in long-term mitigation measures such as earthquakes.

Community participation is possible only in cases of constructions which benefit the community and when a primary need for it exists; this was the case in the construction of a water system for the farms in Nuevo Tupac Amaru. Housing construction is an individual task where the participants are members of the same family. Being basically farmers, they buy the adobes and then hire a mason to build the house with the aid of the family members available.

The Influence of the Technological Innovations

The technological innovations refer to the fabrication of adobes and the construction process, and are designed to improve the seismic resistance of adobe houses.

The innovations in the fabrication of adobe demanded the use of a different mould from the one traditionally used and this meant more work and thus less production resulting in an increase in the unit cost. For this reason it was decided that the beneficiaries fabricate the adobe in the traditional way since it was not of primary importance to the house quality.

The concrete foundation specified in the project was highly appreciated by the beneficiaries but, as it is the most expensive part of the construction, they often cannot afford it.

The cane mesh used as reinforcement demanded more work in the construction of the walls. In spite of the lectures given to the settlers, they did not fully understand the necessity of the reinforcement against the seismic actions.

The roof specified in the project was similar to that commonly used in the area, but some objections were made to the quality of the wood. Due to budget restrictions, the wood used was not the most appropriate for that area, needing a treatment for preservation and replacement after 8 to 10 years.

In general, it was noticed that the settlers relate the quality of a house to the type of materials used and not to the construction process. The general idea is that adobe constructions cannot be improved, and as result are perceived to be of low quality.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Although this project has many unique features, many of the conclusions can be applied to general housing programmes with community participation. The main conclusions and recommendations are as follows:

- Adobe constructions are a real possibility in rural areas, in spite of the damage suffered by this type of housing due to natural hazards. It must be shown not as a forced solution for the poor, but as a desirable alternative if it is used correctly.

- Mitigation measures represent an increase in the cost of the house that often cannot be afforded by low income groups. Any project implementing mitigation measures must be linked to other development programmes from which such cost can be covered.

- A socio-economic study and a housing survey are necessary for an adequate planning of the programme. The real housing demand and the ability of the families to participate in the programme must be known in advance.

- The technological solution and the administrative system should be sufficiently flexible to enable a wide participation of the community and the families in the programme. This has to be done from the stage when decisions are taken, which will determine not only their ability to participate in the programme but also the conditions in which their lives will develop in the future.

- Permanent and massive actions toward mitigation in rural housing necessarily include the support and participation of the State. This requires the dissemination of technologies between government housing institutions and official regulations for this type of constructions. Finally, field experiences must feed back to laboratory research work in order to diminish the gap between these two disciplines.

by J. Vargas and D. Torrealva,
Department of Civil Engineering,
Catholic University of Peru