There’s a flurry of activity at Jocotepec’s recently condemned El Corazan de Ancianos this month as a group of volunteers, a handful of local workers and some of the elderly residents pitch in to repair the cracking and crumbling building while learning a newly revived green building method which uses recycled materials.
Gloria Solis Bizarro, the home’s director, generally keeps busy organizing afternoon activities for the indigent residents and planning nutritious meals on a shoestring. This month she’s changed hats to work hand-in-hand with Uvaldo “Buki,” the head abañil (brick mason) on this tricky reconstruction project.
It’s a familiar story at lakeside, particularly in older structures with insufficient support, undersize foundations and footings, and insufficient vertical castillos (rebar reinforced beams), dalas and coronas (horizontal reinforced concrete beams formed and poured in place at the bottom and top of the building to tie it together). Without sufficient support for the immense weight of the brick boveda roof, differential settling due to changes in underground water table levels can cause the building to twist slightly. The damage caused by this uneven settling may push walls imperceptivity outward and then cause them to crack and crumble. In the case of the Jocotepec home for the elderly, the building was condemned.
Until recently it was rare to encounter impoverished elders in Mexico. The old folks remained in the family home, cared for by the next generation. With changing times has come a sad and serious problem. There is a growing group of frail, elderly folks with little or no means of support, no remaining family, and often no home.
In the waning years of the 20th century the circumstances of the disadvantaged elders in Jocotepec caused a group of concerned Mexicans and expats to begin searching for an affordable location where the elderly could receive food, housing and medical care.
Even after the current location was secured, the early years were lean. The resident rooms were prepared, but while the proud Jocotepec oldsters enjoyed coming to the asilo to shower and to share the midday comida, they wouldn’t admit that they needed a place to stay. As soon as dusk fell, they returned to guard the few belongings in their makeshift housing.
In time the old folks came to know and trust the home’s director and her skeleton staff. They started staying longer to chat, sew or complete small projects.
By 2012, the center was bustling and had residents ensconced in 11 rooms. There was a group of abuelitas that attended an exercise class and quickly moved on to folk dancing several afternoons a week. Hairdressers, healthcare professionals and priests all came to offer their services. Meanwhile Solis Bizarro stretched the donations and gifts to keep the pantry stocked, utilities paid and food on the table.
Early this year the settling and cracking took their toll. Large sections of the building were condemned and the residents were forced to move out. While former residents continued to gather several times a week to continue their folk dancing and maintain friendships, Solis Bizarro and the home’s advisory board agonized on a solution.
After considering several options, the best idea came from a retired U.S. construction engineer, who suggested reinforcing the building’s support system, removing the most heavily damaged walls and then rebuilding them with a much more labor intensive, but lower cost option – bricks made from a material called papercrete.
Simply put, papercrete is another recipe for making bricks. Old-time adobe was a mixture of mud and straw. Traditional bricks are made from clay and straw. Papercrete is a mixture of cement, water-soaked shredded paper and crushed building debris.
In all three types of bricks, the mixture is pressed into wooden forms on the ground, or as in the case in Jocotepec during this rainy season, on the floor of one of the home’s rooms. After the bricks dry and cure, the masons use cement to lay the papercrete bricks in courses, just as they would adobe, clay brick or concrete blocks.
With the recycling of paper and of building debris, papercrete sounds like a cutting-edge green building material, but it is not new. It received a U.S. patent in 1930, which was renewed in 1980.
The Jocotepec project is different from most, as to save money and time, the advisory board and construction workers are trying to safeguard the existing floor and boveda roof, and shore up the support while replacing those walls or sections of walls that are damaged beyond repair.
The group is saving money by preserving the floor, roof, windows and doors, and by making their own building bricks from recycled materials. But, they have discovered they will need more steel than expected to provide sufficient strength for the building. Steel, which is imported from the United States, is the most expensive component on any building site.
A papercrete project also generates a tremendous need for additional labor. The debris from the demolished walls must be broken up. The donated empty cement bags, damaged books, magazines, and old Lake Chapala Society directories must be shredded or torn into strips and then soaked in water so that it can go into the brick-making mixture with the cement and crushed debris.
Thankfully there is a good supply of volunteer labor. Even the former residents are getting into the act helping to tear paper. At the recent Canada Day celebration, the services of a young man went onto the auction block. The winning bid paid for him to work at the home for 25 days. When he recently took a friend to the site with him, the group of Canadian volunteers helping out that day agreed to pay for the second man’s labor for five days. Mexican, Canadian and U.S. volunteers are showing up to help, but there is always work for more. Some of the jobs require physical work, and can be a bit dirty. Both women and men volunteers are dressing for the occasion and digging right in.
There will a constant need for additional materials to continue the rehabilitation of the home. Those interested in helping financially can make a donation at the website gofundme.com/RebuildCasaCorazon.