Letters from Chile – the Adobe House and Potty Training

Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of a series. Be sure to catch Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The ‘Adobe House’, El Manzano’s ecological demonstration house.
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh

In the middle of the little El Manzano village, on display to all in the community, is the ‘Adobe House’. This demonstration house is a project by Eco Escuela El Manzano to demonstrate to the community several low-tech but effective techniques for improving quality of life whilst reducing a home’s impact on the environment.

Houses made from adobe bricks are common in Chile, although, increasingly, like many ‘developing’ countries, people are turning towards energy disastrous concrete instead. The Adobe House was not purpose built – rather, it is actually a very old house that was retrofitted in 2008. It is thus a good example of what many villagers could do if they had a mind to.

I’ll share a few of its features.

Against one wall they built a simple conservatory. The earth brick wall absorbs heat during the day, warming the home, and radiates it back out during the night – to ensure an extended frost-free period for vegetables. Well positioned terracotta tiles or other high thermal mass elements can increase this energy buffering as well (even just barrels of water can do the trick). Though not incorporated here, another addition can be to add vents between the conservatory and the home to allow excess heat to pass into the house.

During the hotter parts of the year the ends of the conservatory are easily opened up.

Outside the house and conservatory there’s a trellis hung heavy in grape. It creates an excellent, and edible, shade area under which sits an outdoor table and benches for summer breakfasts and lunches. The foliage dies back during the winter months to let more sunshine through.

Next to this sits a fantastic earth oven. And yes, the bread was as good as it looks:

Other elements include the all-important manual pump for water – without which this community would have suffered dearly during the recent earthquake (see Part I) – and a greywater system for biologically cleaning household waste water, returning it, slowly, to the water table after several stages of natural cleaning.

Potty Training

The ‘centrepiece’ of this demonstration site, however, is this:

A composting toilet (or ‘dry toilet’ as they’re called here)

This elevated, dual-chamber throne room (similar to the one at Zaytuna Farm) serves as the home’s fertiliser collection station. When enconsed therein, or thereon, as the case may be, the room is notable for its lack of odor. Any odor.

Although composting humanure should be regarded as an urgent… um… call of nature everywhere (the world is running out of potable water, and yet we’re crapping in it, and we still haven’t come to terms with the significance of phosphorus recycling yet either), it is arguably even more important here in El Manzano.

I say this for two connected reasons: 1) most of the community here rely on ‘long drop’ toilets (simple holes dug into the ground), and 2) the water table in El Manzano is incredibly close to the surface – in many places barely a metre below ground.

In case the obvious eludes you – this means that these smelly, bacteria-filled repositories will be seeping into the water table…. Yes, this is the same water table they’re pumping water from so as to quench their thirsty lips. If it weren’t for the very low population density here I think we could be looking at some serious health issues.

The Eco Escuela El Manzano team are therefore turning the problem into the solution, by demonstrating how a potentially disastrous waste stream can instead become a resource. The Abobe House has a constant stream of students and interns residing in it – all of whom are building site fertility rather than contributing to water contamination.

Continue on to read Part V: The Design Stage

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