The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1850] Modern Day Pioneers: Providing Culturally and Environmentally Responsible Housing for Migrant Farm Workers in the United States of America

United States

Each year, an estimated 3 million migrant farm workers come to the United States, mostly from Latin American countries, to provide a better life and future for themselves and their families. Though these migrant farm workers are the driving force behind America’s 28 billion dollar fruit and vegetable industry, they comprise one of the poorest groups in the country. Earning on average 10,000 dollars per year, falling below the poverty income level in all fifty states, migrant farm workers are unable to afford adequate housing, which is seldom provided by farmers. In situations where farm worker housing is provided, it is often substandard, including overcrowded units, severe structural defects, inadequate sanitation, and lack of functioning appliances. Under such conditions, migrant farm workers are unable to carry out normal daily tasks, such as safely storing food, preparing warm meals, and showering.

When housing is not provided, migrant farm workers are forced into expensive living options such as apartments and trailers, which often exhibit inadequate living conditions similar to those of the housing provided by farmers. However, when living in an apartment or a trailer, a new monetary burden is placed on the farm workers. Since these housing options are seldom located near the farms where the workers are employed, money is required for transportation costs to and from work. Both the high cost of living coupled with transportation costs detract from the living wages of the migrant farm workers. The lack of a proper place to live lowers from the migrant farm workers sense of community, value and pride.

At one period in American history, housing was provided for everyone in a community based on a communal effort. Similar to migrant farm workers, the North American pioneers also left their homes in search of a better future. Only capable of carrying essentials to live, the pioneers relied on the land, which was the only material readily available. From the land, the pioneers acquired not only food and water, but shelter as well. Both out of necessity and kinship, the entire community participated in providing shelter for all of its members. The communal housing efforts not only instilled in the pioneers a sense of security, but also a sense of place and ownership. At this very basic level of providing shelter, it is apparent that architecture is absolutely a social art, which results in a direct reflection of human worth. By reviving the collective communal building practices of the pioneers, migrant farm workers can be provided with affordable and adequate housing, leading to a better quality of life.

By using what was available to them, that being manpower and nature, the pioneers built truly sustainable housing. The word “sustainable” has become extremely popular in the 21st century; however, the word actually comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report, a United Nations study of environmental development. In this report, sustainability consists of two parts. First, the term sustainable is referred to as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” The report then elaborates by additionally stating that, “sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.” In reviving the instinctual architectural practices of the pioneers to provide housing for the migrant farm workers, both parts of being sustainable are reached. By reviving the use of earth as a building material, as practiced by the pioneers in the form of adobe, rammed earth and cob construction, and implementing modern versions of these techniques, such as tire and sand bag construction, building housing for migrant farm workers is both ecologically and economically responsible. In providing both adequate and beautiful housing for the farm workers, not only are their basic needs met, but also their sense of self worth and value is lifted, returning humanity to the realm of architecture.

The type of earth building method that the pioneers implemented depended on the region of the country in which they resided, and which natural materials were readily available. In warmer climates, such as in the American South West, adobe was, and still is used as a building material. Constructing with adobe involves a simple time-tested process, which lends itself beautifully into a communal project. The adobe mixture is comprised of tightly compacted local earth, clay and straw. This mixture is then poured into blocks on site and baked. When the bricks are dry, they are then laid in an overlapping pattern by hand and mortared into place. The new walls are then plastered to provide additional structural strength. Not only is adobe construction eco-friendly, but also the aesthetic architectural result is similar to that of the architectural style in many Latin American countries. Where conditions permit, implementing adobe construction provides a warm and familiar atmosphere for the migrant farm workers, who are in completely new surroundings from their home lands.

Another earth building material mainly used in warmer climates by the pioneers is rammed earth. Like adobe, rammed earth construction is also carried out well as a communal effort. In order to form rammed earth walls, a mixture of native soil and sediment is tightly compacted into wall forms. When the mixture has dried completely, the forms are then removed, leaving strong thick walls behind. Apart from their immense thermal heating capacity, the thick sturdy walls of rammed earth homes provide both solidarity and security. The exposed earth is in addition aesthetically pleasing and calming.

In wetter and colder climates, both adobe and rammed earth construction are unsuitable without additional features such as weatherproofing plaster or overhanging roofs. The natural building material cob is ideal for these environmental conditions, as it is comprised of indigenous clay-like lumps of soil, sand and straw. The cob mix is formed into walls and enclosures by hand. Since the cob mud mixture is porous, it can withstand long periods of rain. The dense clay acts as a passive thermal insulator, making cob construction ideal for cooler climates. In addition to its ecological simplicity and intelligence, cob is an extremely flexible building material, allowing the farm workers more architectural freedom and expression. Its flexibility allows for wall niches, sloping walls, arches and built-in furniture, personalizing the housing options for the workers.

Complimenting these time-tested earth building techniques, modern updated versions exist that combine both natural and recycled materials. Each year in the United States of America, 250 million tires are discarded and unless they are somehow re-used, these tires contribute to the ever-mounting landfill piles. Discarded tires can be used in conjunction with other land building materials. In order to form walls, the tires are laid out in a u-shape, conforming to their natural curves. The tires are then compacted with soil from on site, and plastered to eliminate odors or potential fire hazards. Due to the thickness of the walls and the resilience of the recycled tires, tire homes are fire, tornado, and hurricane resistant, making them adaptable to any environment. In addition, the thick walls are thermal insulators, protecting the tire homes from extreme temperatures. Not only do tire homes make use of an abundant waste material, but their architectural properties are also culturally sensitive. The architectural elements resulting from the way in which the tire homes are formed are similar to that of Latin American style homes. The u-shape form of the tire walls results in an open-plan arrangement, meaning that large spaces are enclosed by the walls. In Latin America, often extended families live together in one house. By providing an open plan, or flexible layout, the migrant farm workers can perform many tasks in one room, economizing space. As this style of living is familiar, the tire homes provide a comfortable atmosphere, while at the same time promoting material re-use.

Similar to the discarded tires, rejected burlap sacks and rice bags can also be used in conjunction with earth materials for construction purposes. In this collaborative process, the rejected bags are filled with slightly moist clay or dirt and then pinned shut. The sand bags are then placed on a foundation, built up in a running band, and covered with a layer of plaster. The way in which the sand bags are laid out is conducive to rounder structures, such as domes and vaults. Since sand bag construction requires so few materials, construction costs are extremely low. As the walls of the sand bag homes are thick, they also provide thermal insulation, drastically reducing or even eliminating the need for central air.

By using renewable and recyclable construction materials, the first piece of sustainable criterion is fulfilled, that of not impeding future generations by today’s actions. In addition to the obvious ecological benefits, there are also economic and social benefits to earth architecture. Using local materials reduces the costs of energy related to material transportation. This results in a reduction of actual material cost do to the lower transportation costs. Often times, materials are free or inexpensive, as they are either taken from the site or recycled. The size of the walls in the earth homes is large enough to sufficiently insulate the houses, reducing or eliminating the costs of conditioned air. The major problem with providing migrant farm workers housing is that construction and maintenance prices are too expensive for farmers to afford. Using local materials certainly reduces transportation and material costs, however, by actually teaching the migrant farm workers the various construction methods, labor costs can be drastically reduced, further lowering the price of construction.

Teaching the farm workers the earth architecture construction methods fulfils the second piece of the sustainable definition: extending the opportunity for all to lead a better live. Building housing as a communal effort creates kinship and a tight community bond among peers. Since earth architecture has been around since humans have needed shelter, the methods of construction are low-skilled and easy to learn. In providing housing for each other through a communal effort, the farm workers acquire on-site housing at little to no cost to them. Since the farm workers themselves build their dwellings, they are allowed creative architectural freedom. By building “in place” architecture, one group of migrant farm workers can provide housing for many generations to come. Being able to live on or near their places of employment eliminates transportation costs to and from work, in addition to bringing a sense of security to the farm workers. At such close proximity, it is easier for the migrant farm workers to watch their children and be more a part of their lives, as time is spared by the lack of long commutes. Constructing the housing by hand themselves, the farm workers are brought a feeling of pride, ownership, and place. In addition, the migrant farm workers also gain a new job skill, that of earth architecture construction, which could lead to better paying jobs in the future.

The need to provide housing for migrant farm workers, who in turn provide such important services in the American agriculture industry, is apparent. Not only as employees, but as fellow human beings, at the absolute minimum the migrant farm workers should have the opportunity to lead normal lives. In their homes, the farm workers should at least be provided with the essentials: a place to clean, sleep and cook. By taking an extra step and providing housing that not only performs thermally, but is also aesthetically pleasing and welcoming, communities are created which support and nurture their inhabitants.

As the biggest problem for the farmers in providing housing is a money issue, the goal becomes finding ways to use the money available in productive and creative ways. By implementing earth architecture practices, farmers can offer both adequate and inexpensive housing options to the farm workers. Often renewable materials, such as soil and clay, and recycled materials are free or inexpensive. As constructing with earth materials results in thick thermal walls, the cost of climate control is severely reduced, or even eliminated. After material costs, the next most expensive aspect of construction is labor. By teaching the migrant farm workers the earth building techniques, they can act as the labor force, and build their housing collectively. In doing so, not only do the farmers save money, but the migrants receive adequate on-site housing, and thus also save money in both commuting and expensive housing option costs.

Architecture is a cultural gage of human prosperity. It is perhaps the most public display of both the wealth and social status of a people. The standard of housing in which the migrant farm workers are subjected to, whether it is provided or not, is telling about their place and value in society. In taking away their means for basic survival through substandard housing, the migrant farm workers appear culturally subhuman. Through providing culturally sensitive housing, which allows the farm workers to carry on normal daily activities, they are able to provide a service under fair conditions. By reviving and modernizing the pioneers’ traditions of earth architecture and communal building, migrant farm workers can learn how to build adequate housing for themselves, resulting in a better quality of life and a higher sense of self worth among their communities.

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