How Long Way Home is creating architecture and awareness from trash

Access to education and proper waste management are two challenges that plague the impoverished communities of rural Guatemala. One non-profit organization that has taken action in finding solutions to both of these two problems is Long Way Home, an NGO that is building a vocational school in San Juan Comalapa using sustainable building techniques and specialising in building with recycled waste. More than just a school, the local community has gained new skills and employment through the construction of the campus. At the same time the project has created awareness about the importance of waste management and the potential of alternative construction materials.

One of the school buildings built by Long Way Home
This is one of the 20 nearly finished school buildings that form the campus of Técnico Chixot Education Center built by Long Way Home.

Creative use of trash in architecture

Long Way Home was founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer who came to Comalapa to build a park that promoted environmental awareness. This project grew into Técnico Chixot Education Center, a vocational school that would give the local youth new educational and employment opportunities while further promoting environmental awareness. Construction of Técnico Chixot started in 2009, and after eight years of construction the campus is now almost finished. The campus celebrated its inauguration in February 2017 while I was volunteering at the school for two weeks.

Just like Earthships, reused tires are an important building material at Técnico Chixot. Approximately 20000 tires have been reused on the campus to create walls, retaining walls, terraces and stairs on the sloping site. The tires have been filled with earth and compacted with a sledgehammer and extra trash is also hidden in the tires. Gravel-filled tires are used as a capillary break.

Tire landscape at Long Way Home
Tires are one of the main construction materials at Técnico Chixot.

Long Way Home’s use of recycled materials is not limited to tires, however. Approximately 400 tons of trash have been turned into building material over the last eight years at Técnico Chixot. Long Way Home collects different types of waste on the campus, with students and workers bringing bottles, cans, plastic, paper and metal. Different waste has different uses, for example styrofoam takeaway containers are used to make glue. One of the main building materials is plastic bottles that have been filled with non-organic trash, also known as ecobricks.

Tires and plastic bottles are fast becoming established alternative construction materials around the world, but more innovation is needed to find uses for other types of waste. Long Way Home is contributing to this development through creative design, and the campus is full of visible design elements like plastic crates lining doorways, aluminum can roof tiles and decorative flowers created from plastic spoons. Long Way Home also uses a lot of natural construction techniques such as cob and clay plaster. Through this innovation and mixture of materials and techniques, everyone from workers and volunteers to students and visitors is seeing and learning how to creatively use alternative construction materials.

Ecobricks and cob at Long Way Home
Trash-filled plastic bottles, knows as ecobricks, are one of the upcycled building material used by Long Way Home, often in combination with natural cob and clay plaster.

The finished campus will have around 20 buildings. These buildings demonstrate how recycled materials can be used in many ways and for different types of spaces, from classrooms and offices to a house. The designs and materials vary greatly, but most buildings have round shapes which creates earthquake resistance. The campus is also striving for self-sufficiency and has solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system.

Glass bottle ceiling at Long Way Home library
This beautiful ceiling of the Técnico Chixot library is an example of the architectural potential of waste materials, in this case glass bottles.

Community development through new skills and awareness

Even though the campus is not yet finished, the school has already been partially open to students since 2012. Being a vocational school, Técnico Chixot teaches skills like carpentry, masonry, mechanics and welding, and the school will have classes from preschool to high school. This type of practical education gives the youth new marketable skills which will help them find employment and lift out of poverty.

An important part of the curriculum is environmental education, including organic gardening and green building. The students learn that there is a link between the well-being of environment and of the people. Environmental education at Técnico Chixot naturally also includes the importance of recycling and stopping littering. Indeed, the streets of Comalapa are clearly cleaner than in an average Guatemalan town, and Long Way Home must have some credit for this.

Long Way Home's bottle collection site at Tecnico Chixot
Long Way Home’s bottle and can collection site at Técnico Chixot keeps the village cleaner while providing construction materials for the school.

But Long Way Home’s education is not limited to the school’s students. Even though there are volunteers like me working on the construction site, most of the workers are local builders who have now gained new valuable skills in alternative construction. Now that the campus is almost finished, Long Way Home has plans to start a house building program that would further employ the workers. Selling or renting these houses would be a way to fund the operation of the school. In this way Long Way Home assures the economic sustainability of the school, while making sure the project continues to create opportunities for the locals and to promote environmental awareness.

Long Way Home workers pounding tires
Long Way Home has 21 local workers working on the construction site, and these locals have learned new skills that can help them find jobs in the future, such as how to properly build with rammed earth tires.

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