Fernando had the honor of speaking at the 20th Anniversary alumni lecture night at Auburn´s Rural Studio, a design-build program that gives architecture students a more hands-on experience while assisting an underserved population in Alabama's Black Belt region. It was an eventful weekend of touring the new projects and connecting with familiar faces. Lecture night was a blast and we wanted to share it with you here:
"Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul." -Sambo Mockbee
About 10 years ago I was starting school of architecture in Mérida. And for three years I was part of a church group that went on mission trips into little communities outside of Merida. During one of those trips I had an experience that changed my life...
We were staying in this little town for a week and this woman invited us to eat at her house. We got there and my friends and I were the only ones at the table, so we assumed that the family had already eaten, so we ate and when we were done we headed back to the place where we were staying. But when we got there one of my friends realized that she had left her bag at the woman´s house. So I went back with her to pick it up, and as we got closer to the house since the kitchens are normally open we saw the mom was feeding her kids with the leftover food that we didn´t eat. How can someone with so little give everything they have, even the food of their own children, to complete strangers? And it was then that I asked myself: can´t we do the same for them?
So in 2004 I entered a multidisciplinary school program that helped some of the poorest communities of the Yucatan. We were in charge of teaching the people how to build their own kitchens with materials and techniques that had been used by the Mayans for hundreds of years. We helped them build 100 kitchens.
In 2006 I decided to go to the Rural Studio after seeing the amazing things that you had accomplished here and the help that you guys have brought to the community. I was part of the outreach program together with Alex, Kelly, Natalie and Susan.
We visited the first version of the 20k house and helped build Ms. Eloise´s house. Meanwhile we started designing Frank´s house, which we called the porch house. The idea was to build a house with 20,000 dollars in materials and labor using local resources and techniques, as well as rescuing the use of the porch as an extension of the house and as a way to connect with people that pass by.
Almost 7 months later we started the construction on site, we used a platform frame construction technique on footing that will allow us to place the project in any site without having to do much to it. And to have the least possible waste we adapted the measurement of the house to the local materials that were available. I learned a lot through this experience, much more than I can tell you in this presentation. I learned that 2x4s are not necessarily 2 by 4, and that just like in Mexico, peoples´ lives could be improved significantly if we are willing to help.
This is me, a year after we finished, visiting Frank (or Biscuit as they call him since he always carries some biscuits in his pockets for his dogs), he gave me a tour around his house and was very happy and I was too to see how he was using the house we designed for him.
I went back to Merida which is in the state of Yucatan Mexico, a beautiful city with beautiful architecture, a combination in between colonial an contemporary design. My experience at the Rural Studio showed me that I´m capable to change my environment and it gave me the tools to do so. At my university in Merida I presented the 20k house as my thesis project. A little after that the house would start to appear in different publications; it even made it to the MoMa in New York.
In 2007 I started my own company together with two friends from Merida. We started in a room of my parents´ house, then my dad gave us a storage place that we remodeled into my current office.
One of our first projects was a hotel on the beach at the Mayan Riviera. In this hotel we ran into big trouble. The structural engineer had told us to use piles as the foundation system since there were caves underground, so we sent to make them and when the time came to install them they didn´t want to do it because the machinery used to hammer them down was too heavy and it could sink through the ground, so we had to lay them down under the new concrete slab that we ended up using as foundation. This was terrible because the piles cost $77,000 dollars.
So I thought maybe I should take a course of structures, so I went back to school and studied structures for a year, and right after studied my masters in construction. By the time I got out of the masters my company was going slowly, but a local and well know architect, Henry Ponce made me a timely offer to work at his office where I gained valuable design experience working on beautiful downtown restorations. Work picked up, so I decided to go back to my company and start working together with my wife. We gave it the new name Studio Abreu, where we offer both architectural and construction services. Here we have some examples of our work, mainly commercial and housing.
This is my building crew, many of them are from those little towns I used to visit and I believe that by paying them fairly and telling them how valuable their work is, we can improve their lives and help their families.
Finally I want to leave you with this phrase that has helped me with decisions in my career:
“You can´t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that somehow the dots will connect in your future.” - Steve Jobs
Architect Fernando Abreu heads the design-build firm Studio Abreu. Here he will offer informative tips for enhancing homes in the Yucatan.