To save water and cement, Quito apartments will be bolted to the ground

An apartment block on display in Quito this week saves water and cement by not using a concrete foundation. (Brendon Bosworth)

QUITO, Ecuador — This week in Quito’s Itchimbia Park, a four-level apartment block is showing a new frontier for building affordable urban housing with minimal environmental impact.

Rather than sitting atop a concrete foundation that requires mixing large quantities of water with cement, the building is bolted into the ground by an array of giant steel screws about 2 meters (6 feet) long.

“It’s no concrete, no water, no waste,” says César Ramirez Martinell, founder of Barcelona Housing Systems, the company that designed the apartment block. “The minute you eliminate concrete you are far [ahead of] everybody else. And when you eliminate foundations, then you are unique.”

The two-unit apartment building is a demonstration tied to the U. N.’s Habitat III summit on cities taking place here this week. While the beige building just uphill from the meeting venue will come down after the conference, Ecuador’s public company for housing is expected to agree this week to develop 1,500 of these units at Valle de los Chillos, an urban extension area and commercial center outside Quito.

The lack of a concrete foundation is just one of the building’s sustainability features. More than half of the materials used in construction, including steel and plastic, are recycled. And rooftop solar panels provide 75 percent of the apartments’ energy needs, according to Jose Bustamante, Barcelona Housing Systems’ business development director for Latin America.

An array of 2-meter long screws like this one holds the house on the ground. (Brendon Bosworth)

The building is also well suited for handling earthquakes, a plus for Ecuador which was hit by a devastating quake in April this year.  Since it weighs about ten times less than a traditional building, due to its light steel frame, seismic waves are better distributed throughout the building, which won’t crack like a concrete structure when hit by a quake, explains Bustamante.

The building on display at the park is cleanly designed with beige and white external walls. It houses a two-bedroom unit and a three-bedroom one. Both have been decked out with furniture and appliances — fridges, kitchen appliances and beds — to give a feel of how they would look when lived in. Plants line the balcony outside. The rear wall is covered with prints of butterflies.

A team of local builders assembled the building, which is modular and made to be put together “like LEGO,” Bustamante says. The parts were manufactured locally. Because of their modular design, the apartment blocks are quick to assemble. The estimated for the foundation can be drilled into the ground in one day. Bustamante says one building can be constructed in just ten days.

Before doing a development, Barcelona Housing Systems does a soil study to work out how many screws are needed to lock the apartments down — between 80 and 120 screws are typically needed. The screws can be drilled into any standard soil, says Bustamante. And in theory they could be drilled into harder surfaces, too.

Designed with the affordable-housing market in mind, Barcelona Housing Systems aims for the apartments to sell for 10 percent lower than the price of similar units made through traditional building methods.

The price is country specific. In Ecuador, the apartments would retail for US$890 per square meter, according to Bustamante. The company has signed agreements to build in Chile, Croatia, Spain and the U. K. In Chile, development is underway with 48 units of a 180-unit development already standing.

The Ecuador development is a joint project between Barcelona Housing Systems and the China National Building Material Company. Financing is supplied through the Barcelona Housing Company’s financing mechanism.

César Ramirez Martinell (left) and  Jose Bustamante (right), of Barcelona Housing Systems. (Brendon Bosworth)

Ecuador’s public company for housing was interested in building the 1,500 new units because of the sustainable use of materials, affordability, and external funding, says Montserrat Benedito, the company’s general manager.

“We have many ecological [housing] models but you can’t build in a massive way because it’s not affordable and Ecuador doesn’t have a strong economy to pay,” she says. Benedito says other cities can learn a lot from the project’s efficient use of resources.

“I think it’s the future for construction,” she says. “We cannot construct anymore with cement and water. All these materials have to pass away.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town and is the editor of UrbanAfrica.Net, a project of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Full bio

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