Jayme Gershen is a photographer and filmmaker focused on stories about identity, second chances, and creative problem-solving.
In western Puerto Rico, families and volunteers are building a low-tech, resilient haven out of earth, tires, and trash.
A few years ago, Lauralina Melendez returned to her native Puerto Rico with her Venezuelan husband, Mario Atunez, and their two kids. They’d been living in San Francisco, and decided they wanted to connect to Melendez’s culture and live closer to nature.
So they moved to Aguadilla, on the west coast of the island. The family was settling into life there when last year’s hurricane season began. During Hurricane Maria, they took shelter with a friend who had a concrete house in their town. Downed trees and power lines prevented them from making it back to their house for more than a week after the storm, and they returned to find part of their roof had caved in.
Atunez and Melendez helped neighbors recover from the devastation and took in animals that were running wild in their neighborhood. Another couple, Paola Cimadevilla and Derrick Hernandez, came to them after their house had been destroyed, and they took them in as well. Melendez and Atunez then shared their dream with Hernandez and Cimadevilla: to build Earthships in Puerto Rico.
Earthships are simple homes made out of natural and recycled materials: packed dirt, tires, and glass bottles and other items that are commonly seen as trash. They were developed nearly 50 years ago by Michael Reynolds as a sustainable alternative to traditional buildings. Thick-walled and low to the ground, Earthships harvest and recycle their own water and, if they incorporate renewable energy sources, can be independent of the electricity grid, which makes them more resilient during and after a natural disaster.
The two couples contacted Reynolds’s Earthship Biotecture organization near Taos, New Mexico. They were surprised when they received a response inviting them to New Mexico to learn how to build Earthships and develop a project for Puerto Rico.
When Atunez and Melendez got back, they asked Noemi and Carlos Chaparro about building an Earthship on land they owned in Aguada, Puerto Rico. The Chaparros agreed, seeing it as a way to bring the community together.
Over the past year, hundreds of local and international volunteers have joined these three families to build Villa Bonuco, Puerto Rico’s first Earthship. (The project’s official name is Earthship PR at Tainasoy Apiario.) Villa Bonuco will be made up of five geodesic domes connected by water catchment systems, forming a pentagon with an edible-garden courtyard in the center. It will be an education center where Puerto Ricans and others can learn about Earthships as an alternative to the infrastructure that proved vulnerable during Hurricane Maria.
The non-recycled materials needed to build the structure will cost about $80,000 in total. They include rebar, cement, and tools, as well as the water and solar systems that will be integrated into the building.
The Chaparros are now managing the Earthship project as the group organizes for the third phase of construction. They hope to finish the building by December 2019. Villa Bonuco will “[provide] workshops on agriculture, apiculture, music, the arts, and a library,” said Noemi Chaparro. “It will also serve as a refuge in the event of another disaster—not housing, but definitely food, water, charging stations, and the distribution of relief supplies.”