Lessons from the cloud forest

A Saskatoon architect sees his ‘sustainable’ project come to life in Guatemala

Saskatchewan Correspondent

Not many Canadian architects can say they’ve built a school in the Guatemalan cloud forest, but Charles Olfert can. A member of Wildwood Mennonite Church and a partner at AODBT Architecture and Interior Design, Olfert speaks enthusiastically about the project.

In 2005, he and his wife Leila travelled to Guatemala with friends Lorne and Lill Friesen, and a group of 14 Rosthern Junior College (RJC) students. The trip was part of RJC’s Alternative Service and Learning Opportunities program. Their hosts were Rob and Tara Cahill, who were working under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Heifer International, respectively.

When the Cahills completed their terms with MCC and Heifer, they remained in Guatemala, developing a non-profit organization called Community Cloud Forest Conservation. With programs in education, reforestation, leadership training, community development and agro-ecology, Cloud Forest needed a structure to serve as both school and research facility. In 2010, they approached Olfert to design it for them.


About the video: Ella Gabrielle Arevalo, an undergraduate student from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., interviews Rob Cahill about the plants growing in CCFC's garden.

What began as a square box gradually took on a unique curved shape, resembling a bird with a long tail. Olfert and his team began calling the structure a quetzal, after Guatemala’s national bird. The final design consists of two quetzals with their tails interlocking. The smaller, 930-square-metre quetzal is completed, and work has begun on the larger, 1,100-square-metre structure.

In January, the Olferts and the Friesens returned to Guatemala to see the project and help with construction. “The building was kind of like what I imagined,” says Olfert, “but you have to see it to really understand. It’s so completely sustainable.”

Construction materials are almost all locally sourced, from the foundation stones to the native pine window frames. Eucalyptus trees, an introduced species, are also used, their trunks as beams and their branches as cordwood in the walls. For every mature eucalyptus tree that’s harvested, 20 native trees are planted, replenishing the forest. Shingles made from recycled rubber tires are imported from the United States.

Solar panels and a mini-hydro system generate electricity. Fresh water condenses in tanks up the hill. Wood-burning stoves heat the building and also the water for cooking and showering. Grey water is channelled toward garden beds seeded with corn and other phosphate-loving plants. Human waste layered with sawdust is composted for use in the vegetable garden.

Cloud Forest offers a 25-day leadership-training program for young indigenous Q’eqchi’ women. As an incentive to finish high school, they are awarded a $150 U.S. scholarship upon successful completion of their school year, during which they learn about the vegetables their Mayan ancestors ate by cultivating them in the school’s gardens and preparing them in the school’s kitchen. When they return to their homes, they take not only their newfound knowledge of agro-ecology, but plants with which to begin their own gardens.

Some of these women are trained to teach ecology to a younger generation. Cloud Forest’s environmental education program for Grade 6 students has become part of a government curriculum. Students learn about birds and wildlife, the cloud forest and ecological agricultural practices.

“Seeing a building like this that is so sustainable makes you just shake your head at how wasteful we are [here in Canada],” says Olfert. “Nothing is thrown away,” he marvels. “The construction doesn’t even have waste.” He doesn’t know yet how this will influence his work, but says, “I’m going to think more about how that can be done here. We should be able to do at least a little bit more.”

Olfert also notes that the Q’eqchi’ people possess a marked tolerance towards their environment. They’ll walk barefoot through mud on a 12-degree C day and do not seem bothered by it. Here in Canada, people can easily adjust their thermostats and so are intolerant to changes in temperature and air movement. If people were more willing to open windows or dress more warmly, instead of adjusting thermostats, they would be dollars ahead, he says. “I don’t quite know how to make that part of my practice, because I can’t say to people, ‘You need to put on sweaters and I’ll make your building cheaper,’ ” he says. “But we’ll have the conversation now. I’ve got some basis for discussion.”

Olfert says he and his friends enjoyed “a fair bit of discussion around theology” in Guatemala. They questioned how Christians should work in a developing world. He confesses he’s not comfortable imposing his faith on others, and says, “It was interesting to see how Rob and Tara [Cahill] work with this.”

“The Q’eqchi’ people are very spiritual,” he adds. “They had prayer meetings every morning before they went to work.” This isn’t something one sees Canadian believers doing. “Seeing that challenges us to be a bit more engaged,” he admits. “You don’t just do church on Sunday.”

Learn more about Community Cloud Forest Conservation at cloudforestconservation.org/.

More videos:
Part 1: The Small Quetzal outside
Part 2: The Small Quetzal inside
Part 3: The Large Quetzal under construction

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This looks like such a wonderful project. Where is it located in Guatemala?

It's near Coban, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

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