Housing in Cuba: Technocrats Prefer Plastic

Exterior Hut House in Taos, New Mexico

Erasmo Calzadilla

 “I feel like I’m in a herd of buffalo, and they’re all stampeding towards a thousand-foot drop and they’re all just falling over the edge, and I’m in that herd (…) so I have to somehow affect the whole herd so that they will take a left turn or a right turn and not go off this edge (…) I’m trying to save my ass.” – Michael Reynolds

HAVANA TIMES — Construction work is a tough, dirty, dangerous and badly-paid job (particularly when the State is your employer). Havana’s middle class tries to avoid it more than they do the devil himself, and happily let the newcomer from somewhere in Cuba’s eastern end, the former convict who can’t get a job anywhere or the poor fellow who’ll do anything to be able to eat, take their place on the scaffold.

A few days ago, I had to do some repair work around the apartment where I live and had no other choice but to shut down the computer and bite the bullet. When I finished working every night, exhausted, I would ask myself how anyone in their right mind could devote their entire life to something like that.

That is what I thought only days ago, but my aversion towards bricklaying has begun to dwindle since seeing Oliver Hodge’s 2007 documentary “Garbage Warrior.”

Michael Reynolds

US architect Michael Reynolds is the head of a group of friends who build homes using locally-recovered waste materials (beer cans, car tires, bottles and plastic containers) and locally produced sand and gravel.

In addition to being pretty, exotic (each of the houses shows an over-abundance of creativity) and comfortable in all seasons (requiring no heating or air conditioning), Reynolds’ Earthships are very affordable – not only because the construction process is cheap, but also because they can do without electricity, water services and even traditional waste disposal infrastructure (sewage waters are processed and used to irrigate the interior garden-orchard). With these features, the Earthships contribute to the prevention of global warming.

What attracts me about this whole business the most, of course, isn’t the prospect of spending entire days stuffing dirt into an old truck tire or stirring cement-mix under the desert sun. What inspires me is the philosophy behind the project and, above all, its results.

Garbarge Warrior. Bathroom.

Before seeing the documentary, what was team of construction workers to me? Nothing less than drudgery incarnate. On the one hand, the boss breaths down your neck, prods you and blackmails you so you will work extra hours. On the other, you have the ill-tempered workers who care very little about the end result of the work.

These things couldn’t be more removed from the work methods of the Earthship company. It’s incredible how even the toughest, dirtiest jobs can be done with pleasure if they are undertaken within a community that one feels part of, within a system that encourages creativity, with the certainty that the fruit of one’s labor will not be alienated and knowing that one is working for the good of others. I hope to be able to have an experience of this nature before I’m deep in the ground.

Shouldn’t Cuba, supposedly a socialist country with a fragile economy and a chronic housing deficit, promote initiatives like this one? In my modest opinion, yes, but the wise decision-makers in our government have apparently put their bets on a project that is diametrically opposed to this one: petro-houses.


Petro-houses make us dependent on oil and technology (which is no laughing matter, considering fossil fuels are becoming ever more scarce), their ecological impact is considerable and, to top things off, since they are expensive and cannot be constructed by their inhabitants, increase our dependence on the State.

Why then, are these cute plastic houses the ones the technocrats prefer? Could it be that they are more in keeping with their vision of the world? Is it because it secures them prestige, leadership and dividends? Or are they merely a pretext to continue this boastful business of the fraternal unity between Cuba and Venezuela?

The day in which initiatives like the one impelled by Reynolds and his company will be thinkable in Cuba seems far off, but perhaps it is not so distant after all. The energy crisis that is beginning to rear its ugly head today will force people to build with whatever is at hand – one of the principles of this mad architect.

If it’s a question of saving our asses, the best way to do this is to prepare for the coming crisis. We must do this so that this crisis doesn’t take us by surprise, which is what happened with the last one, which one of its main architects christened with the name “Special Period.”

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

3 thoughts on “Housing in Cuba: Technocrats Prefer Plastic

  • Great article, I did not know that there were such houses!!

  • One problem with the Cienfuegos “petro-houses” is that if you go out to a bar for “happy hour” (and perhaps a few hours more) on a Friday or Saturday night, then get a little “tipsy,” on your return how will you ever find your way back to your own home?! Also, the sloped rooves prevent the common Cuban practice of constructing additional rooms above the first floor; the rooves will have to be ripped up and redone as flat rooves!
    Actually, the “petro-houses” look similar to such condo developments in South Florida, the Tampa area, and Central Florida, although those expand the square footage by a factor of 50% to75%. (Ironically, thanks to the “bubble” in the Florida housing market, tens of thousands of such homes now stand empty, a few occupied by folks waiting to be evicted, some by squatters, etc.) Still, both Cuban and Florida varieties are probably of sub-standard construction (as exemplified by Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, when despite the so-called rigid Florida building codes, many such structures which had been built within the previous 50 years suffered major structural failures. Surprisingly, amongst the few structures which survived the level 5 winds in the South Dade area were those built by the volunteer group, “Habitat for Humanity.” The upscale houses in nearby “Orange Walk” subdivision suffered major structural failures.
    During the early years of the Revolution such two- and three-bedroom development houses had a bit more land surrounding each house (such as the village of Ben Tre, near Bauta, which was innaugurated in early 1970)(approximating those working-class and lower-middle-class houses being built at that time in South Florida (e.g. Miami Heights, Florida City, etc.).
    While the houses–and community–being developed by Michael Reynolds is very appealing, nevertheless, it is utopian and cannot really be replicated on a mass scale. Because they are being built in the desert, where property is less expensive, they have greater distance between each home. Still, many of his ideas can be incorporated into the self-built houses, and especially additions (i.e. up on the rooves of existing homes) houses which already exist. Even in a dense community, such as the “petro-houses” in Cienfuegos, more creative ideas, and architecture, can be incorporated, such as those modest workers’ homes constructed by Le Corbusier in the 1920’s.

  • The style of house and layout of the streets as seen in the Petro Houses photo above, currently being built in Cienfuegos, reflects the uniform, monotonous and predictable mind of the totalitarian regime. Similar housing projects were constructed in the Soviet Union, with dire consequences for the inhabitants. Decades later, Cuba’s rulers are repeating the same mistakes.

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