Construction as a Means

Practice, training, and gender equity: different ways of making architecture 

Construction as a means of participation

In 2016 a strong earthquake affected a large part of the Ecuadorian coast. Taller General is an architectural firm that was established in the context of the emergency response as part of a team that focused on working with Guadurnal, a community of about 200 inhabitants. This led to a two-year process that began as a response to the earthquake and culminated in the design and construction, together with the community, of a dining hall for the school’s children. From the start, those of us who started Taller General found ourselves doing a bit of everything: managing resources, designing technical solutions to the problems encountered, planning and implementing construction workshops with the community, developing construction manuals, etc.

This allowed us to understand that we must not separate architectural design from the practical side of construction, which is our starting point. The building industry has specific qualities, especially collective ones. Decisions during the construction process are highly educational. They must be made jointly, requiring a high degree of experimentation, trial, and error.

Construction process in Mindo, Ecuador.

Construction process of Pitaya House with laminated wood, Mindo, Ecuador, 2020, Taller General + José María Sáez. Photo © JAG Studio

Construction as a means for experimentation

When we designed the Pitaya House, we took on the challenge of experimenting on site with laminated wood, a material that had been little explored in Ecuador. The entire structure and different spaces of the house were built with it. The assembly revealed that some of the decisions made during the design process led to difficulties in the construction phase but also to some advantages. With its benefits, this technology became a design and construction tool for future projects. Subsequently, we incorporated it into the San Tola collective housing project.

The design and construction of San Tola took three years, and during that time, we had our office on site. This experience allowed us to understand the challenge we faced in rehabilitating a heritage dwelling, with all the characteristics and constructive complexities of adobe, as well as the climatic and functional behavior of the house. The site was originally dark, cold, and the use of the open internal courtyard was interrupted by rain. In response, we sought to incorporate light, warmth, and protection.

Living in the historic center of Quito, a highly depopulated district, revealed the possible uses for the house: affordable housing that brings new inhabitants to the neighborhood and street-related areas, such as workshops or retail spaces on the first floor. The project aims for the regeneration and densification of downtown Quito and a more sustainable and responsible way of life. It does not contemplate parking spaces due to its proximity to public transportation that connects it to the rest of the city.

Construction in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador.

Construction process of San Tola housing complex, historic center of Quito, Ecuador, 2022, Taller General. Photo © JAG Studio

In addition to using laminated wood to cover the central courtyard, we allocated a large part of the resources to enhance the value of the existing adobe load-bearing walls, reuse as many of the wood pieces of the original roof with new trusses incorporating steel elements and the recovery of all the original wooden doors, windows and lintels of the house.

Concerns about material sustainability and urban growth were the focus of the Casa Pitaya and San Tola projects, respectively. Based on this logic, we sought to address our personal motivations and concerns through architecture. The gender issue is a point of conflict that we experience day after day in an ultra-hegemonic and patriarchal context, such as the field of design and construction. We face complex dynamics ranging from relationships with clients or masons, dealings with suppliers, and spaces of collective action such as community construction. These practices are rooted in gender stereotypes and exclusive binary cultural structures around the supposed roles women and men "should" play in society. Based on this, we ask ourselves: Who has the possibility of building? And what are the alternatives for us, women architects?

Feminist construction in the historic center of Quito, Ecuador

Femingas, a feminist (de)construction alternative, intervention in an apartment in the historic center of Quito, 2020, Taller General. Photo © Taller General

Construction as a means for reciprocal learning

These concerns as the driving force and the possibility of working on a housing space led to the establishment of Femingas —in Ecuador, "mingas de construcción" refers to participatory work sessions where the members of a community get together to develop activities for the common good— and Femingas are participatory construction sessions with a gender perspective. After six meetings with the collaboration of 14 women between 21 and 56 years of age from different professional backgrounds, we culminated the first spatial intervention that opened up a world of encounter and learning. To date, 12 workshops have been held with the participation of 25 women, one trans woman, two boys, and four girls, and five spaces have been rehabilitated.

Femingas are a personal and political tool that spreads to all the dynamics of our work, from the involvement of different voices in the office, in the design and administration processes, to the possibility of incorporating women workers in the work crew as something necessary that we want to encourage and continue to explore in future projects.

Dining hall in the Guadurnal community, Esmeraldas, Ecuador, 2018, Taller general + Al Borde. Video: Jorge Larco

Main image: Pitaya House, Mindo, Ecuador, 2020, Taller General + José María Sáez. Photo © JAG Studio