Architecture Students Help Solve A Problem For Their South Texas Neighbors
COLLEGE STATION - What do the scrapings from milk cartons, church candles and leftover fat from butcher shops have to do with launching a small business for the residents of Las Lomas? And why would the people of Las Lomas ― a Rio Grande colonia on the Texas side of the Texas-Mexico border ― ask Texas A&M University architecture students for assistance?
It’s simple. Peter Lang, associate professor of architecture, and his ARCH 406 students spent a great deal of time researching the history of border and other disenfranchised communities around the world. They also worked hard to establish a trust relationship with Colonias Unidas, a nonprofit community-based organization in one particular border community: Las Lomas, Texas.
So when Lang’s class received a specific request from Colonias Unidas, the students were ready.
“The women directors told us that a colonia in El Paso had started candle-making and were making lots of money, so they asked us if we could help them do the same thing,” Lang said.
Lang’s students got busy coming up with inventive ways to make candles from basic, recyclable and inexpensive products, which is where all those scrapings come in. “I didn’t know how to make wax,” Lang stated. “But they’re all creative, smart kids, so I said: ‘you figure it out!’ And they did.”
“As designers, we are problem-solvers who respond to the needs of an environment whether it’s a building or, in this case, economic need,” explained Allison Gay, a fourth-year design student. “That involves getting our hands dirty and creating the products they wanted in our studio. We couldn’t accommodate their needs without fully understanding them.”
The students demonstrated their different solutions step-by-step on their blogs, and the women of the colonias kept checking the blogs to see the how they were doing it. From one student, the women saw how to make a citronella candle from scratch, using the rind from citrus that grows in the Rio Grande Valley. Another student demonstrated how to make wax light bulbs that could be screwed into the sockets of discarded lamp stands.
As Lang pointed out, “The students understood the challenge, researched it, developed prototypes and finally brought them down to share with the community this May.”
Lang added that they were accompanied by Cecilia Giusti, a specialist in microeconomic practices from Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning.
“She pulled together the workshop at the community center by arranging for the students to present their work to the colonia’s leadership and to Marlene Rodriguez, a senior loan officer from the non-governmental organization, Accion Texas,” Lang explained. “Giusti later grouped the participants together to discuss financing strategies to launch a first line of wax products.”
The students also produced two other “architectures” while in Las Lomas: an innovative wall mural with blackboards to enable teachers to chalk up outdoor lessons, and an eight foot by eight foot gazebo for the children’s garden area. Pre-cut in class, the gazebo pieces were transported to Las Lomas and assembled during an all-day installation. “It brought students together with a half dozen of the community’s local builders, carpenters and skilled workers. With expert advice provided by John Nichols, associate professor at the Department of Construction Science, the crew of Texas A&M students and local builders overcame stifling heat and hard terrain to complete the freestanding project,” Lang said.
Gaining the trust of the locals to join in — to the point that they bring their most valued construction tools or trust us with their kids — guaranteed everyone had a stake in the project, Lang explained. “One of the local carpenters who helped build the gazebo that day assured our students that the structure would be maintained while we were not there.”
“We as students and faculty learned a lot in return about how to live by wasting less, making the most of local resources, and in greater communal solidarity,” Lang added. In the coming years Lang’s hope is to establish a “border studio” where real change can be enacted in the lives of the residents of Las Lomas, as well as in the lives of Texas A&M faculty and students.
“I have always had an interest in working in impoverished countries and communities, but this project has really shown me the need for it,” Gay added. “The majority of people in the world live below the poverty line, but most of the architecture we learn about doesn’t apply to those people. This project has made all of us face the realities of low-income needs and shown us how even the smallest gestures can help.”
For Lang, this project reflects the true meaning of architecture: a more universal human challenge that connects the interests of a social group to a set of creative skills that builds towards the greater good.