Category Archives: El Salvador


Architecture is hazardous, part 1

At a recent Pecha Kucha event hosted by the Monona Terrace and the Frank Lloyd Wright lecture series, 9 Madison area architects spoke on what architecture means to them.


Pecha Kucha is a Japanese word meaning “chit-chat.”  It is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (six minutes and 40 seconds in total). The format, which keeps presentations concise and fast-paced, powers multiple-speaker events called PechaKucha Nights.  There are now PPechaKucha Nights (PKNs) in over 534 cities across the globe.   Click this link for more info on our recent PKN.

“Architecture is a hazardous blend of omnipotence and impotence” – Rem Koolhaas

The Nov. 21, 2013 PKN event theme was based on this quote.  Rem Koolhaas is one of the world’s most influential architects.  I took from that, my presentation message.  And so it goes….

Architecture is Hazardous.

Architects often find themselves in the most precarious of situations, and then we wonder how we got there.  I’d like to share with you the series of events that got me here (in a pit) while researching the varying roles for architects in public service.

This is the side of architecture that I call “architect unseen.”

I know how I got here ……..


…. but I’m not exaclty sure how I got here.  My current role as Project Manger for the City of Monona, WI is never dull.  No two days are ever the same.  I’ve heard that life as I know it is strikingly parallel to that of Leslie Knope on a regular TV comedy series.  Is this what it’s come to?

Stay tuned for “Architect is hazardous, part 2” ….  and find out how I went from a pit to Parks and Rec.


re-acclimation & reflection



As I re-acclimate to life in Madison, I reflect warmly on my new Habitat for Humanity family.

Many thanks to our new Salvadoran friends: the Habitat for Humanity El Salvador team who worked so hard to make our visit a success, the masons who so patiently assigned our tasks, and the families who so generously extended their homes.

It has been a week since our return. The daily routine falls back into place, but something is missing….. I miss my new HFH Dane County family with whom I shared meals, bus rides, labor, sweat, laughter, and tears. Note entirely there yet, it takes time to re-acclimate… to the climate, culture, and routine. How do we adjust back to our “typical” day to day lives when we ourselves have changed?


Group-photo-in-holeThinking back to that first day, I remember the “surprise” when tasks were assigned, one of which was to dig a pit with a pick ax and a shovel.

We worked very hard and the days were hot, but many of us found a strange gratification in the challenging hard physical labor. We became known as the “Pit Crew.”

Everyone spent some time in the pit. It was a good lesson in team work, patience, and the value of humor.

In my next post, I’ll elaborate more on the two homes we worked on and share some before and after photos.

Stay tuned…….

Salvadoran history


Civil War & Archbishop Oscar Ramero

A large part of the Habitat for Humanity El Salvador and the HFH International – Global Village experience is cultural exchange.  The HFH El Salvador team did a fantastic job of sharing the history of El Salvador, including both the impacts of the country’s brutal Civil War.

oscar-romeroAs the United States recognizes Martin Luther King Junior, the Salvadorans recognize Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Ramero was a defender of civil rights for his people.

Executions, kidnappings and torture of the rural poor and activists who opposed El Salvador’s right-wing government had become commonplace in the late 1970s.  Archbishop Romero himself, feared: that this small Central American country was set on a path of violence.  He defended the right of the poor to demand political change, a voice that made him a troublesome adversary for some.

monument3Archbishop Romero’s assassination in 1980 marked a turning point in the country’s history.  His death and the violent clashes during his funeral in San Salvador’s main square, in which dozens died, sparked international condemnation. Thus began a bloody 12 year civil war that ended in 1992.  An unknown number of people disappeared, and more than 75,000 were killed.

“Mounumento a La Memory La Verdad”

In memory of those who disappeared or were murdered during the civil war, a memorial wall was constructed to show images and names from this period. It was overwhelming to stand in front of this wall, listening to our guide tell the stories.













One would hope that all cultures, including our own, can learn from history and do what we can to maintain value of human rights, preventing a brutal history like this from repeating itself.  The last panel was created to recognize those lost whose names we may never know.

Last day in Ahuachapan


Today was the last work day in the Ahuachapan community.  Though we were looking forward to the end of the work week, our hearts were heavy as we prepared to say good bye.  This is the view we saw each day during the bus ride to and from the work site – I took this photo so as never to forget the view and what it represents to each and every one of us.


Those of us who rotated among the hard core “pit diggers” filtered into the hole for a final photo.  My respect for manual labor has grown exponentially, my blistered hands will vouch for this.

We were surprised to learn that it takes the average mason and workers 7 weeks to complete a Habitat El Salvador home.  The workers are paid when the house is complete, not hourly.  Our presence on the site, in digging the septic pits alone, reduced that timeframe by two weeks.  No wonder the masons where so happy to see us arrive!

The HFH El Salvador team threw us a going away party,complete with a barbecue feast and a Mariachi Band, including dancing.  It was a fabulous afternoon with the families, workers, and local HFH team that made our trip possible.

bandband2Members of the Getsemani HFH El Salvador sewing project showed their wares for sale during the celebration.  Many of us purchased local coffee to take home and others purchased quilts, jewelry, and other woven fabrics from the project ladies.  They were so empowered by the work that they were able to sell to us.

Getsemani-sewersAfter the good byes were said and the final hugs were given, our team spent the final hours of our day  exploring another local village called Apaco.  The community is known for it’s high quality fabrics and weaving.  We watched intently as they worked the weaving machines.


Day 5 & 6: Visible Progress


It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Ahuachapan, El Salvador for almost a week now.  The work days have been long – our hands are blistered, our muscles are sore, but we’ve all gained much more at the end of each work day.  Working side by side with the family members and local masons, we’ve learned so much about their lives in El Salvador and how much they’ve been looking forward to the new house.


The past two work days have finally begun to show evidence of progress.

House #2 was totally painted, the sink was in, and the masons were setting the floor tiles.  The septic tank pits were another story – we’re blaming the hard rocky soils for the slow progress in digging.



We were encouraged to work on different sites and for the first time, I had a chance to work on site #1.  We sanded the concrete walls on day 5 and then finally put a concrete wash/sealer on the walls today.  This brought much satisfaction as it began to look more like a finished wall.



Valerie, the CEO of Habitat Dane County, was showing me how to sand the concrete walls with a small piece of concrete block.  This was a good exercise in building patience.  The purpose of this was to sand off the extra grout and prep it for the wash layer, a mix of mostly water and some concrete mix that “sealed” the masonry units prior to painting.


mixing-conc1I found myself hypnotized by the fast paced concrete mixing process.  First, you fill the wheelbarrel with one part sand, one part gravel and dump into a pile.  Second, add the concrete and start mixing it into a pile.

After the mixture is scooped, spread, scooped, spread, you make a “volcano” and pour water in the center.  Scoop, spread, scoop, spread…. Before you know it, you have a  concrete mix they call “chespa” ready for pouring into the rebar filled concrete masonry cells.

Habitat for Humanity International, otherwise known as Global Village, strongly encourages cultural exchange.  When the local habitat team suggested we challenge the local masons and workers to a game of football (soccer), we all chuckled at the idea. What’s more American than a water ballon toss and s’mores making event?  water-ballon-toss1marshmellow-roast


Day 4: morning school visit + afternoon work = site sillyness

On our morning ride to the job work site, we took  a detour to a local community center/school where we met with some local community leaders and toured the local micro- entrepreneur  program sewing project.

school4After the ladies shared the history of the community, for the kids – we shared our English version of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes….” and then we translated it to Spanish.   It was a hoot watching the kids do it along with show

Later that morning, we were back on the work site.  The masons worked quickly to patch any open areas with grout.   As soon as they had the last layer of wash on…..the masons said it was time to paint the house.  Kudos to the team that bravely climbed the scaffolding to reach the high places.  What a gorgeous blue

house paintI’m not sure whether it was the heat or hard work, but  the morning with the kids set the tone for our afternoon.  Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard…. but laughed pretty hard too.  Delirious or just plain sillyness? (that’s my buddy Hector holding the shovel)


group fun

Work site #1 & #2

Our team of 23 volunteers has been divided between two job sites, within 5 minutes walking distance.  The foundations of  both homes poured, partial walls constructed on house #2 and full walls on house #1 – our job for today on both sites included digging large holes for a septic tank and moving dirt into the interior floor for compaction.  Hard labor, but strangely satisfying- that’s me there with the pick ax digging a hole.j9 pick ax


job site 1

job site 2


j9 on site



Day 3: Meet the families

The 30 minute bus ride from our lodging arrived at the work sites by 8 am.  Shortly after, we met the families who will be living in the homes that we were building.  There are two work sites and as we toured each site prior to starting work, all the family members and the local masons had a few welcoming words to say.  More on today’s work day…..dinner bell is ringing and it’s been a long hard work day.






Day 2: lost in transition

Day 2 travel.
Lesson: travel requires mucho patience.

Flight delays caused an unplanned overnight in Dallas…..while our luggage went on to Miami. A Dallas reconnaissance mission proved successful. Luggage found & rechecked to San Salvador. Our team regroups at the Miami gate, the next phase our adventure to begin soon.


Time spent waiting, waiting, and waiting has lent more time for getting to know my travel mates. Why am I surprised at the impressive personalities of those gathered for this trip? I look forward to learning & sharing more about them in future posts, truly amazing individuals.

Time to board for San Salvador. Vamos!!