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Bamboo hut on a firm foundation: A close-up look at Ecuador’s amazing stilt homes

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz

If you’ve traveled along the Ecuadorian coastal plains, you’ve seen the traditional Ecuadorian stilt homes, standing proud above the grass, built of stiff guadua cane and palm-leaf thatch.

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Along the low-lying coastal areas, and when you drop down the eastern slope of the Cordillera de los Andes into the oriental Amazonia, you’ll spot these beautiful bamboo huts, called esterilla homes, along the road.

Driving down to Guayaquil, almost as soon as you exit the sierras, you can see these esterilla homes hovering above the rice paddies. The bamboo stilts make sense there; you need to keep the living room dry. Yet you’ll also find the same raised construction in places where there’s no water at all, or threat of flood. I’ve wondered about this for a long time, and only recently realized why. The reason? Extra space.

Folks who grew up in a traditional Ecuadorian stilt house enjoy the area under the floor to keep small animals, such as chickens, store stuff, hang out in hammocks, and generally enjoy the all-purpose area in the same way Midwesterners in the United States enjoy their basements.

The highly ecological and climate-ready homes have become stigmatized by association with poverty. But those that grew up in an Ecuadorian stilt home tell me it’s the best life, with relaxing, cool breezes through the walls in the evening and a tactile relation with nature that you cannot possibly enjoy entombed in a modern, concrete box.
The highly ecological and climate-ready homes have become stigmatized by association with poverty. But those that grew up in an Ecuadorian stilt home tell me it’s the best life, with relaxing, cool breezes through the walls in the evening and a tactile relation with nature that you cannot possibly enjoy entombed in a modern, concrete box.

Epicurean Ecology and Economy

The guadua cane is indeed what we gringos call bamboo, of the genus bambusoideae, with two species in Ecuador, the native Guadua Angustifolia commonly used in traditional homebuilding, and the large, gnarly Dendrocalamus Asper, introduced from Asia for heavy construction. It’s one of the few building materials you can stand as structural members worthy of multistory construction – they say stronger than steel. And, you can also eat the bamboo shoots.

It’s a quick growing, sustainable building material that reaches maturity from seed to harvest in about five years, and, once established, will regenerate indefinitely.

It’s also very cheap: you can build a traditional guadua stilt house with a kitchen sink and flush toilet for about $2,700. We’re putting one up as a guard house on land we own near the fishing village of Ayangue.

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The Christian charity, Hogar de Christo, prefabricates guadua stilt homes to sell to qualified, low income families with an extremely affordable, five-year loan.

 

The low price has caused these highly ecological, and climate-practical homes, to remain stigmatized by their association with poverty. In other countries, notably in Asia, architects have found exciting ways to develop this most ancient building material into stunning, high-end homes, trendy commercial buildings, and even high-rises, and bridges.

Seismic Strength and Speed

During the April 2016 earthquake, Ecuador’s bamboo homes gained international recognition because they did not fall, while their low cost, made the tiny-house cottages of Ecuador ideal for quick reconstruction in a country where almost no one has homeowner’s insurance.

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This gentleman cutting stairs for the home he’s building himself on the outskirts on Manglaralto, where it does not need to be built with flood elevations in mind.
But he grew up in a stilt home, and he appreciates the extra space below his house just as Midwesterners appreciate their basements. He tells me, nostalgically, “There’s nothing nicer than living in a raised cane home in the country.”
But he grew up in a stilt home, and he appreciates the extra space below his house just as Midwesterners appreciate their basements. He tells me, nostalgically, “There’s nothing nicer than living in a raised cane home in the country.”

Nowadays, the walls – or esterilla panels — of guadua homes come prefabricated, so that on-site, turn-key construction takes no more than one or two weeks. A bamboo house lasts about a decade with proper maintenance. That’s about $22.50 a month, if you do the math.

The homes you see along the road measure about 32 square-meters (344 sf), with one or two small bedrooms, a living area, small bathroom and basic kitchen. Often the bathroom and kitchen are placed under the house for better ventilation, leaving more room for sleeping areas above. The name esterilla refers to the ‘woven matting’ of bamboo slats that constitute the building envelope, or exterior walls. The floors are usually rough-sawn planks, as well as the doors and shutters. No glass in the windows. The traditional house has a palm leaf thatch roof, but most modern esterillas come capped with zinc.

Folks I have spoken to that grew up in an Ecuadorian stilt house tell me there’s no better way to live. In fact, many now middleclass Ecuadorians have a bamboo house somewhere on the coast to live that good life at least on weekends.

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The ubiquitous caña guadua, sold at Latino lumberyards, is used for building stilt homes, and also furniture, scaffolding, fencing, flooring, and the most elaborate roof structures with exotic shapes.