Okanogan County, WA, 1997
The migrant housing situation was just coming to a state of crisis in the summer of 1997 when we undertook our first migrant community project in Eastern Washington. Thousands of migrants were camping along the fruit-producing river valleys of Washington. These encampments had few real services and were, as a consequence, severely impacting the environmental quality of rivers and small farming communities in the region. Although this situation had been ongoing on for some time, the number of immigrants was growing with the increased production of the region. A series of Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper articles and prominent letters to national newspapers were finally introducing the issue to the general public.
Keenly aware of the problem and wanting to help the BASIC Initiative had taken the risk of organizing a design/build studio without our usual level of advance preparation or a solid partnering organization. The migrant worker housing problem proved harder to engage than we had imagined; two weeks into our program we still had no one willing to work with us—both farmers and activists had become so entrenched by the new visibility of the problem that they were reluctant to invite a student project into their midst.
Our first project came to us by chance. A priest who had been instrumental in publicizing the migrant worker housing dilemma introduced us to the Maldonados. The Maldonado’s were a family of migrant field workers who were able to purchase a farm through a low-interest federal loan program after working the better part of two decades as manual laborers. To keep their debt as low as possible they had chosen to sell off the main house and were living in one of the farm’s worker cabins; they were twelve people making the most out of less than 500 square feet. Despite their own living conditions the family felt they wanted to offer an act of solidarity to fellow migrant farmers by offering improved working and living conditions on their own farm. Thus, the first studio began as an investigation of the life of migrant workers and the ways in which architecture could intervene to improve conditions.
To acquaint them with a lifestyle they knew little about, we asked the students to get to know the Maldonado family and other farm workers by living on the farm over several extended weekends. Framing the studio problem as a study of a way of life led to some unexpected observations and interventions. The studio developed not only plans for the housing, but also smaller interventions that addressed the everyday routines and social patterns of the small community. Time and zoning restrictions meant that we were only able to design the housing, but we were able to both design and build the smaller interventions.
These included a shaded rest stop with a solar oven for lunchtime breaks, a cantilevered dock for fishing in the river, a laundry room, a large porch and barbeque, and shaded porches for the adjoining housing units. The cantilevered pier made use of bypass construction, a building technology we have found in the Seattle projects to be easy for students to learn and innovate. The pouring of the footings for the pier became the social capital building event we had hoped would draw on the clients’ Mexican heritage. The porch and trellis framed a courtyard that created a recognizable symbolic center for the community.
Students were also inspired by the landscape of semi-arid canyon walls, mesas, and fertile valleys below, as well as the functionality and resource efficiency of the farms. As a result, students reused materials from the site such as the carcass of a 1950s Dodge pickup truck that they painted bright yellow and whose hood opened to reveal the community barbeque. The pickup was parked at the end of the new porch—a sculpture for the center of the newly-formed courtyard or plazita.
By the end of the project, representatives from the state government and local farmers were coming by to witness the progress and to discuss future collaboration. Despite the slow start and reduced scale of this project, it established our programs within the Eastern Washington farming communities and laid the groundwork for the subsequent work.
In 1999, after our shipping container community project at Esperanza, MWHI was able to return to the Maldonado farm and finally build the model migrant housing units they had always wanted. In a demonstration straw bale project during a research seminar, we were able to illustrate our housing solutions to a larger farming community. Through experimental straw bale technology (that we went on to use extensively in our AIHI studios), we were able to prove that housing can be built of waste material in a weekend by volunteer labor.