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Renewable and Sustainable: The Future of Construction

A profile of Earthshot Prize nominee CASSA

While growing his Guatemalan solar company, Tono Aguilar realized that providing families in remote villages with electricity was only part of their challenge. “If you don’t have water or sanitation, and your walls are made of tin sheets, you’re still stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty.” After selling his company, Tono founded Guatemala-based CASSA in 2013, which is a 2022 Earthshot Prize nominee. He founded the construction company with the belief that, “All houses should capture natural resources and should do so renewably and sustainably.” Also central to CASSA’s approach is an effort to build as affordably as possible, while reducing the negative environmental impact of construction.  

Sustainable construction, Tono believes, means not only using materials like bamboo, stone, and mud to build a structure – it means that the building itself is self-sustaining. A house that generates its own electricity with solar panels, captures and purifies rainwater, produces gray water for use in the garden, and black water that is treated onsite – is a house that is not only a long-lasting, efficient asset for its owners, it’s good for the planet.

A house that generates its own electricity with solar panels, captures and purifies rainwater, produces gray water for use in the garden, and black water that is treated onsite – is a house that is not only a long-lasting, efficient asset for its owners, it’s good for the planet.

Impact

Tono notes that, “Construction is not just the largest industry in the world, it’s also arguably the largest polluter and the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN, construction alone is 33% of greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of all our use of natural resources — and that’s just the housing sector of the construction industry.”

Worker in Guatemalan Forest To date, CASSA has completed 83 building projects which ranged in cost from $15,000 to $150,000 US. In their best year, they built 20 homes. While this is a tiny fraction of the 2 million homes in Guatemala, their impact can already be clearly demonstrated. Tracking impact has been important to CASSA from its inception and their metrics include:

  • 3,000 people who live or work in their buildings
  • 13 million gallons of lifetime clean water capacity
  • 8 million gallons of waste-water treatment capacity
  • Renewable energy generation capacity of 950,000 kwHr
  • Sequestered/avoided 2,500 tons of CO2 through use of carbon-negative building materials

Innovation

While Tono had experience with solar technologies, he says that when he founded CASSA he knew nothing about construction. He and his business partner, architect Elisa de la Roca, have come to believe it’s an advantage that has allowed them to solve problems creatively. “I don’t really care what’s been done [in the past] …in fact, if there’s a way things have always been done in construction, it’s probably part of the problem.”

CASSA hasn’t invented new technologies, but they’ve adapted many items used in their homes. Using tubing and other components, they trap grease for gray water processing. And rather than using more expensive biodigester technology for black water treatment, they use a solution that Tono discovered when reading about permaculture. “It’s a very effective, inexpensive system and it works really great. We’re the only construction company that I know of, at least in Guatemala, that’s using it.”

Despite CASSA’s efforts to minimize costs, their most affordable house – a two-bedroom, 400 s.f. home that comes complete with solar and water systems – costs $15,000 US. The reality is that many Guatemalans can’t afford that amount, or even a fraction of it. Tono believes that the key to making housing accessible to this segment of the market going forward will have to come from the development of new financing mechanisms.

Tono believes that the key to making housing accessible to this segment of the market going forward will have to come from the development of new financing mechanisms.

Tono’s goal is to scale CASSA significantly in Guatemala, and eventually other Central American countries. Since the beginning, Tono has felt pressure to prove that their renewably built homes can provide strong quality and performance. With CASSA taking on additional outside financing this year, he says the biggest challenge the company faces now is determining how to best “deploy capital in the most effective way so that you can scale with sufficient quality.”

CASSA Builder in action

The Future

This spring, CASSA will begin a new housing and reforestation program in Guatemala designed to help those at the very bottom of the economic pyramid — those who don’t have adequate housing and who are most vulnerable to climate effects of storms and flooding. The program is the result of CASSA being chosen to participate in the Climate Smart Forest Economy Program (CSFEP), a collaboration of several global organizations seeking to catalyze the expansion of decarbonization building methods.

CASSA will plant 5 hectares of asper bamboo (a non-invasive plant that grows to maturity in five years) in each project village. Going forward, stewardship and ownership of the bamboo will belong to the villagers, who can harvest the bamboo to construct their homes, as well as produce furniture and other products to provide additional economic opportunity.

CASSA Competed Structure

The program will begin in two villages, where CASSA will build sample homes out of bamboo following the DIY process they have developed. Residents of each village will be trained in the methods used to build these simple structures, and the construction of the pilot homes will be filmed, to allow this DIY method to be shared widely. Tono is optimistic about the potential impact of the program. “We want to catalyze more self-sufficient community forest economics, and provide sustainable solutions to the lower income segment.” He also hopes that the initiatives that CASSA and others are undertaking will continue to impact the way building is approached, pointing out that, “We’re not going to successfully address the SDGs unless construction changes radically.”

[Spanish] Profile of CASSA

Kim is a writer with a background in banking and non-profits. She has worked with several non-profits on projects relating to strategy, communications and planning.

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