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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Impressions of Ecuador

A visit to South America sparks ruminations on zero-energy homes and sustainable building practices

Behind this alpaca is Rumiñahui, a dormant volcano in the Andes that rises to 15,489 feet above sea level.
Image Credit: All photos: Karyn Patno and Martin Holladay

For the last year and a half, my son Moses has been serving in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He teaches English at a high school in Cañar, a town in the Andes with a mostly indigenous population. Recently, my family traveled to Ecuador to visit him.

My wife Karyn, our son Noah, and I flew to Quito. Moses met us at the airport. After two nights in Quito, we took a bus to Cotopaxi National Park, where we stayed at a rural hostel. The following day — three days after leaving Boston — we hiked to the top of a 15,489-foot volcano named Rumiñahui.

As we climbed up the last 2,000 feet, I will admit to being a little short of breath. (In most cases, the transition from sea level to an elevation above 15,000 feet should be made more gradually, to avoid the huffing-and-puffing — or worse, altitude sickness — that some hikers experience in high-altitude air. But we made it to the top.)

Moses on the hike up Rumiñahui.

There’s nothing like this type of sudden transition — moving in a matter of days from my familiar office chair to the high-altitude air at the top of the Andes — to clarify the mind and restore one’s spirit.

Even near the equator, temperatures are cool

The town where Moses is living (Cañar) is at a more reasonable altitude of 10,229 feet. During our visit, morning temperatures started out at 42°F, with afternoon highs reaching 52°F. While these temperatures aren’t particularly cold — especially for visitors from northern New England — buildings in Cañar are quite different from those in Vermont. For one thing, Ecuadorian buildings are uninsulated. For another thing, buildings in Cañar lack space heating…

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  1. PAUL KUENN | | #1

    Home away from home
    Well done Martin and thanks!

    I guided on those great mountain tops from '82 to 2000 and miss them much. Hope you took in some of those quake proof scaffolding approaches (hemp tied tree limbs...). The refugios (mountain lodges for climbers) are comfortable once you had enough folks in them for body heat. The best is the 1800's train station on the back side of Chimborazo if you are ever back near Riobamba or Ambato.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Paul Kuenn
    It sounds like you are much more familiar with the mountains of Ecuador than I am -- you must have enjoyed guiding!

    I have a few photos of staging in Ecuador -- not many. Here's one from Cuenca.


  3. PAUL KUENN | | #3

    Sad & funny but true
    My guiding friend Rodrigo who owned the train refugio had just started building his new home across the dirt road from this beautiful station. They were just beginning to add the clay/straw mix in between the timbers and had the thatch roof already protecting the walls. So lots of exposed wood at this point. On fourth of July to celebrate the US he set off the first firework rocket of the night without thinking about wind direction (American guides always know which way the wind is blowing). Yep, you guessed it. Went straight for the roof and "woof". No fire brigade within 20 miles of rough roads. Within minutes his terrified face turned into a big smile and he let out his usual gregarious laugh. Everyone said "what are you going to do?" His cool reply "Guia de alpinista, always prepared for adversity and ready to start over". Big applaud from the crowd watching it burn.

    He did indeed start rebuilding a week later! A lesson to be learned in humility. I've just begun digitizing all my slides. I'll send you some Martin. I'm sure I have some classic building methods.

  4. AndyKosick | | #4

    Low Income Housing
    I honestly think I enjoy your travel pieces as much as anything you write. Perspective might be one of the most important aspects of green building. The mention of a conversation with Fernando Pagés Ruiz made me realize I would be very interested in your views on low income housing solutions. GBA spends a lot of time discussing single family houses that probably half the US population could never afford, and while these are good proving grounds for technology and concepts, few things seem more important to a sustainable building future than affordable housing. I have no idea how to frame the discussion but please consider a future blog post on the subject. Thanks for sharing these trips with us readers.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Andy Kosick
    Thanks for the feedback; I appreciate it.

    And thanks for the blog topic suggestion. It's a good topic, so I imagine that you'll see a blog on low-income housing in the future. [Later edit: Here is the link to the article you requested: Low-Income Housing: Problems and Solutions.]

    For anyone interested in previous travel-related blogs, here are some links:

    A Caribbean Island Transitions to PV

    Construction in Cambodia

    Tales From Armenia

    Rethinking Durability

    Geothermal Energy and Narrow Streets

    When the Gas Pipeline Shuts Down

    Energy and Construction Photos from Greece

    Building Houses and Saving Energy in Nicaragua

  6. dankolbert | | #6

    great piece, great trip
    I'm jealous. Thanks for sharing it with us, Martin.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    Yeah -- we had a lot of fun.


  8. Fernando Pages Ruiz | | #8

    Affordable Housing in Ecuador
    Andy Kosick , you'll be happy to know I'll be posting a piece on one affordable housing development in Ecuador that combines agriculture with low mortgages to help residents make ends meet.

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