August 16, 2012
An informal builder is an economically marginalized man or woman, untrained and often inexperienced, who builds intuitively on invaded land while avoiding regulated standards or conventional methods. They build slowly without the luxury of design or plan, using simple tools and salvaged or discarded materials with the singular objective of meeting the immediate needs of their survival.
Marginalized by factors far beyond their control, these builders have opted out of a formal economy and decide to build housing for themselves on otherwise wasted or unusable land. Excluded by high costs and regulated values, they build because there are no other options for their housing, no clear path to follow for their security, and no desire to become dependent on what is often a corrupt and ineffective government.
Ideas emerge from instincts
What is surprising is that given what seems like insurmountable challenges, the details of many informal houses go far beyond what is absolutely necessary for basic shelter. Some builders are clearly experimenting with new ideas.
Ideas and instincts are of course all that any good builder ever has, but even the crudest house in an informal settlement is evidence of the self-confidence, optimism, and desperation that drives these self-determined builders to assemble what often appears to be an outrageously dangerous structure. Perched on steep hillsides or abandoned riverbeds, these houses take on the characteristics and details of a vernacular based on a chaotic collection of materials, hunted and gathered from the waste streams that surrounded them.
Most interesting is that informal builders share a tactile understanding of the three-dimensional potential of a material. This includes a willingness to visually test ideas by fitting a variety of objects together, piecing them into the details of an evolving physical form. These builders work like sculptors, assembling, deconstructing, and revising their buildings according to the “feel” of a natural builder.
With no preconceived plan, each piece of the construction therefore becomes a form giver, continually rethought in the context of its assembly. As materials are sorted, stored, and temporarily installed, the construction waits for some future inspiration, perhaps a completely different idea that will only come from materials that remain to be discovered.
An informal vernacular
Important is that what we see as a result comes from an indeterminate process. There is no schedule, no list of materials, and only a vague idea of what the house might look like if it is ever finished. This struggle comes not from a desire to own or possess something of value, but to protect and provide shelter in an uncertain world. The process thereby provides both purpose and place to a family in the hopes that their determination will one day turn this house into a place they can call home.
The commitment of informal builders to their work is clearly reflected in this capacity to endure the unpredictable circumstances of their lives. What remains is to wonder at the perceptive choices of their informal constructions, choices that are somehow oddly humanized by a self-determined struggle for survival.
Working draft taken from: HOME-BUILT HOUSE: Shelter for an Uncertain World, ISBN 978 09762741 7 9, due out later this year (I hope) as a full color/interactive eBook.