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Unidad Basica de Rehabilitacion (Center for Rehabilitation)
Xochitepec, Morelos, Mexico, 2003

The first four Design/Build Mexico projects were all located in vast, informal squatter communities adjacent to the historic city of Cuernavaca. This fifth project brought the program to Xochitepec, an indigenous town about twenty miles south of Cuernavaca that straddles the industrial/agricultural border between urban and rural Mexico. The project came to Design/Build Mexico through the town’s ambitious mayor, Dr. Miguel Pinero, who, since taking office two years earlier, had adopted a progressive social welfare agenda. Like many developing countries Mexico has a high rate of irregular births and childhood diseases that often leave children with permanent disabilities. In addition, the country has poor highway safety, so many Mexicans live with injuries from car accidents. One of Pinero’s goals is to provide resources for the large number of physically disabled people living in Xochitepec.

He presented Design/Build Mexico with a proposal for a 5000-square-foot facility that would include spaces for reception, examination, therapy, and accessible social gatherings. The size of the facility was larger than what the program is normally able to accomplish in eight-ten weeks of work, but faculty agreed to take the project with the understanding that the students would design the entire site and buildings, and only build a 2000-square-foot portion of it. The remaining elements of the project would be left for the town of Xochitepec to complete.

Upon arrival in Mexico we embarked on our usual weeklong charrette, which began with a visit to the site and community. The site sits on the outskirts of Xochitepec, at the foot of a hillside that houses an old abandoned limestone quarry, and faces a large valley filled with sugarcane fields. The entire area is notable not only for this position between the two faces of modern Mexico, but also for its strong sense of indigenous culture and history. Two thousand years ago, the indigenous groups of this region controlled the most important trade route between Teotihuacan to the north and Monte Alban to the south. The ruins of Xochicalco, the historic capitol from this earlier period, still have a commanding presence over the valleys of the present settlements.

The site itself presented considerable challenges from the start. A building for disabled persons should be entirely wheelchair accessible, and an accessible program fits best into a single story structure on a flat site. We were faced with a site that boasted considerable topography. Our students immediately understood that the design process would be a critical time during which they would have to carefully reconcile an “at-grade” program to this sloping site.

Several days into the design process they got some insights into the nature of the environment that needed to be created during a visit to a center for disabled persons in Cuernavaca. The significance of the building program really came alive for students when they witnessed how important this existing building was to the physically challenged people in the community. A group of students had several long discussions about their observations at the center, and made suggestions for improvements in our building. These included more access to natural light, accessible gardens, pleasant and stimulating waiting space, and ample privacy for examination rooms and certain therapy rooms.

The subsequent design charrette proved to be one of the most successful we’d ever conducted in a design/build studio. Over the week, students narrowed their initial six proposals to one with a surprising degree of consensus. This can be attributed in part thanks to a carefully run charrette in which students were encouraged to break into groups, then come together for discussions frequently and to the group’s ability to develop a culture of constructive criticism. However, much of the success can also be acsribed to the nature of this challenging program and site. Students seemed to have an “all for one” mentality.

The issue of accessibility became their biggest design challenge. While the site could be easily regraded in a way that made the entire building wheelchair accessible from street grade, the topography rises as you move into the site from the street. Therefore, the portion of the site that would form the traditional Mexican courtyard and gardens would be inaccessible if the entire building sat at street grade. One of the students’ most passionate beliefs was that the people receiving therapy should have access to gardens and natural light; an accessible courtyard was essential to their design. Students had to constantly brainstorm in section drawings to come up with a building that functions as it should on this difficult site.

Early in the design phase we took students on a tour of the late Mexican master Luis Barragan’s work in Mexico City. In earlier years we feared that exposure to his work before the design charrette would lead to imitation rather than the appreciation that comes from having struggled with a project of your own in Mexico. The impact, however, was the opposite. It seemed that, as a result of seeing his work, all proposals had a sense of the unique spatial possibilities that Mexican culture and climate allow, as well as an appreciation for the potential of local materials and craft.

The building is a pair of long narrow pavilions that run parallel to the street with a long courtyard between, around which circulation takes place. The pavilions each house examination and therapy spaces. A third, open pavilion completes the circulation on the north end of the courtyard and houses the waiting room. The entry happens between this waiting room and the pavilion that borders the street. The entire U-shaped complex and the courtyard it surrounds are at the same grade as the street so that a person dropped off at the entry can enter without having to use ramps. This works well for both people in wheelchairs and people on crutches, for whom ramps are particularly challenging. The complex is open to the south, allowing the courtyard to extend to a series of gardens accessible by long ramps, a basketball court, and a large planted mulch bed that is an integral part of the building’s waste treatment system. This portion of the site is joined to the building by a high perimeter wall so that the entire complex is private. The ramping system that makes the gardens accessible is envisioned as part of the process of activity and treatment essential to physical therapy, while the courtyard within the U-shaped complex shares the grade of the buildings and is therefore always easily accessible.

The walls of the building are constructed of local stone and masonry block covered with stucco, except for one red rock wall carefully detailed with recessed mortar joints on the street side of the waiting room structure. This wall, made of a beautiful vein of red quartz marble found by students at the nearby quarry, welcomes visitors as they approach the entry of the building. The wall vanishes into the first pavilion, suggesting the layering of building forms that make up the larger complex and allowing the building to seamlessly merge with its gardens. The large stucco wall of the first pavilion that runs along the street is largely solid, in Mexican fashion, except for two punctured glass block openings. Directly on the inside of this high wall however is a large monitor that caps the entire length of the pavilion, and brings a carefully determined amount of light and air into the building throughout the day. The roofs of the two pavilions are formed by a series of orange steel trusses that are exposed at the building fascia and the vent.

While the students designed every inch of the site and building complex, they built only the larger pavilion along the street during our time in Mexico. For this reason the students programmed the spaces so that the first pavilion houses everything you need to run the abbreviated clinic: an interim waiting room, an administration office, two examination rooms, and a large physical therapy room. When the subsequent portions of the building are complete, the waiting room and administration will move and the first pavilion will be entirely devoted to examination and therapy spaces.

Among Pinero’s other hopes for Xochitepec is the desire to see the town move away from the pollution-prone wastewater treatment systems it currently uses. Most houses use either faulty septic tanks that release unclean water into the groundwater table, or link into ineffective public waste treatment systems that divert mostly unclean water into rivers and streams. The mayor wanted us to build a system for this building that would be a low-cost example for the community, much like the one we built in Auroville the previous year. Mark Merkelbach, a graduate student from the Auroville program, returned as a teaching assistant for this year’s Mexico program and led a student group along with Henry in the design and construction of a waste treatment system. The system uses large settling tanks and a giant planted mulch bed to complete the treatment of partially clean wastewater coming from the building’s standard septic tank.

The construction of this building was a constant struggle between a stubborn site and well-intentioned design. The two primary requirements of the program, accessibility and wastewater treatment, meant that even with a careful, well-considered design and grading plan, we had to move huge amounts of earth in order to accomplish our goals. The energy expended during the initial weeks of the project matched any of our earlier work. Students took away the understanding that when given a site that isn’t ideal, one must calculate the return on energy invested in changing it. In this case, we believe the investment was worthwhile. Three weeks after leaving Mexico we received pictures of the building already being used, and clearly making an impact in the clients’ lives.