After investigating home building practices common in Texas colonias, impoverished communities near the Mexico border, a Texas A&M architecture Ph.D. student is working to share affordable, energy efficient construction techniques and home designs with colonias residents.
Combining data from her own colonia housing survey with advice from energy efficiency experts, Duygu Yenerim is developing alternative "green" residential designs to meet the special needs of these unique border region neighborhoods.
Though characteristics vary among the many small, rural, unincorporated communities known as colonias — home to more than half a million people — they generally lack one or more of the physical infrastructure amenities most people take for granted: running water, sewer systems, paved roads and storm drainage.
Because of their remote locations, poor economic conditions and cultural segregation, colonia residents tend to be isolated from government services and social safety nets that provide education, job training and placement, health care and programs for the young and elderly.
“Homes in the colonias are often self-built and added to as money becomes available, but with a lack of knowledge about affordable and energy efficient building methods,” said Yenerim.
Reducing home energy use in the colonias is a goal of the study, said Mark Clayton, professor of architecture and Yenerim’s faculty advisor.
“If we understand how these homes are being built, we can make decisions to increase their energy efficiency, which will have major benefits in the future,” said Clayton. “By reducing energy consumption we not only help the residents of the colonias by lowering their utility bills, but we also help the state of Texas, which has a goal to reduce the amount of energy that needs to be produced for the state.”
Lower energy use, said Clayton, also leads to lower energy production, which reduces air pollution, he said.
Yenerim began the project by researching building techniques appropriate to the border region's environmental conditions, including procedures for constructing individual building components such as windows, walls and doors.
Then, she headed to Lago Vista and San Carlos, colonias located in Webb County, to gather information about local residential design and construction practices.
“We wanted to reconstruct the lifespan of a typical colonias home, how and when it was built, the changes that were made over time, and plans for future changes,” said Yenerim.
She also gathered data on construction specifications, the materials used and how the space is utilized.
For the project's field component, Yenerim and her Spanish-speaking assistants, environmental design students Nasario Arrequin and Dulce Castillo, relied heavily on assistance of the staff of the College of Architecture's Colonias Program, who helped introduce them to the local residents and facilitate the research.
Overseen by the college since established by the Texas Legislature, the Colonias Program has focused on improving the quality of life for colonias residents for more than two decades.
Working with the Texas A&M research team, Jose Guiterrez, associate regional director in the Colonias Program’s Laredo office, reviewed Yenerim's fliers and questionnaires, suggested revisions and accompanied her research team on home visits.
Additionally, Rosie Freyre, one of the colonias program’s promotoras — a specially trained colonias resident who works to connect her neighbors with career training, health and social service providers — accompanied the students and helped ease residents' concerns about participating in the home construction survey.
“The Colonias Program’s help opening doors and gaining access to residences was absolutely critical,” said Clayton. "The work could not have been done without their help.”
From specifications, photos and drawings, Yenerim will create 3-D renderings of the colonias homes and infrastructure using building information modeling software. The software also computes home energy use and can compare the colonias residences with BIM models of homes built with the energy-efficient techniques identified in the initial phase of Yenerim's study.
The study's findings, she said, will inform the development of software tools that trained field agents can use to help colonias residents design “green” homes, additions or renovations, which will also add to their value.