Proudly Sustainable: Award-Winning Paquimé and the Future of Housing

Published: Friday, November 13th, 2015 by Lenora

Paquime Awards (4)When a developer wins an award for sustainable housing, it’s almost always because of high tech, high design and higher standards. Here’s a story about a developer in Mexico who won an award for building sustainable homes for lower income families. Casas Paquimé’s award is exciting because they’ve been working at sustainable housing for more than ten years. This is a special acknowledgement: Mexico continues to suffer the consequences of a housing crisis that originated in the affordable housing sector.

Sustainable construction isn’t normally a possibility for lower income families. Conventional wisdom presents it as more difficult and costly, a “feature” that developers offer or a product developed to take advantage of higher margin segments, like luxury apartments and commercial offices.

Roberto Malvido Arriaga, Founder and Director of Opcion Paquimé, explains, “We believe community benefits come before our individual benefit. We are willing to give the extra that´s needed to be extraordinary and to share that with the rest of the society. We do things in a different way.”

From mission to execution. In fact, Paquimé has developed a sophisticated framework for their affordable product: the winning project is Pedregal de Cantaluna and is close to Acapulco. Each project must achieve at least 60 points in the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. Even beyond that, the organization’s guiding principles (below) embrace not only environmental sustainability but also economic viability, social justice and cultural wealth. Going back to the roots of Mexican architecture, the developer insists on adobe brick for its thermal and acoustic features, its durability and impermeability. They also take advantage of natural opportunities to cool their projects, including trees and green areas, shading, project orientation and natural ventilation – a must in the tropical wet and dry climate where Cantaluna is sited.

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Of course, integrating these principles into the business model remains a challenge, but Paquimé’s approach recognizes the necessary additional investment, says Malvido: “We know that you don’t earn more by working harder but rather by transforming everything you touch. Yes, it does require higher investments to build in this way. Sustainable and bioclimatically appropriate architecture does cost more to build. But selling the product is faster and easier. When you give more than other developers, you get more. It comes down to priorities. Our families and friends are proud of what we do, and it shows in our housing product.”

In fact, because of Paquimé’s partnership with EcoCasa, their project Pedregal de Cantaluna received preferential treatment from the government agencies that subsidize lower income homebuyers’ mortgages. As a result, sales and closings did move faster than otherwise might have been the case.

Distribution of additional costs depends on scale and features. With ten years of developing sustainable residential buildings, the Paquimé team have scoped out efficiencies from experience. “Adding solar power at Cantaluna had the biggest impact on our investment in the project,” says Malvido. “On the other hand, technology for efficient water use and discharge doesn’t add much cost compared with conventional construction.”

“In a large project, even divided into condominiums, economies of scale are a big advantage. That’s what keeps ongoing costs of maintenance for the green spaces and community security low and manageable.”Involving the community and leaving a lasting organization. “The creation of the CUAC was fundamental to our efforts,” insists Malvido, to mobilize the community to address recurring issues in housing development. The CUAC are Conjuntos Urbanos con Autonomía Condominal – roughly in English, Autonomous Urban Condominium Complexes – the individual complexes of the project. The CUAC will also be the decision-making groups in the Cantaluna project.

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Pedregal de Cantaluna. Credit: Roberto Malvido Arriaga, Opcion Paquimé.

Malvido Arriaga sees the CUAC as helping to address the challenges that brought down the major affordable housing developers in Mexico – poor security, inefficient operations, deteriorating physical assets and negative impact on the residents´ income. He suggests that these problems came from developers having a thin concept of what affordable housing should offer. He points out poor administration and the tendency to depersonalize clients in lower income segments as particular problems to be addressed. For Casas Paquimé and Malvido Arriaga, a low income home doesn´t mean a house without dignity.

With the CUAC, Paquimé hopes to engage the residents of these buildings to maintain the benefits of sustainable construction over time and to build healthy, vibrant communities. For example, Paquimé is working to document and manage building energy efficiency over time. The community has been hosting cultural events and exhibits that  draw in and positively affect surrounding areas. A waste management project and a river restoration initiative have also come out of these efforts. Municipal officials have been brought in to ensure that residents have a voice and can ask for necessary services.

Paquimé´s sustainable and inclusive housing in the big picture. Malvido overlooks the connections between delivering a housing product with integrity and dignity to his clients and the recent housing crisis. “Unfortunately, corruption continues to be a burden to housing access. Certain government measures have been helpful of course, but these are undermined by the bureaucrats who implement them. Our major crises today are education and corruption. Everyone could have an appropriate and dignified home if we had a better income distribution.”

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Pedregal de Cantaluna. Credit: Roberto Malvido Arriaga, Opcion Paquimé.

When asked what will drive the success of affordable housing in Mexico, Malvido doesn’t hesitate: “First of all, the three levels of government need to work together. We also need communities´ awareness about the importance of living and working together for shared goals.”

“The government needs to extend more financing facilities to those developers who are advancing responsible and sustainable practices in affordable housing. The total cost of development should be lower for those of us who are doing good compared with those who aren’t.”

“Finally, there is now far too much supervision over affordable housing development for low income households. This segment now has the highest unit costs in the market even relative to the rest of the residential market.”

Wise words to part on: For affordable housing to integrate long-term investments in sustainability and inclusion, governments do need to ensure that developers are incentivized to do the right thing and that the cost to develop isn’t prohibitive relative to other real estate market segments. Paquimé´s way of building has made a big positive statement in this direction.

Other housing leaders globally can derive hope from the knowledge that business can take on these challenges thoughtfully and successfully, attracting the attention of progressive finance providers and, in the future, impact investors interested in sustainable cities.