A Lesson in Sustainability

Mexican grassroots architecture might be the new It in sustainability


This past week I talked to my good friend João Boto Caeiro about the amazing work he’s been doing in Mexico as an architect. I wanted to share his perspectives on what it takes to make it, insights on sustainable architecture, and thoughts on how important traveling can be for an architect. We met back in 2002 at UTL (Universidade Técnica de Lisboa) while I was going through my year abroad as an architecture student. Since then, I’ve been able to follow his career and travels around the globe. Let’s find out what he has to say about his journey so far!

You were born an raised in Portugal, but have been residing in Mexico for 6 years now. What brought you to Mexico and what made you stay? I came to Mexico with Fulvio Capurso to visit and see some old friends. We had a potential client that wanted a cabana in Chiapas. The project didn’t come through when we arrived, so we decided to travel e get to know the country a bit. From Chiapas I went to the coast of Oaxaca where I stayed for two weeks. On a Friday, I went up to the city of Oaxaca and at that same night I started working as a waiter at a bar 3 blocks from the capital’s main square. It was a way for me to see the city from a resident’s point of view and not a tourist’s. After a few months I started teaching at the Fine Arts School. From thereon I decided to stay and enjoy the experience. Later, with the peasants of San Bartolo Coyotepec we built the San Isidro Labrador’s Chapel, the patron saint of the field.  Since then, I’ve been constantly receiving requests for new projects.

In what other countries have you lived and for how long? Many. Brazil, Italy, Cape Verde, France, Spain, among others. Length of stayed varied from place to place. I worked as a bartender, lifeguard, draftsman, diving instructor, skipper. Very little rules. I just wanted to enjoy and learn. The last place I lived before moving to Mexico was Sardinia.

Do you think it is important for an architect to travel often? Why? For those that have the ability to travel, I think it goes beyond the needs of the profession. The reasons each one discovers on their own. In my case, I wanted to get to know places and meet new people.

I know you’re also a talented artist with a few published illustrations. What gives you more pleasure as an activity: art or architecture? They are interconnected and I try not to compartmentalize them. We work in all different fields. Drawing is something I do daily. It excites and comforts me. Sometimes we just let go of everything momentarily to work on sculptures, installations, and furniture design.

What is b_rootstudio? It all started when I was still a student in Lisbon with Fulvio and Mirza. In the beginning we dedicated ourselves to work on murals, drawings, paintings and illustrations. Working with architecture only started in 2009 when we got to Mexico. First, in small villages utilizing local vernacular techniques with wood, soil, and tile. As we learned we started using other lines of work. Every weekend that is dedicated to construction we invite the local community to participate, and that’s when we learn new ways to solve specific problems. It brings us a lot of joy to have that sort of interaction. Using our hands to build and leave the computer to the side. In our studio, all the staff works in any field needed – master builders, helpers, architects, carpenters, blacksmiths, so on and so forth. That way we also learn to make what we draw, combining theory and practice.

Why choose sustainable architecture? It’s hard to answer. Before architects everything was more sustainable, integrated with the place; it was architecture without architects using vernacular techniques. There’s a lot to be learned from the techniques inherited from past generations. That’s where the sustainability of some of our projects begin, from copying and reusing these techniques. I would say for us it’s more of a consequence rather than a search. We’re not doing anything new, we are using local knowledge to develop these projects.

What kinds of materials do you usually use in your designs? It depends on the client and project. In the local communities there is a line of work with wood and soil which allows us to achieve our goals with less resources. We use what is around us first.

What lead you to choose bamboo as a construction material? It’s an amazing material and readily available in the market, and in nature, without any needs to transform it. We use bamboo and any other material to take advantage of its potential and aesthetic qualities in any opportunity we have.

Portugal has a vast architectural legacy. From vernacular and traditional, culminating in its famous minimalist school. How did this diversity influence you and your designs? Travel memories, moments, lessons from teachers, friends and family will always have a place in one’s life, and sometimes we find them in our personal logbook. It all comes very naturally.

Which project did you have the most fun working on? Which one did you enjoy the least? I enjoyed all of them, each one with their own particularities and details. I don’t distinguish them by quality, but by the experiences.

What are you working on now? At the moment we are restoring a hotel downtown, a building from the 16th century. In addition, the atrium of Xochimilco de Oaxaca’s church, some single family houses, bungalows on the coast of Oaxaca, and a renovation project for the Ohido Civil Association in Atzompa. Outside the city we have a chapel for the pilgrims route of Juquilla, cabins in the mountains, and a mescal factory – Oaxaca’s traditional hard liquor distilled from the region’s different mangueys.

What’s the next step? To keep working and enjoying what we do.

Do you see Mexico as your forever home or do you have plans to go back to Portugal? I have no idea and I don’t worry about it. I live what I have today.

Do you think about starting your own family? Certainly. Soon.

Has work ever been an impediment to family planning? No.

What is your number one advice to young architects seeking an independent path? That they learn and share in the truest sense of the word. It will always be a path to be followed with other people. Architecture is not a solitary trade. One should try to learn from those who build what they design and share their knowledge with others.

There you have it! I hope that you’ve enjoyed Joao’s story and that it can serve as inspiration and motivation to you no matter what stage in your life and career you may be. Even though he’s a very well accomplished architect, he will forever be my Portuguese basketball coach. To find out more about João and his work visit b_roots studio’s webpage or check out their Facebook page here.

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