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Insta-Worthy Redesign for a Salvadoran City

Graduate Student in Architecture Uses Social Media to Reach—and Re-envision—His Grandparents’ Community

By Maggie Haslam

Community rendering

Rendering and photo courtesy of Christian Romero

Architecture student Christian Romero’s master’s thesis re-envisioned his grandparents' Salvadoran community, La Union, with different house types and layouts, community amenities, green space and programs. Below, Romero with his grandparents.

The most nerve-wracking part of Christian Romero’s master’s thesis defense was not presenting to a jury of award-winning architects or an audience of faculty, mentors and classmates. It was that his grandmother was watching.

After all, his early childhood experiences visiting his grandparents in La Union, El Salvador were what inspired his project, a crowdsourced, vibrant mix of affordable housing, community gardens and amenities for the city.

Christian Romero with his grandparentsRomero grew up just minutes from campus in Lewisdale, Maryland, after his parents fled the violence of El Salvador during its more than 12 years of civil war. While he loved family trips back to see his grandparents and their flock of chickens, other memories—finding the outhouse in the dark, battling the heat and mosquitoes, and washing his clothes in a bucket—loomed large in his mind.

“I hated it,” Romero reflected during his presentation earlier this month. “Of El Salvador’s six million residents, two million live in poverty with less than $3,000 in annual income. Behind the images people see in the news are human beings, like my grandparents, who deserve the same dignity and standard of living as anyone else, and that can get lost.”

Romero saw an opportunity to revisit his family’s country armed with his new skills as an architect. From that desire grew the idea for El Pueblo de Capas, a beautiful residential community that Romero planned to design by traveling to El Salvador during the summer of 2020 for research. Then the pandemic hit.

“I panicked a bit,” he said. “How was I going to get the input of my family, the community? But they all use Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp, so I thought maybe I can reach them through social media. As it turned out, I got a lot of valuable information and design decisions that way.”

Through an exhaustive series of visual Instagram polls, Romero engaged over 100 residents of El Union to influence house typologies and layout, community amenities, green space and programs. A circular housing style modeled after local Mayan influences, a design Romero thought would be a home run with residents, fell flat in the polls, with 93% preferring an angular, modern design. Romero initially didn’t include much space for parking, until residents alerted him to the need of mechanics working from home.

“There’s a huge entrepreneurial spirit in El Union, and I soon realized they needed space to pursue that,” he said.

Taking a cue from garden cities like nearby Greenbelt, Maryland, the community layout comprises a series of cul-de-sacs linked to community parkland, recreation and community amenities. In a cost-effective departure from traditional construction, Romero leveraged 3D-printed concrete to create colorful, customized housing styles, from both one-family and generational homes to farming communities; a typical 3D-printed home can be printed for less than $4,000 and in about two days. A design checklist offers residents a choice of several floorplans, exterior colors, window placement and façade type. Once poured, timber roofing is installed by local tradespeople to build ownership and supports the microeconomy.

“The idea of using 3D printing just clicked, because it’s a building method of the future to respond to the problems of today,” he said. “There’s misconception that 3D printing is designed for the wealthy when, in fact, it’s designed for people who really need it.”

The presentation was capped with several “day in the life” representations of how different residents—from a teacher to a baker—might engage with their new home and the community amenities, painting a picture of El Union’s potential. Saved for last was Abuelita Nicha, a hypothetical local resident who checks her washing machine—rather than the bucket she once used—before going outside to teach her grandson to feed the chickens.

“Christian's project shows how productive and meaningful it can be to gather real feedback from people outside the discipline during the design process,” said Lindsey May, assistant director of the Architecture Program. “I haven't seen a thesis student incorporate feedback and stakeholder research directly into their thesis in this way before, which made his way of working very exciting.”

The jury praised Romero for utilizing 3D printing and its design potential. His father wept at the references to Romero’s late grandfather, sprinkled throughout the presentation. The same pandemic that prevented Romero from visiting his grandmother last summer allowed her to watch his presentation virtually, with translation help from Romero’s cousin, thousands of miles away.

“My family is my inspiration,” said Romero. “No matter how much they struggled and sacrificed, it was to make us a better life. I was always taught to find a reason for your path; my reason is to help those in need based off of the struggles we’ve lived through and the stories we’ve been told.”

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