A few months ago when first starting this blog, I was thrilled to be able to spend a couple of days with one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met–Alfredo Maul, the founder of G-22, a non-profit organization in Guatemala that promotes better environmental practices, and is building numerous projects that are reaching thousands of people and creating real solutions to environmental problems in a variety of innovative ways.
Whether speaking to over 20,000 students in architecture, building schoolhouses based on environmental principles, providing an ecological oasis of 42 acres just outside of Guatemala City, or helping bring bike lanes and bike awareness to the city, Alfredo is all about creating solutions. It’s amazing and inspiring to see what he has already accomplished, and he’s just getting started.
Alfredo not only is producing solutions, but he is also providing hope that with more people like him, we just might be able to solve our environmental problems.
After spending several hours talking with Alfredo about his way of life and all of the projects he has launched, I recalled a famous quote I had heard many times, but couldn’t recall the source. So I said to him “I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, but I can’t remember who said it: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’” “Yes, that was Ghandi” Alfredo responded.
Of course he knew that. Alfredo is, after all, an embodiment of that quote. And through everything he does and how he lives his life, he is not only being the change he wishes to see in the world, but is actively enabling that change in the world as well. While that quote is very appropriate for Alfredo and the work he does, it’s an 1822 quote by James Madison that inspires Alfredo to live the way he does — “knowledge will forever govern ignorance”.
And it is through “first-hand education” as he puts it, that Alfredo is dedicated to facilitating knowledge in the world.
For Alfredo, first-hand education means starting with transparency and showing others that living with a minimal environmental impact can be not only achieved, but can result in a very fulfilling life. He aims to “give proof that it is possible to find a sustainable minimalism that provides comfort, but that also has the capacity to become replicable and a formative tool for anyone, no matter the individual´s age, gender or acquisition capacity.”
For some examples, the roof in the building where he lives and works has some leaks due to earthquake damage. So on the floor along the wall where the ceiling leaks during the frequent Guatemalan rains, Alfredo built out an area along the floor that serves as an indoor rain-collection area, providing water for his non-potable water needs. It’s an elegant solution that acts as a sort of peaceful fountain in his main room.
That peacefulness extends throughout his home with surprising simplicity, beauty, and creativity. His modern-looking coffee table is a simple, round piece of glass that sits on stacked egg crates.
His home stereo system is a solar-powered used car stereo. The conference table where he and his colleagues work is made of reclaimed doors. His doors are reclaimed doors. In the office and multi-use activity space on the lower floors, there are various other forms of reused furniture from pallets to burlap from coffee bags.
His water use is amazingly efficient, and he can tell you exactly how much he uses each month. I’ve been involved in a lot of post-meal dish washings, but I’ve never seen anything nearly as efficient as Alfredo’s method. With an ultra-efficient nozzle, he uses just enough water to rinse the dishes so that no water goes down the drain, and then that water (along with the biodegradable soap) goes into a bucket, which is then carried to the compost bin just outside the kitchen, along with all food scraps; essentially zero water goes to waste.
After the breakfast dishes are washed and his Ecofiltro is filled with water, providing drinking water for the day–unfortunately the tap water is not suitable to drink in Guatemala–the perfect amount of water has traveled through the pipe from the water tank on the roof to have reached the faucet, which means he immediately has a warm shower without having to waste any running water waiting for it to heat up. And since the water tank sits on the roof, it is simply heated by the sun with no electricity required.
These are just some of the ways Alfredo lives his life in alignment with his values, and he openly invites people to see his home and how he lives.
I could go on and on about his use of exclusively natural, non-toxic, locally-sourced products, his persistent bicycle use (in a city not traditionally bike-friendly), his biodiesel pick-up truck, and his minimalist approach to material possessions.
But living a minimalist, environmentally-friendly lifestyle doesn’t even begin to tell Alfredo’s story, so grab yourself an organic coffee as you read this post because this man is involved in a lot of good stuff.
Building With Minimal Impact
As an architect and anthropologist, it is through his architectural skills that he is able to have the biggest effect on bringing knowledge of environmentally-friendly practices to the world.
Before he started G-22, Alfredo primarily consulted with architecture firms to help them create more efficient, eco-friendly projects. While office and residential builders don’t always have environmentally-friendly building practices as their top concerns, saving money always resonates. Fortunately, there is typically a positive correlation between saving money and lessening environmental impact, so construction firms are receptive to the ideas.
Education: Knowledge will Forever Govern Ignorance
Realizing that sharing this knowledge with a wider audience could have a big impact, Alfredo started giving inspiring talks at universities to convey how by using building practices that conserve resources, they can not only save money while having less impact, but that these students can also have a huge impact in making the world a better place by reducing energy and water consumption, using less toxic materials, and generally lessening the footprint of their industry.
Alfredo has given talks to over 20,000 students in 7 countries, reaching students from over 20 countries including countries throughout Latin America, the US, and Spain.
And through G-22, Alfredo also hosts these students on location at G-22 Rural just outside of Guatemala City where attendees spend the weekend working on environmental projects such building and installing rain-water collection devices to enhance their knowledge. G-22 is working on developing this program more formally so that students will gain university credits for these projects.
This beautiful area also is open to the public and offers “a place for motivation and inspiration for everyone that visits, there is a way in which we as human beings can live in harmony with nature while using resources in the most adequate way.”
G-22 Rural has a pet park, a wildlife sanctuary, horse stables, swings, a zip line and camping, and also includes an herb garden where guests can learn about sustainable gardening techniques, organic fertilizers from both the rural and urban facilities, solar energy and rainwater collection. There is also a Seed House where people can learn about simple, creative ideas that can be used in everyday life.
Environmental Learning and School Houses through Seeds
One of the most significant projects of G-22 is the Seed project (aula semilla), which is the construction of a schoolhouse/green learning classroom system, built using sustainable, low-cost, local materials that while being built helps educate the community about environmental issues, and once built, it provides a beautiful, efficient classroom that not only provides a better educational learning environment, but also connects students to their environment.
The building features corrugated roofing made from recycled plastic at an inverted slope that allows for rainwater collection, aligned windows and doors to allow for cross-ventilation, and skylights made with PET bottles to allow for proper indoor lighting, all of which makes for a much more comfortable and conducive learning experience.
So far, one of these classrooms has been built, and there are plans to build many more. Again, with the goal of education, children can start to see their impact on the environment and ways to lessen that from an early age.
Connecting Children with Nature
Another educational program from G-22 is the poem project in which children write poems about nature. The best poems are chosen and the children that wrote them are invited come out to G-22’s rural site where they can see building and nature in harmony. These children then go back to their classroom and tell their classmates what they learned about–resulting in additional motivated children. These are city kids that rarely get out into nature, don’t go on hikes, don’t get touch trees and grass and flowers and breathe fresh air.
Now that G-22 has its urban and rural center, Alfredo’s goal is to create these centers in each of Guatemala’s 22 districts (Guatemala’s version of states or provinces) that focus on the specific needs and educational opportunities of that area. Gardening education, for example, will be geared toward the unique climate and soil of each area.
In addition to these educational efforts, G-22 has a store that offers natural, biodegradable products, all of which are sourced from Guatemala or nearby Latin American countries. In the US, these types of products are readily available, but in Central America cheap chemical cleaners are much more the norm. Simply by offering these products, G-22 is helping to educate people about environmental impacts, not to mention the benefits of substituting heavy cleaners for biodegradable options, as well as generating some income for the organization.
G-22 also offers furniture made from reused materials–primarily pallets, such as coffee tables, benches, and desks, and sells them online, offering free delivery in Guatemala City. These pieces of furniture are a prime example of creative, elegant solutions that also have a low environmental impact.
Bicycle Awareness: Biciudad
In addition to these architectural and educational projects, Alfredo is also passionate about bicycle use, as bicycling is a much healthier, environmentally-friendly, and fun way of getting around. Like most cities, however, Guatemala City was not built to account for bike traffic. Through a collaboration of other bike enthusiasts, mechanics, and advocates in Guatemala City, G-22 has been a part of efforts that are making Guatemala City a much more bike-friendly city.
In the past few years bike lanes have been implemented throughout the city, there is much better bicycle awareness, and there are currently plans for the construction of a bike path through the heart of the city.
G-22 also fosters bicycle community through biciudad (bike city), in which G-22 holds bike swaps where people can buy, sell, and exchange used parts, get repairs, and where bike enthusiasts come together to strengthen their community.
It’s with that love of bikes and the environment that G-22 is also putting together a group of volunteers that will bike around the city and collect recyclables, which will be separated and processed at a warehouse down the street from G-22.
Background, Back Home, and a Love of Guatemala
Before he left to study in the US, Alfredo’s father told him that Guatemala exports its best bananas, its best coffee, and its best brains. That stuck with him during the years he studied in the US. When his plane landed in Guatemala after spending several years away, he decided that he would not leave his country again until he had spent time seeing all it had to offer by spending time in each of the country’s 22 departments.
While traveling to all 22 departments in Guatemala, he saw how people lived with very little material wealth and were living very efficiently and creatively with the few resources they had. In addition to expanding his perspective, he also learned a lot about how people were creatively using their resources (for example, the inverted “v” roof for rain collection in the Seed house).
Traveling through the country, Alfredo was deeply impacted by the pollution and problems he saw, and he decided to stay in Guatemala to work and to create solutions to the problems facing the country.
After visiting all 22 departments, he returned back to the city and moved into the building that years prior had housed his father’s busy restaurant. In the years after the restaurant closed, various tenants occupied the building, but prior to Alfredo moving in it had been vacant and dilapidated from years of neglect. But feeling connected to his home, he decided to move in and work on fixing it up.
It was during that time that Alfredo also challenged himself to living a few months as many of his on $1-$2 per day–the budget of many Guatemalans. This meant bicycling or walking everywhere, making very efficient use of in-season vegetables for inexpensive soups, using very little water, and having very few material possessions.
During those months, he gained a better appreciation for leaving meagerly and efficiently, and that material possessions aren’t as important as we are led to believe, and those were the most rewarding months of his life.
While living on such a small budget, Alfredo was fixing up the old building where he was living. When he realized he needed some electrical work done in the building, he did the only thing he could–take some classes to learn how to do it himself. There was a class offered for $1/week so Alfredo rode his bicycle across the city each week until he completed the course and could then do the electrical work himself.
A Bustling Building and an Official NGO
Six years later, that building is bustling with activity. The top floor is Alfredo’s home–simple, intentional, and extraordinarily efficient. The middle floor is office space that houses employees from Glasswing International, a non-profit organization working on education and health initiatives in Central America. The office space is outfitted in Alfredo’s upcycled furniture–reused pallets and doors account for nearly all of the desks, seats, and walls throughout the office. Planters made from reused plastic bottles give the office some greenery.
The bottom floor has multiple uses–conference room space for meetings and presentations, yoga classes, Ecohabitat (the store with all eco-friendly products), bit of bicycle storage, and a hostel. Again, the furniture is all Alfredo-designed, from the reused doors that make up the “bar” to the burlap curtain room divider.
The remaining space on the ground floor houses the workshop (where much of the reused furniture is built), and the bicycle shop, where after years of trying to make it work, Alfredo was able to bring his longtime friend and bike mechanic in to occupy the space.
Alfredo estimates that more than 10,000 people have visited G-22 over the years.
It hasn’t always been this smooth. For years, Alfredo carried out his work without any assurance that things would take off or that he would have such an impact. Only recently have his efforts started to come together. G-22 officially became an NGO on April 22, 2012, and in the first year generated $35,000 in donations.
If he had achieved only this much in six years, it would be quite remarkable. But with Alfredo, there is a seemingly never-ending list of amazing things he’s up to. Walking around the neighborhood, Alfredo points out things like the murals on the wall that he just worked on, the restaurant he worked with to start using Ecofiltros instead of plastic bottles (which is a whole other goal), and the hot dog vendor down the street who, after a chat with Alfredo, decided to start selling sodas in glass bottles instead of plastic.
22 Chapters and a Documentary
While it would be nearly impossible for this post to cover all of the projects and good things at G-22, Alfredo’s story will be better captured in the book that he is writing. The book will have–you guessed it–22 chapters. The first 21 will be written chapters, and the 22nd will be a film documentary that is currently in the works. Revenue from the sale of the book will be used as a fundraiser to help sustain future G-22 projects.
Seeing how much Alfredo and G-22 have accomplished so far, and all of the projects in the works, it provides sincere hope that we can come up with solutions that will enable economy and ecology to coexist. To learn more and connect with G-22, check out the site at http://www.g-22.org/, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Guatemala22.
In the meantime, check out the trailer for the documentary and some additional photos of G-22.