In early 2007, Nonn and his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Helen Lewis Martin, a special ed teacher, were living in Belgium and decided they wanted to work in a developing country using their professional skills. They saw an ad on Idealist.org for a teacher and a builder, and six months later, they were bouncing over rutted roads on a 24-hour bus ride from Caracas to the town of Santa Elena, a town of about 25,000 just 20 minutes from the Brazil border.
This area of Venezuela centers around gold and diamond mining and the gasoline trade (both legal and otherwise), and locals generally lived in what Nonn calls “corrugated metal shacks,” small dwellings clad in metal with dirt floors. Sanitation and mold issues were rife and Nonn was asked to build healthier – and more appealing – homes that could be used as models to teach locals about better building practices.
Using only materials found in that area, Nonn wanted to create structures that would perch lightly on the land, inspired by the vernacular stilt architecture of the indigenous Indians. To start, he settled four 8-inch round precast concrete columns into the ground as the foundation; concrete worked well both because it’s used to make local roads and is therefore plentiful, and also because it’s a deterrent to termites. On top of the columns, he rested a simple wood frame comprised of hand-split shingles of locally sourced wood. The shingles shed water, since they’re split along the grain, and the off-cuts of the pieces were made into doors. Deferring to local knowledge and trying to suspend his Western incredulity, the wood was finished as per custom with transmission fluid.
Glass is hard to come by in that area, so to let in light, Nonn and Martin trawled the sides of roads, picking up discarded beer and liquor bottles that drivers chucked out of their car windows, then cemented all the bottles into a solid glass wall of each house (with the bottle openings facing out). Now, patterns of blue, green, brown, and clear light drift over the interior of the house through the glass wall mosaic, and the wind blowing across bottle mouths on the exterior makes a mellifluous sound. Breezes also help keep the places cool, since both north and south facing walls are doors that fully open; when the doors are closed for privacy or rain, some air still comes in through transoms. And Decks on both sides of the houses let occupants watch roaming anteaters, wild dogs, and snakes outside, without fearing that the fauna will come inside.
Like nearby houses, zinc corrugated roofing was used, but was pitched like butterfly wings so that rainwater can run off of integrated gutters into water collection barrels below. There’s little space inside the 180 square foot places, with room just for two single beds and end tables, and a small table and chairs. Nonn built shelving into the walls for possessions, and there are two lights in each house run through underground cables. Plumbing is a short walk away in communal bathrooms.
Now a designer at Kee Architecture in Madison, WI, Nonn is proud of the Venezuelan structures; local government officials have already visited the site. He and Martin got engaged while in Santa Elena, and the couple lived in one of his shelters for a few months before Nonn was driven back to the U.S. by a serious case of parasites. Though he’s since regained the 35 pounds he lost, he does express nostalgia for living in his eco-cabanas. “We were so exposed to the environment there. We woke at sunrise, we tracked the sun through space, we appreciated the rain and thunderstorms. And with the use of minimal materials to build the cabanas – it was really an experience about distilling things into their fundamental and necessary components.” He and his wife are already looking for their next overseas adventure.