Featured Student: Collin Eaton

Collin Eaton has spent a lot of time thinking about houses. Particularly those built with traditional techniques: he has worked to restore historic adobe in San Francisco and to build adobe in Ecuador, and even when he looks back on early experience helping his father, who is also a builder, Collin remembers “it was often my responsibility to pick up trash on the job site, and as a result I also became suspicious from an early age of how much waste is generated by modern building systems.” Could traditional systems, he wondered, be a viable alternative?

In 2009 he moved to Guatemala and spent several years with Habitat for Humanity and FINCA, a microfinance foundation, seeking housing finance solutions for Guatemalans living in poverty. Such organizations typically fund structures built with cement blocks and steel reinforcement, and Collin became increasingly concerned over the fact that since such materials are tied to the global commodities market, prices have risen to the point where “organizations like Habitat are finding that the market they’re serving is not

Collin

their target market.” Again, he began to think about traditional systems like adobe, and whether they might offer a desirable alternative: “I was wondering what’s happening to the people who can’t afford those [concrete] systems, and if there’s a way to find a more affordable system for them to access. Since energy and cost are related that would create housing with the added benefit of lower environmental impact.”

In many ways, it was this question that propelled him to Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. Collin was looking for a program that would provide him the skills to more deliberately address building systems challenges, while also supporting his strong interest in an existing project. “One of the things that appealed to me about this program,” Collin explains, “was the flexible course plan, and that it seemed like there was the ability to focus on project.” As a current second-year student, Collin says that he’s pleased with how this balanced has worked for him.

He has also found that the interdisciplinary nature of the Environmental Studies program has shifted his focus, from “this narrow view of wanting to do embodied energy and the life cycle assessment approach,” to one that incorporates sociological methods to help investigate why certain systems may or may not be utilized. “I’m equally invested in the perception side,” he expands. “In the end, you can show quantitatively that there will be lower environmental impact or lower cost, but the real question is whether people are interested.”

This interest, ultimately, is what Collin is examining with his project. He spent three months this summer in Guatemala conducting interviews, to “feel out how people felt about these traditional systems” Concrete block is certainly viewed as the superior material, so Collin wanted to know “whether if Habitat went for [traditional systems], would people be amenable or would they be insulted?” After 30 focus groups, 200 surveys, and eight interviews with housing organizations, Collin is optimistic. “There is definitely a preference for block, but I did find evidence of people adapting that technology, building concrete columns filled in with adobe because it’s cheaper and more comfortable in hot weather. That’s interesting.”

Moving forward, Collin will adapt his formal project into an executive summary which can be translated into Spanish and presented to housing organizations, as a resource for those interested in making a switch to traditional building systems. He also plans to return to Guatemala after graduation.

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.