Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village


By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life


As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.


Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community


At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive


We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

Three things I learned from being a volunteer solar installer


Last Friday, I helped to install a solar photovoltaic array of more than 500 solar panels. The array will provide 35-40 low-income households with clean, affordable electricity—enabling savings of up to $500 per household per year. The installation was organized by GRID Alternatives, a non-profit that brings together community partners, volunteers, and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income families.

On a crisp Friday morning, under a cloudless Colorado sky, approximately 40 of us gathered for a short safety instruction. The solar array was to be installed in the back yard of Yampa Valley Electric Association (YVEA), a small electricity company that serves about 25,000 customers in Northwest Colorado, employing more than 60 people to do so. Many of the volunteers were Yampa Valley employees: my team of six included two linemen, a woman from Yampa Valley’s HR department and a woman from the finance department.

Volunteering reminds you that to give is to receive. Since Friday, I have had multiple moments in which I realized how much I got out of a day of volunteering. Upon reflection, here are three reasons why volunteering can be so fulfilling.

First, volunteering can give you a peek into other peoples’ lives. Someone in my installation crew had been fixing distribution wires for 16 years. Sixteen years! Others had lived in Steamboat Springs their entire lives. Many of us—whether you work as a software engineer, a consultant, or lawyer—live in a tiny bubble. By volunteering, you are exposed to different views of reality. This is further amplified when you volunteer in a developing country, yet even when you volunteer in your municipality, you will likely encounter foreign views.

Second, you can learn new things by volunteering. Related to the previous point, the exposure to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet can teach you something. It can expand your “unknown unknown”: the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Steve, a lineman at YVEA, told me how his crew inserts a liquid into underground distribution-grid lines that will solidify, protecting underground wires from corrosion and improving their insulation. This can extend lifetime by as much as 10 years. Similarly, I learned that solar PV modules need a “WEEB” that penetrates the structure, to ground the panel in case of a short-circuit or lightning strike.

A colleague put it beautifully: “I always learn more from volunteering in other parts of the world than I can ever teach.”

Third, it’s truly fulfilling to build things by hand. At the end of the day, my crew and I had installed about 100 solar PV modules. To see a structure materialize over the course of a day, to spend a day working in the sun, to feel your muscles when you lay down at night—these are blessings for someone who spends most working days in an office.

If you want to try installing solar yourself, GRID Alternatives has opportunities around the United States. Visit GRID’s website to find specific opportunities. GRID will have a big “solarthon” in Fort Collins, Colorado October 20-22nd. Contact Allison Moe amoe [at] gridalternatives [dot] org for more info or to sign up!


When was the last time you volunteered? In what capacity? Do you have, or did you ever have, a regular volunteering practice? How does it feed you? What is difficult? 

Thanks to Tom Figel and Allison Moe for creating this opportunity, and for all GRID Alternative staff for committing to do good work. Thanks to Laurie Guevara-Stone for reading an earlier version of this post and providing a quote. 

6 reflections from taking a furniture-making class

Yesterday I finished a weeklong class at Anderson Ranch on designing and manufacturing a piece of wooden furniture using modern tools. The class‘s purpose was to learn to design 2D shapes in a software program called Rhino, and to build a piece of furniture out of plywood by cutting the designs using a CNC router.

The whole week was a terrific experience. Below are some of my reflections on the week.

1. It’s highly rewarding to make things

Since teaching hands-on engineering classes with Spokes America three summers ago, I have barely used digital fabrication tools. This week I focused on designing and building a stool with integrated serving trays.

First, we had to develop multiple ideas for pieces of furniture, sketching with pen on paper. After several well-structured critiques, digital designs, prototypes, and a full-scale model, I produced a final full-scale version. Once my full-scale model was assembled I was amazed that the object in front of me had been no more than an idea a few days before.


The uncompleted version of my final stool

2. An expert coach can greatly accelerate your learning

For most of the course we worked independently. We only had two short plenary sessions on how to use the digital design software. Despite that absence of lectures, I felt greatly supported in my learning. Whenever I was not sure on how to do something—copy an object in my design software or set a path for the drilling bit to follow—my teacher was there to help. There was little waiting time between wanting to do something and learning how to do it.

This is not generally the case in learning! One of the frustrating things in learning to program online is that you can get stuck for hours trying to understand how to issue a certain command. The internet is a resource for learning, but there’s nothing like asking a human being, skilled at the craft at hand, sitting next to you.

Reuben Foat

Reuben Foat, our main teacher, showing how to load a bit into the CNC router

The condensed nature of the program also accelerated my learning. I worked in the woodshop for 5 consecutive days from 8am-10pm, taking only short breaks to eat and answer important calls. This made the learning much more sticky than if I would have taken the equivalent amount of classes spread out over two months.

3. Getting to a beautiful product requires tests

On Thursday morning I milled and put together my first full-scale model. At this point, I had already designed and milled several test joints—I had put a lot of thought into my design, making many calculations to ensure everything would fit. However, once I put the full-scale model together, I saw many design elements that could be improved: the trays could slide in more smoothly, the trays could be supported by tracks so they wouldn’t fall down, and the seat of the stool could be less wide. The observation that my stool was not perfect did not disappoint me, in stead, I felt empowered to know how to improve.

Similarly, when you use a computer to control a mill (CNC stands for computer numerically controlled), the mill cuts exactly where you tell it to. For pieces of wood to fit together, though, you need a little bit of space between each piece. The exact amount of space depends on the wood quality, the bit of the drill, and other factors. To know exactly how many millimeters of “extra space” you need in wooden joints (known as tolerance), it’s good practice to design and mill test joints, where you increase the width of mortices (a hole) by a few tenths of millimeters per test.

Test joint

Example of a test joint. Note the pencil on the upper piece, indicating by how much of an inch the dimensions of the mortice were offset outward.

I think it’s valuable to take the concept of building prototypes and testing early and often into our professional lives. It happens too often that we think we have a perfect idea, then invest weeks or months to build it, only to realize later that our idea doesn’t work as we had planned.

4. Learning a new tool influences how you think

Having just finished the course, my attention is now caught a dozen times a day by the details of wood joinery (e.g., how my kitchen drawer slides into its cupboard). Before the course I would have never noticed such details. What you spend your time doing greatly influences what you think about.

5. A new tool has great benefits, but you must overcome the learning hurdle

When I first looked at the CNC-mill, I felt daunted. Would I be able to control this complex machine? I had to learn three new types of software: one to design my furniture, one to set the path the drill would follow (known as toolpaths), and a third to control the CNC-mill. The first time I used the machine, I was very hesitant, and had to look at the checklist many times. I also made several errors. The second time was easier, but it still required my full brainpower. On my third go, things went more smoothly, and if you’d ask me to mill something now, I could do it while answering a phone call. As with any learning, there is a hurdle to overcome (and arguably, the hurdle to use the CNC-mill was minor compared to learning a new language). But, there are great benefits to overcoming the hurdle: I can now mill pieces of wood and make my own furniture.

CNC router

The CNC router at work cutting out my first full-scale model

6. The art of making can be quite egocentric.

The activity of making captivated my full attention. I was not distracted. In fact, I was not even really aware of my “self”. (I believe this is what Erich Fromm refers to in the Art of Loving.) In a way, this is beautiful.

But there is a flipside to this, too—making art can be an egocentric activity. One night, I observed that I wished a fellow student would take longer for her project, so I could use the CNC-mill the next morning. That shows how attached I was to completing my piece. I don’t think I will shun making art because of this, but I do think I will try to balance that activity with others.

In conclusion

All my components are ready but I still need to finish my stool: it requires sanding, treating, and some minor tweaks. I expect to be done end of July, since I’m traveling the next five weekends. After I finish the stool, I plan actively make time to hone my woodworking skills. (I loved it!)

Beyond woodworking, I will look for more of these learning immersions. Learning a new skill, collaborating in a small team under the guidance of a Jedi master, working at full intensity—I found this to be a very rewarding way of spending my days.


Thank you to Reuben Foat and Fabiano Sarra for the wonderful class. Thank you to Anderson Ranch for the generous scholarship that enabled me to take this class. Finally, thanks to my fellow students Jess, Stephen, and Zac for their passion, positive energy, and help.


Our crew, from left to right: Titiaan, Jess, Fabiano, Zac, Stephen, with Rueben lying down