Nearly every winter in Peru’s Puno region, high in the Andes, heavy snow, winds and sub-zero temperatures leave thousands of people who live in one-bedroom mud huts sick with pneumonia, hypothermia and other ailments. Many people die. The harsh conditions decimate the region’s cattle supply—and threaten villagers’ financial stability. Predictably, members of Peru’s news media flock to the crisis, driving a painful national conversation, prompting relief agencies to deliver blankets, food and medicine to a region with few hospitals. None of this, however, seriously confronts the fundamental problems of residents, many of whom are descendants of the Incas.
Enter Ana Loayza and Mauricio Gilbonio. They met several years ago as architecture students at Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas (UPC), an institution created in the 1990s to expand university access to the country’s growing middle class. Loayza, the daughter of a police officer and secretary, is the first person in her family to attend university. At UPC, she interned in the studios of Peru’s best-known architects. A 2011 trip to a Dubai conference for social entrepreneurs led to an epiphany. “I’d been trained to get a job,” Loayza, 24 years old, recalls. But after the conference, she says, “I had the confidence to create my own job—and impact people’s lives.”
Around the same time, Loayza and Gilbonio were considering how to build architecture careers. Historically, many of Peru’s talented architects made a living designing projects for wealthy people. There were relatively few opportunities to work on government-funded social development projects, such as housing for the poor. These factors led Loayza, Gilbonio and two friends to create PER, an architecture studio that focuses on sustainable, socially responsible projects.
Every winter, the country’s attention turned to Puno. Dozens of children die, and many adults are too sick to work. The high altitude, and persistent exposure to ultraviolent rays, pose serious challenges for residents, and volunteers from organizations such as the Peruvian Red Cross. “We all woke up, and realized we couldn’t sit idly by and not do anything about it,” Loayza says. They wrestled with a key question: how could architecture resolve some of the persistent challenges in the rural Andean communities—and improve productivity?
The result was Project Puno, an initiative that combines several disciplines—architecture, environmental sustainability, financial education and history—to boldly rethink what a community can be. Loayza, Gilbonio and their team had never been to Puno, and knew very little about the region beyond news coverage of the annual crisis. Nevertheless, their team began drafting plans for Project Puno, and raising money. By the fall of 2013, they were in Sunimarca, a village of barely 100 people.
To get to Sunimarca, you fly from Lima to Juliaca, near Lake Titicaca, one of South America’s largest lakes. Then you drive nearly two hours north, past lush fields and valleys, about 12,500 feet above sea level. Families have tended the land for generations, raising cows, llamas and alpacas, and growing Andean corn and quinoa. In a good year, prosperous families are lucky to earn about USD $1,250, says Pedro Bautista, coordinator of the Rural Education Institute. “As you can see,” Bautista says one recent afternoon, scanning the adobe homes, “it’s not much.”
Offcials of the Rural Education Institute introduced the Project Puno team to Sunimarca residents. Loayza and Gilbonio then spent several days building homes with the villagers. The homes cost about USD $1,000 each and are made of traditional adobe brick, which helps contain heat. Greenhouses were attached to the living quarters, providing heat— and space for residents to grow fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. This has helped improve diets once based mainly on meat and cereal. Tiny vents prevent carbon monoxide from seeping between the greenhouses and living quarters at night. The new homes are equipped with showers—the first in Sunimarca—and water is heated by solar power. Nearby villagers are now clamoring for showers— and for Project Puno’s help.
“I work on my own dreams, my own ideas. We’re making our dreams come true—and changing lives.”
Mauricio Gilbonio, Architect
On a recent afternoon, Dionisio Huayta, a 31-year-old father of four, surveyed his home, onto which the Project Puno team had added a greenpainted shower and greenhouse. “Not many women would come to a place like this,” Huayta said, watching Loayza play with his oldest daughter, Fiorella, 11 years old. His daughter sees Loayza as a role model. The walls of the Huayta home are lined with Fiorella’s academic awards. Huayta, an electrician with a high school education, knows that it would be easier for his children to study in a home with heat. But his dreams remain strong. “I want my daughter to go to university,” he says, “and I want her to come back to Sunimarca—and make our lives better.”
In the fall of 2014, Loayza will become a Laureate Global Fellow, one of a class of emerging social entrepreneurs from around the world. The fellows are trained by the International Youth Foundation, with support from the Sylvan/Laureate Foundation. The fellowship will give Loayza the insights and contacts to grow Project Puno—and, ultimately, improve the lives of many Peruvians.
In the meantime, Loayza and Gilbonio are balancing the demands of Project Puno with PER, and planning new projects. They have no regrets about eschewing a traditional offce job. “I work on my own dreams, my own ideas,” says Gilbonio, 26 years old. “We’re making our dreams come true—and changing lives.”