Jose Raúl Moreno is drastically increasing the availability and affordability of housing in low-income communities in Colombia by developing and disseminating new earthen construction technologies that boost the local economy and are environmentally friendly. He is also enabling those in need of decent housing to build their own homes, and to acquire marketable skills in the process, through readily accessible training programs.

This profile below was prepared when Jose Raúl Moreno was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Jose Raúl Moreno is drastically increasing the availability and affordability of housing in low-income communities in Colombia by developing and disseminating new earthen construction technologies that boost the local economy and are environmentally friendly. He is also enabling those in need of decent housing to build their own homes, and to acquire marketable skills in the process, through readily accessible training programs.


Jose Raúl is developing and disseminating new earthen construction technologies as commercially viable solutions for the housing needs of poor families in Colombia and neighboring Andean countries. In the Andean setting, earthen construction is a familiar, affordable, and environmentally friendly housing solution, and Jose Raúl is using it as a tool, both, for fostering local development and employment opportunities and for giving people a sense of ownership of the houses and communities in which they live.

In 1999, as a vehicle for developing and spreading his idea, Jose Raúl created Fundación Tierra Viva. Over an initial five-year period of investigation and experimentation, he and his Tierra Viva colleagues developed new and much-improved earthen construction materials that have proved to be appropriately durable, earthquake-resistant, and have been certified as meeting government-prescribed construction standards. Research and experimentation continue to be important components of Tierra Viva’s ongoing work, with a particular focus on the integration of green technologies—including thermal insulation layers, stabilized floors made of earthen materials, and green roofs—in the growing array of construction projects in which the organization is now involved.

Over the past decade, Tierra Viva has developed and implemented numerous small-scale construction projects, and is now engaged in larger-scale housing projects in two Colombian cities that will directly benefit some 450 families. The municipalities involved have recognized the quality and appropriateness of Jose Raúl’s earthen construction methods, and they are partially financing these two projects.



As a consequence of pervasive poverty and more than 40 years of armed conflict, Colombia is contending with a particularly massive and daunting housing deficit. More than 4 million people (out of a total population of some 46 million) lack access to even minimally decent housing, and most displaced or otherwise impoverished families live in areas ridden with crime, violence, and serious public health problems. Moreover, government-subsidized housing construction programs for low-income families have produced, at best, only 120,000 units per year, which has barely kept pace with the housing needs associated with country’s population growth rate. Because of the inadequacies of the government’s efforts to address the housing deficit, the need for creative and effective citizen-sector initiatives addressing the housing needs of poor families is correspondingly enhanced.

In examining the range of issues that Jose Raúl’s initiative is addressing, it is important to note that the conventional construction industry is an important contributor to environmental degradation. Housing construction itself, and the materials commonly used in construction, have several negative repercussions on the environment. The fabrication of bricks and ceramic floor tiles consumes large amounts of energy and water, and it is estimated that some 20 percent of the pollution of water supplies globally results from construction waste.

Yet another problem relating to the housing construction sector is the dearth of architectural design and construction practices that could help preserve and restore Colombia’s architectural heritage. For many centuries, some 80 percent of Colombia’s traditional architecture was constructed of earthen materials, but in recent decades, increasingly heavy reliance on industrial construction methods has all but done away with that particularly important component of Colombia’s cultural heritage. Mainstream society in the twenty-first century has very little knowledge of, or acquaintance with, earthen construction methods, and with that loss Colombians are also losing their sense of engagement in the country’s history and its traditional architectural landscape.

Although earthen construction methods have long been an appealing alternative, state-mandated construction codes have often impeded their use. Prior to the development of improved and carefully tested earthen construction material by Jose Raúl and his Tierra Viva team, the possibility of using earthen construction was severely limited by the absence of tested and certified materials that meet the construction codes.



Over the past decade Jose Raúl has been engaged in the creation of new, urgently needed solutions for Colombia’s housing deficit through the development and dissemination of improved earthen construction materials and methods. In 1999 he founded, Tierra Viva, with an initial focus on research and development in the earthen construction field. As a consequence of those labors over a five-year period, he and his colleagues succeeded in developing several improved earthen construction materials, methods (i.e. tapia pisada, adobe, and bahareque) and technologies including an improved tapial; an improved, manually-powered Cinva Ram compressed earth block maker; and improved tools to pulverize and disaggregate the earthen material mix. In the ensuing five-year period, he has demonstrated the effectiveness of these improved materials and construction methods as commercially viable solutions for the housing needs of low-income communities in urban settings of varying size.

In pursuing those endeavors, Jose Raúl and his colleagues quickly realized that in order to facilitate the introduction of their new earthen construction materials and methods on a significant scale, they would need to provide growing numbers of laborers with the required construction skills. Therefore, in recent years, Tierra Viva has become increasingly engaged in providing training in earthen construction methods for residents (most of whom are unemployed) in the growing number of communities where it is working. Tierra Viva is thus fostering long-term development in those communities by equipping growing portions of the labor force with the knowledge and skills required for long-term employment as specialized construction workers.

Through Tierra Viva’s training programs and participation in the construction of their own homes, many of those individuals develop a real sense of “ownership,” not only of their housing per se, but of their and their families’ futures. In several instances, the individuals trained have come forward with their own new ideas for improving Tierra Viva’s methodology, as was recently the case in Cepitá, Santader, where local laborers developed an improved version of Tierra Viva’s tapial technology, which has subsequently been adopted on a nationwide basis.

Beyond these local development benefits, earthen construction methods also offer a solution for the environmental damage caused by the conventional construction industry. While manufacturing bricks, concrete or other conventional materials consume large quantities of energy and water and produce large amounts of gas emissions, no similar environmental costs are associated with the transformation of materials into earthen constructions. Moreover, once the earthen material fulfills its life circle it can easily be reincorporated into the environment or recycled and reused in a new earthen construction. Thus, this method produces absolutely no construction waste. Jose Raúl and his team are always innovating and incorporating green solutions in earthen construction. He is currently developing green roofs, thermal insulator layers, and stabilized floors with earthen materials.

Through Tierra Viva, Jose Raúl and his colleagues are producing growing numbers of well-designed, durable, and well-received family housing units at costs that, on average, are 30 percent below those of comparable units. Unlike conventional construction methods, earthen construction is not dependent on the purchase of industrial and expensive materials from big construction companies. While in conventional construction 65 percent of the supplies used are industrial materials, in earthen construction only 24 percent are industrial materials. In earthen construction, most of the supplies are produced and sold locally, with consequent savings in financial outlays and environmental costs associated with transporting construction materials.

Over the past five years, Jose Raúl has established partnerships with growing numbers of municipalities to facilitate the use of earthen construction social housing projects. Up to now, he has worked with 60 municipalities in Colombia and five in Bolivia, and he plans to expand those partnerships. Under most such partnerships, the municipalities (and/or the relevant regional governments) provide substantial co-financing for the housing in amounts ranging up to 80 percent of total construction costs. Tierra Viva began implementing its model in modestly-scaled projects around the country, but it is currently engaged in two larger-scale projects directly benefiting 450 low-income families. Jose Raúl’s organization has built five-floor residential buildings for low-income populations in Barranca and Villavicencio, Colombia, thus demonstrating the quality and durability of earthen construction. To date, it has trained 1,200+ construction workers, engineers, and architects.

Tierra Viva is also engaged in a broader public education effort aimed at spreading awareness of the historical legacy and the several benefits of earthen construction methodology. Some 9,400 school children and individuals associated with other public and private institutions have already been reached. In order to share its experience with other specialists in the region and to learn from them, Tierra Viva has organized two international gatherings on Earth Architecture in Colombia.

Jose Raúl intends to continue spreading Tierra Viva’s model in Peru, Bolivia, and neighboring Andean countries by developing new strategic partnerships with community leaders, grassroots organizations, local and regional governments, research institutes and universities. He has already established a partnership with the (global) Arqui-Terra Network, and his leadership in the field of earthen construction was recently recognized by UNESCO, which awarded him the title of Chair in Earth Architecture, Construction Culture and Sustainable Development.



Jose Raúl was raised in a large family of humble origins in a house made of earthen materials in Bogotá. With considerable effort and sacrifice his parents managed to send him to primary and secondary school, and even as a teenager, he began to display the qualities and concerns of a nascent social entrepreneur. In high school, he was an active volunteer in organizations promoting responsible health practices, recreational activities, and the development of leadership skills among young people. He also founded the “Club Llanero” a theater club for students interested in the performing arts as a vehicle for community development. After finishing high school, Jose Raúl worked at night and studied marketing in a technical institution for a year. He then traveled to Europe, where he worked and studied at the Strasbourg School of Arts, later completing a graduate program in ceramics at the National School of the Arts, in Limoges, France.

While in Europe, Jose Raúl joined Engineers Without Borders and turned his attention to earthen construction as a medium for addressing the housing needs of poor families. In 1994 he applied for a scholarship from AGROTERRE, a French research institution focusing on earthen construction, and he returned to Colombia for one year to conduct research. In 1998 Jose Raúl moved back to Colombia to devote his full energies to making earthen construction methods a viable and attractive solution for the housing needs of low-income families in Colombia and elsewhere in the Andean region. He recruited a group of architects, engineers, and other specialists and founded Fundación Tierra Viva that same year.