Fernando Martirena

1 May 2013 — It’s Fernando Martirena’s second trip to Australia with The Australian Green Development Forum.

The Forum hosted him in 2008 for its 2008 “Running on Empty” National Roadshow which took the Santa Clara University, Cuba professor to Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney where he inspired attendees with his story of his country and its environmental, social and economic survival against the odds.

This time, Resilient Building in a Changing Climate, has taken him to Perth, Brisbane and Townsville.

And he’s spreading the word about the best practice in resilient building – concrete. Low carbon concrete.

Speaking from the Qantas Lounge at Perth Airport, Mr Martirena says Australia faces the same climate challenges as Cuba such as severe storms, fires, floods and cyclones and it was important to be able to build resilience in the context of climate change.

And concrete has the potential to do that.

“We started by trying to develop a use for clay but a few years ago we diverted into the direction of concrete,” he said.

“It’s a material, when you look at its chemical composition, it is like the earth’s crust. It has the same elements.

“And it can be produced anywhere in the world.”

That’s important because, for developing countries, and potentially countries like Australia, it cuts down on transport miles.

And it’s already proving itself around the world thanks to Mr Martirena and his work at the Centre for Research & Development of Structures and Materials.

He is known as “the motor” of the centre which has championed “Ecomaterials in Social Housing projects” since 1996.

One of its main projects project involves the development of a system for the local manufacture of “ecomaterials” – building materials made with low embodied energy, often through recycling wastes.

These include micro-concrete roofing tiles, lime-pozzolana cement, pre-cast hollow concrete blocks, gravel and sand suitable for use in concrete – produced in portable crushing facilities, low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-wastes as fuel and the use of bamboo in construction.

Suitable for both rural and suburban areas, the technologies developed by CIDEM are geared towards small-scale production, with a focus on stimulating the local economy through the creation of new job opportunities.

“It has such a huge potential and now we are at the industrial stage. We need to develop standards and assess the long-term durability.

“We are so happy to have the cement industry in India already on board. India, China and Brazil make 80 per cent of the world’s cement.

“But it will take three or four years before we can launch this.”

Mr Martirena is also keen on recycling construction rubble which currently is mostly turned into road base, which is “the worst thing you can do”, he says.

“Engineers in the past have been reluctant to use rubble because it could compromise their projects but there are now technologies available which can ensure it is clean.”

Mr Martirena said there was a building in New Delhi which was torn down and rebuilt using 90 per cent of its original materials.

That is amazing, he says.

“I have personally visited this building and they recycled the interiors. There is a huge water curtain on one wall which is cooling down the entire building.

“It was hot outside but inside we didn’t need airconditioning, just a fan.”

Mr Martirena said eventually the cost of energy and transport will force people to look are reusing rubble and the contents of buildings that are past their life span.

And after 20 years looking at ways of sustainable buildings, he says he is optimistic about the future of the planet.

“It is not a road paved with roses and we are going to face challenges,” he says.

“But industry is getting on board and governments are getting on board.

“Australia is very encouraging – you do know what you need to do.

“We need to get industry on board and to do that they need to make a profit.

“So we have to educate people – and that starts in the cradle. We do that in Cuba.

“And those aged 20 to 30, they grew up with this green, and they are seriously concerned.

“And they are the customers. They will buy green.”

In 2011, the UN-HABITAT granted CIDEM the award “Scroll of Honor 2011” for its contribution in the field of housing in Cuba and other parts of the world.

The submission is below.

Name of the project: Ecomaterials for Social Housing in Cuba

Institute nominated: Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Estructuras y Materiales, CIDEM, Cuba


CIDEM stands for Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo de Estructuras y Materiales (Centre for Research & Development of Structures and Materials). It is a Research & Development Institute attached to the Faculty of Construction at the “Universidad Central de Las Villas”, and while it is part of the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education, it has operative freedom. It manages several foreign currency bank accounts, sells its services in the local market (to Ministries and firms) and internationally (consultancies and contracts for planning in Latin America and Africa).

As well, CIDEM is a Project Center of the Faculty for Construction and has specialised in the practical application of ecologically and economically sustainable construction materials and technologies. Its status of being part of the University and being able to count on its staff and installations, but having achieved a high degree of self-financing through marketing their services and know-how within and outside of Cuba to Ministries, Municipalities, Commercial firms and NGOs, gives them a high degree of operational independence and allows flexibility.

CIDEM addresses different areas of construction with a practically minded approach. The main thrust is in the field of sustainable technologies for the manufacture of ecomaterials. The scope of CIDEM´s work is very wide, and includes fundamental and applied research, technology development and practical implementation, mainly in social projects. The fundamental research is carried out in close connection with Universities in Europe (Germany, Switzerland) and North America (Canada). The applied research is basically done in Cuba and other countries of the region, and includes development of the hardware (machinery) for the manufacture of the newly developed materials. Implementation and follow up is often done in collaboration with other institutions, mainly NGOs or local governments, through donor projects for vulnerable communities, where disaster preparedness and mitigation have a great priority.

The technologies developed are oriented to small-scale production, suitable for rural and suburban areas. This type of small-scale production would stimulate the local economy through creation of new job opportunities. Furthermore, the environment is protected since potential threats in the form of wastes are profitably and/or effectively used. Great success has been reported in the production of Microconcrete Roofing Tiles (MCR), Lime Pozzolana Cement (CP-40), and precast concrete elements of small format (hollow concrete blocks). There are currently 48 ecomaterials workshops in full operation throughout Cuba, and another 15 outside Cuba, mostly in Central America (Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala), South America (Colombia, Ecuador), and Africa (Namibia, Nigeria, Mozambique).

Cuba is moving slowly towards an economy where market shall play an important role. The party congress in 2011 has approved a series of measures that will introduce real changes in the municipal economy. However, this is not being implemented as an economic shock, the measures will be solidly planned and implemented within the framework of the constitution and defined in laws (not in decrees). One of the decisions is that by 2015 the construction activities will be 70 per cent by non-state actors and only 30 per cent by the state, already in 2012 they plan to have 40 per cent of the GNP produced by the non-state sector (the term used to describe private and cooperative endeavours). CIDEM has been called to provide advisory service at a very high level at the Cuban government and at Parliament level, to implement a new housing program based on the use of local resources, and a clear emphasis on the non-state productive sector.

CIDEM was founded back in 1992, initially as a R&D unit, and in 2004 was recognised as an independent Center for Research by the Cuban Ministry of Science. The work with communities began in 1995 and the first project implemented in 1996. At present it has been involved in the implementation of 12 international projects, funded by international donors, such as GTZ (Germany), SDC (Switzerland), AEICI (Spain), Swiss Red Cross (Switzerland), DESWOS (Germany), EU-Werkhof Verein e.V. (Germany), DAAD (Germany), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany), and CIDA (Canada).

CIDEM has been widely awarded nationally and internationally. In 2007 it received the UN Habitat-BSHF World Habitat Award. Later in 2008 CIDEM was one of the three finalists for the Energy Globe Award. In Cuba in 2005 the National Academy of Sciences awarded CIDEM the National Prize for Science, and in 2008 CIDEM was granted the National Prize for Technological Innovation.

CIDEM is an active member of the EcoSur network (Network for an Ecological and Economical Habitat, www.ecosur.org) which includes different institutions (NGO´s, Parastatal, private companies) from 13 different countries of Latin America and is active member of the BASIN network (Building Advisory Service and Information Network, led by GATE, ITDG, SKAT and CRATerre).

Description of the initiative or project

From 1959-1988, the system for housing provision in Cuba was based on the centralized production of building materials in large, automated facilities operated by the Ministry of Construction. Prefabricated building materials were produced and supplied by road or rail to areas far from the industrial centres; it was an energy-intensive system based upon the supply of cheap oil from the former USSR.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist states had a dramatic effect on the system: energy became scarce, roads deteriorated because of the lack of maintenance, the fleet of trucks became obsolete and the supply of spare parts was threatened. This had a great impact on the construction materials industry, which was no longer able to maintain a steady supply of building materials, particularly to areas distant from the production centres. The lack of availability of building materials led to a decrease in new housing construction and a rapid deterioration of existing housing stock due to lack of maintenance, as the population did not have the means to renovate or maintain their homes in good repair.

The new situation prompted a fundamental shift from centralized production based on long-distance transportation, to the local production of building materials in order to lower energy and transportation costs.

The work of the CIDEM research and development institute since it was established in 1991 has consisted of developing and implementing technologies to support this change at the grassroots level.

The project involves the development of a system for the local manufacture of “ecomaterials” – building materials made with low embodied energy, often through recycling wastes. These include micro-concrete roofing tiles; lime-pozzolana cement (CP-40); pre-cast hollow concrete blocks, where Portland cement has been partially replaced by CP-40; gravel and sand suitable for use in concrete, produced in portable crushing facilities; low-energy fired clay bricks using bio-wastes as fuel; and the use of bamboo in construction. Suitable for both rural and suburban areas, the technologies developed by CIDEM are geared towards small-scale production, with a focus on stimulating the local economy through the creation of new job opportunities. The project’s main features include:

  • An innovative process of technology development and transfer, which has resulted in a set of appropriate technologies for the manufacture of building materials at municipal level. The whole process has been organized as a south-south endeavour, as machinery and know-how come from Cuba and other countries in Latin America. Ecomaterials workshops are carried out that include personnel training and a post-sale advisory service.
  • A large-scale decentralised program for production of building materials at municipal level, which contributes to providing affordable and accessible building materials in a sustainable manner, particularly in areas where hurricanes have caused serious damage and a quick post-disaster response is required. This model has been embraced by the Cuban government as the model for housing development, and since June 2009 it has become the official approach of the Cuban government for housing at municipal scale. Donors like the Swiss Development Cooperation and CIDA Canada are strongly supporting this initiative. The Cuban Government is matching these funds with local funds and various resources.
  • Creation and further improvement of a new decentralized management model for housing renovation, which gives local authorities new opportunities to act independently as well as increase their capacity for resolving urban renewal issues. The model includes the new legal framework for small and medium enterprises working on private (non-state) or collective (cooperative) property, and the launch of pilot projects that stimulate this new production sector in the Cuban society.

There are currently 48 ecomaterials workshops in full operation throughout Cuba, and another 16 worldwide, including Latin America (Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti), Africa (Namibia, Nigeria, Mozambique), the Middle East (Yemen) and Asia (Bangladesh).

CIDEM has also been involved with the development of projects for the mitigation and prevention of damage to housing in the event of hurricanes and other disasters. The results of this work can be seen in the fast recovery after hurricanes Michelle (2001), Dennis (2005), Gustav and Ike (2008) which struck Cuba between 2001 and 2008, and in partnership with EcoSur in Haiti (2010) after the earthquake.

Main partners

  • Swiss Development Cooperation: main sponsor of the project, and main counterpart. They have provided approximately CHF 1.5 million through the official cooperation channels between Cuba and Switzerland.
  • Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA: they have partially sponsored the project with funds around $C220,000, through the University of Calgary, Canada
  • CARE International in representation of the private firm Bouygues International: they have partially sponsored the project by providing EUR 300,000 to set up production facilities in 5 municipalities severely affected by the 2008 hurricanes.
  • Latin American Network for the Sustainable Habitat, ECOSUR: they have provided in kind assistance through advisory service and experts exchange. They are CIDEM’s main international partner.
  • Werkhof Verein and the European Union: they funded the very first part of the project (2000-2005) with EUR 180,000, channelled through the NGO “Werkhof verein”
  • Cuban Ministry of Construction: they have funded all salaries of productive personnel, all production facilities, as well as raw materials and resources to undertake production in all workshops. These funds exceed CHF 5 million for the period 2008-2011. They have participated through the National Housing Institute in all phases of the project, planning, implementing and monitoring.
  • Cuban Ministry of Higher Education: they have funded the salaries and infrastructure of scientific personnel, and most of the expenses carried out in research and development work during the whole period 2000-2011.



  • 5300 constructive actions directly for the families in all municipalities where the project was implemented; year 2010 (4000 total houses) and 1300 total houses on year 2011.
  • 137 small non state enterprises in sustainable operation in the production of various materials (bricks, tiles).
  • 325 new jobs created during 2009-2011, 48 jobs occupied by female (15 per cent)
  • Three training centers established at the universities (Villa Clara, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba), 292 trainees (45 per cent female)

A contribution to the gradual migration from a centralised production model based on state-owned, subsidised enterprises to a decentralised production model based on non-state, market oriented production figures operating at municipal scale: 48 municipalities equipped with facilities to locally produce approximately 65 per cent of the materials needed for their own housing programs; a national program for the Local Production of Materials launched by the Ministry of Construction, with funds allocated to progressively expand the model to the rest of the municipalities in Cuba (70 per cent of productive infrastructure for housing shall be “non-state” in 2015, according to official statement)

Experiences gathered at pilot scale in the implementation of the framework for the operation of the new production figures at municipal scale: legal regulation for issuing production licenses for the use of commodities like clay, stones, tuffs, firewood in the local manufacture of ecomaterials;  technology, know-how and advisory service available for the implementation of local production schemes for at least 12 production lines (aggregates, tiles, blocks, bricks, briquettes, etc.) in all 48 workshops; legal background for new production figures like construction cooperatives, private contractors, masons, electricians, plumbers, etc. approved, with credit lines provided by the bank.

A contribution to the improvement of the housing situation in 48 municipalities in the context of disaster mitigation. 70 per cent of these actions targeted families affected during the 2008 hurricane season. This represents 48 per cent of the constructive actions reported in the municipalities object of this project.


Since June 2009 the Cuban Government has officially recognised the importance and impact of CIDEM’s approach to tackle housing problems, and has created a Task Force, led by the Minister of Construction, to disseminate the productive model in all municipalities in Cuba, under the approach known as “Traje a la Medida” (Tailored Suit), which means that the availability of local resources has to be proved prior to deciding which technology will be implemented.

In 2010 CIDEM was officially appointed as advisor for the Parliament in issues related to housing policies. Later this year, CIDEM started to take place in meetings held at the maximum decision level in the country (Office of the Vice President of the Council of Ministers and the Council of State), to provide advisory service on matters related with the decentralized model for the production of ecomaterials and the construction of houses.

In the first half of 2011, after a year of trials, a National Program for the decentralized production and sales of building materials was officially launched, with funds allocated by the Cuban government. This program includes the creation of production facilities in all municipalities in Cuba, at a growth rate of 40 municipalities a year, by also the creation of incentives for the new non-state entrepreneurs that will undertake production of materials and house constructions, as well as the legal and economic environment for new economic figures like small credits schemes, provision of construction services, local sales in the municipal market and many others. CIDEM is permanent advisor of the Directorate of this program and takes an active part in its implementation.

Transferability and upscaling

CIDEM is a founding member of the Latin American Network for the Sustainable Habitat, EcoSur, and through its internet portal (www.ecosur.org) provides potential users or beneficiaries with information on the technology.

Once a request is made, the web master begins negotiation with the customer. Depending on her/his interest and the funds available, he directs it to the appropriate network member and an onsite fact finding visit from experts can be organized. If the customer remains interested, EcoSur organises shipping the machinery, a complicated process that involves international banking, customs, and a heavy office work.

CIDEM/EcoSur  has standing agreements with the different machinery producers – Cuban and others, places an order for the machinery, and the machines are shipped. Once the machines reach the final destination, an expert from CIDEM or another EcoSur partner moves to the place and sets the machines into operation and trains the local operators and technicians. Depending on the size of the operation and the type of contract, the know-how transfer includes management and scientific teaching; the costs of training can be embedded in the costs of machinery.


  • The development of a set of sound appropriate technologies for the manufacture of ecomaterials. This is supported by a continuous and integrated process of innovation, which combines fundamental and applied research, machinery development and manufacture, sales and post-sales service. Further, the development of the legal and economic environment for the introduction of these technologies in the non-state sector as small and medium enterprises is included in the technology transfer package.
  • The fact that these technologies and their use in ecomaterials manufacturing workshops have been successful and resulted in the massive production of building materials in a decentralised way, together with the new approach, has demonstrated that there are alternatives that decrease foreign currency costs through the local production of ecomaterials.
  • The decentralised management model for housing renovation has yielded great success in its implementation and wide acceptance by the community, and has entered the mainstream as a government program, with a potential for further dissemination throughout the entire country with funds allocated by the Cuban government.
  • That Cuba has become a ‘technology exporter’ through this process: approximately 50 inquiries are received each month on the different technologies for manufacturing of ecomaterials, primarily from Latin American countries.

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