Rebuilding Haiti

Local people, using local materials, may be the best solution for the ravaged country.

Every day brings another bright idea. The Bay Area architect Joseph Bellomo thinks a tube-shaped, steel-framed modular building he’d originally dreamed up as a studio for a client in Hawaii could be adapted for Haitian needs. The Orlando, Florida, hotelier Harris Rosen wants to send cute little steel-framed prefabricated sheds to Haiti. And Andrés Duany is promoting a modular, flat-pack, fiber-composite bunkhouse, a transitional shelter that can be expanded into a permanent home. (InnoVida Holdings, a Miami-based company, plans to donate a thousand of them.) There is no end to the innovative solutions that could, in theory, help relieve the suffering of the million-plus homeless Haitians, many of whom are currently making do with rudimentary shelter, often little more than plastic sheeting draped over sticks.

In a recent online debate that asked, “Is it OK to run architectural competitions for Haiti?” Cameron Sinclair, of all people, said no. Sinclair, you’ll recall, put Architecture for Humanity on the map by sponsoring ideas competitions in response to catastrophes, and has been a standard bearer for the appealing notion that the world’s worst problems have architectural solutions. But maybe not now. “At a time when needs are of an immediate nature,” Sinclair wrote on Building Design’s Web site, “unproven concepts can be inappropriate and a distraction to the task at hand.”

He might have a point. As you may recall from New Orleans, the bright ideas, though exciting and inspirational, didn’t wind up housing more than a handful of people. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right, for example, boasts about a dozen completed houses so far. The situation in Haiti is, of course, far worse. Even before the earthquake, 80 percent of the population was living in dire poverty, often on less than two dollars a day, in concrete houses that were intended, through sheer bulk, to be hurricane resistant. Sadly, unreinforced concrete is not what engineers call “ductile,” and in earthquakes it crumbles. “One of the things that really killed a lot of people were these very thick, heavy concrete slabs that they use as roofing,” Mario Flores, a civil engineer and the director of disaster response for Habitat for Humanity’s field operations, says a few days after his return from the stricken country.

An initial reconnaissance report on the disaster, written by the Bay Area engineers Eduardo Fierro and Cynthia Perry, notes, “The most striking aspect of the Haitian earthquake is the complete absence of seismic detailing in Haitian construction, from informal housing to recent multi-story buildings in downtown Port-au-Prince.” But although much of the death toll can be pinned on badly built masonry structures, Fierro and Perry conclude that a type of low-cost construction called “confined masonry” is also the solution. “Seismic resistant” structures, they maintain, “can be built utilizing the same concrete, steel, and concrete block used in Haiti.”

The way to address Haiti’s particular set of problems is with less architectural magic and more garden-variety diligence. And that diligence can be taught. At least that’s the underlying premise of Build Change, a nonprofit that worked in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, in Sumatra after the 2007 earthquake, and in China after the 2008 earthquake. Careful seismic engineering can be broken down into simple rules that can be followed at relatively low cost. The organization, founded by the UC Berkeley–educated engineer Elizabeth Hausler, comes up with a seismically engineered house plan based on the local architectural vernacular. “People are already using materials and techniques that can be earthquake resistant, but there are some small changes that need to be made in order to make a house so that it’s not going to collapse,” says Hausler, who visited Haiti in late February.

Hausler talks about “the three Cs.” The first is configuration: “The house should be simple, preferably square, and symmetrical and have a lightweight roof.” Smaller windows, she adds, are safer, but in hot climates like Indonesia or Haiti’s, the need for circulation sometimes trumps safety. The second C is connection: “For earthquakes, for hurricanes, everything needs to be connected properly.” The confined- masonry houses that Build Change designed and taught the local people to build have rebar-reinforced corner columns that connect the brick walls and the foundation. (The lack of this connection is one of the big problems that engineers have observed in Haitian structures.) Hausler’s third C is construction quality: “A masonry wall is what’s holding up the roof and resisting the earthquake, so you’ve got to build a good masonry wall.”

Hausler’s three Cs are echoed by Flores, of Habitat for Humanity, a group that has been working in Haiti for 25 years. He speaks of a set of “processes” to improve the local approach. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Pay attention to details.” But Flores adds a rule of his own: “Try to use local materials and labor, because that minimizes cost.” And here’s where unglamorous reality bumps the photogenic bright ideas. “We’ve been inundated with offers from the latest and greatest prefabricated technology,” Flores says. “But when you do the cost analysis—shipping, customs, logistics, transportation, and the cost of training the local people how to use those technologies—you wind up with something more expensive than if you would have considered local materials.”

The pilot house Build Change designed for Aceh is a rudimentary four-room brick building with a hipped roof and an outdoor toilet. But what it represents is a highly sophisticated structural-engineering process applied to the local mode of construction. “We hired a bunch of local professionals, trained them up, and sent them out into the villages every day to work with the homeowners,” Hausler says. They also distilled their design into “six simple rules,” which appeared on posters as dos and don’ts. Houses constructed from the Build Change rule book after the 2007 earthquake in West Sumatra easily withstood the temblor that hit two years later. Now, Hausler says, the Indonesian government has adopted the nonprofit’s strategies.

Like Hausler, Flores envisions a long-term process of educating both the labor force and families who want to rebuild for themselves. Habitat will also develop a prototype: a 42-square-meter “core house” with one room and a covered veranda. The idea is that families can add on to the house over time, as Haitians customarily do. Resource centers would train builders in proper techniques and have students fabricate quality components such as concrete blocks or metal rafters.

Hausler knows of at least 6,000 homes in Indonesia and China that have been built following the rules developed by Build Change. “We’ve had impact on a lot more that we don’t know about,” she says. Which is exactly the point: what Hausler does is the opposite of an architectural competition. It’s not about coming up with a signature solution but disseminating a set of rules that if truly effective, disappear into the vernacular. “This is why Build Change doesn’t win a lot of these cool, prestigious awards,” Hausler says. “What we do is very low-tech. It’s not very fancy. It’s not really anything new. It’s just improving an existing technology, but by doing that we reach so many more people with locally appropriate solutions.”

Habitat is famous for propagating the vernacular. In this country, that means the organization tends to build dowdy, conservative suburban houses, and in Haiti, like everyone else, it works with concrete. But Flores’s strongest argument for using local resources instead of snazzy imported solutions has nothing to do with style. “It’s not only because it’s culturally sound and appropriate, but you actually want the money that has been raised to be invested in Haiti, with the people there,” he says. And for once, because of the earthquake and the outpouring of support from the international community, there will be money for rebuilding. “You don’t want to give that money to a big manufacturing company in China or anywhere else.” Flores adds, “It’s a matter of justice, I think.”

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