The federal government recently agreed to sell most of the 120,000 formaldehyde-tainted trailers it bought nearly five years ago for Hurricane Katrina victims for pennies on the dollar. How could it not have anticipated that the sale of those units — perhaps the most visible symbol of the government’s bungled response to the hurricane — would result in outrage? And how can they sell them cheaply to middlemen who will then turn a profit selling them back to those who still remain without housing, post-Katrina?
The reintroduction of the infamous trailers got me thinking about the current rebuilding efforts in Haiti and Chile, and what lessons could be learned from Katrina. The rebuilding in New Orleans might be best symbolized by two extremes: those notoriously substandard FEMA trailers, on the one hand; and on the other, 50 or so well-constructed but contextually challenged radical modern homes in an effort led by the Brad Pitt-backed non-profit Global Green. These dramatically different responses are the result of a plethora of disconnected parties, each intent on doing things their own way. The uncoordinated response created a situation in which the wheel was reinvented constantly. Things didn’t happen — and still aren’t happening — fast enough. Five years after the hurricane hit, Ninth Ward residents describe themselves as feeling in limbo, and voice concerns about the slow pace of recovery in their community.
There will be a similar lack of expediency in Haiti, but at this still-early stage there’s still time to apply some of the lessons we learned from the missteps following Katrina. The widespread destruction in New Orleans (and Biloxi, Miss.) starkly highlighted the need for context-specific building codes, stable construction and non-toxic materials. One has only to look at the fatalities in Chile as compared to Haiti: though the Chilean earthquake registered 8.8 on the Richter scale, the country experienced 279 fatalities, compared to Haiti’s 230,000 from their less powerful 7.0 earthquake. (Another reason for the difference, of course, had to do with where and how the two earthquakes struck.)
Though daunting, Chile’s struggles will likely resolve themselves more quickly: just a week after the earthquake struck, drinking water, electricity, communications, banking and basic commerce had already been restored to over 90 percent of the affected areas. This is in dramatic contrast to Haiti, where, explains Sebastian Gray, professor of architecture at Universidad Católica de Chile, “because of the characteristics of the earthquake and the quality of construction, the destruction and loss of life was enormous.” In Chile, he says, the country’s strict building codes “accounted for the overall good performance of modern structures after the earthquake.”
The specific challenges of places like Haiti, which has been traumatized throughout its history by natural disasters, require focused responses like the ones I’ll explore here.
Coalitions Beat Charisma
Coalition-building has been a driving force of the Haitian rebuilding effort. Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), even sees a change in the attitudes of the architects themselves. “Rather than the ‘go it alone’ approach, groups are coming together to collaborate and figure out where to focus resources,” he says. “This work is also ‘no ego’ work and there are no high-profile projects. So the folks who are usually attracted to this work would rather figure out a pit latrine issue than study up on the latest cladding system.”
This emerging (and welcome) shift from starchitect to design collective is brought into sharp focus in the recent documentary “Citizen Architect,” about the radical design/build studio in Hale County, Ala., and its charismatic founder, Samuel Mockbee. In it, the architect Peter Eisenman explains that he doesn’t think architecture is about building a better world, but rather exists to “challenge people, challenge what they want, challenge their idea about comfort.” Eisenman, who also teaches architecture at Yale, is followed by AFH’s Sinclair, who sees things a bit differently. Architecture schools, he suggests, should not be teaching their students how to envision endless variations of a theme of the Burj Khalifa, but rather how to “design adequate and affordable housing for 90 percent of the planet.”
I believe we can all agree that no one in Haiti needs to be challenged by architecture. What the Haitian people need is homes, schools, hospitals, factories and offices, and they need to feel that they’re part of the process of building them. Essential to the effort is design that is less an expression of auteur’s vision and more a response to the aesthetic and functional needs of displaced residents.
AFH has deployed a team to Haiti to build educational and community structures, and provide technical support to housing groups. This collaboration, says Sinclair, “is also creating strong ties between local and international professionals (currently 60 percent of our team is Haitian or Haitian-American). It is important to include local expertise as they bring a ground knowledge and skill set that cannot be taught in any textbook.”
With partners including Article 25 (a U.K. charity rebuilding schools), Habitat for Humanity, Build Change (which is helping Haitian residents build earthquake-resistant housing), Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG, which works to get residents affordable and environmentally sound access to electricity, sanitation and clean water) and others, AFH is developing a series of deployable hurricane-resistant classroom structures to help kick-start the education system. And on Jan. 27, they launched Students Rebuild, a partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation and the Global Nomads that consists of a $500,000 matching challenge grant and call to action for middle and high school students and educators around the globe to help rebuild better, safer schools in Haiti.
Duany Plater-Zyberk Architects, known for walkable, New Urbanist communities, is also embracing collaboration in construction, with an eye to developing community. “The reality of life has shown, in New Orleans for example, that most people going and trying to deal with [rebuilding] didn’t understand how New Orleans works,” says Eduardo Fernandez, an architect at DPZ. “To some it was as far away and incomprehensible as a foreign country. There is a certain ethos to the way the place deals with problems. Not understanding the reality has stalled many recovery efforts that otherwise could have yielded fruit way before.”
Prefab Fulfills Its Promise — Finally
Prefab construction tends to conjure up visions of mobile homes being torn apart by hurricanes. In the last decade, prefab has undergone a radical image makeover into a building technique ideally suited to producing more affordable modern homes — but with mixed results. Now, however, it has a chance to fulfill its promise by delivering housing efficiently, inexpensively and quickly to those who need it most.
Soon after the earthquake, DPZ focused first on what they thought was the most pressing issue in Haiti: getting temporary shelter for the displaced victims. But as Eduardo Fernandez explains, “While working we realized that more often than not, whatever you build temporarily becomes permanent. People tend to stay there for years.” So DPZ has been creating housing that can go up quickly but also last. They’re collaborating on a panelized house with manufacturer InnoVida, whose prefabricated concept allows for several variations on a theme, each appropriate, as Eduardo says, “to different densities and contexts, from rural conditions to very compact and dense urban conditions — and the range in between.” Last month, InnoVida offered to donate 1,000 of the DPZ homes, and the company says it has lined up $15 million in investment capital to build a factory in Haiti that could produce 10,000 more homes each year.
“The ideal model,” says Fernandez, “should produce a set of a few basic designs, as attuned to the context as can be thought of, for which a complete set of parts could be shipped out very fast, and which could be then assembled by the local workforce.” This is no easy feat: the assembly process should be as simple and as quick as possible, involve no heavy machinery or sophisticated tools or complicated procedures. But arriving at such a solution is key, for as Fernandez explains, “As reconstruction progresses, the erection of prefab factories would be the next logical step, and the best way for foreign companies to help third world economies.”
Haiti House also wants to help develop an industry to employ the island’s citizens. A disaster-recovery services division of Harbor Homes, Haiti House worked with the United States government on Katrina recovery efforts. Now, in addition to bringing its PermaShelter housing system to Haiti, it’s planning a factory on the island so that residents can work there to build their own communities in the near future. “We even hate calling [what we’re doing] prefab anymore because it’s such a different animal,” says Haiti House’s Richard Rivette. “This could lay the foundation for alleviating a lot of global poverty.”
Reuse, Recycle Materials — and Ideas
Other projects are exploring ways the rebuilding effort might help Haiti’s economy as well. Earthbag Building is hoping to build more Sun Houses like this one (pictured below) in Pwoje Espwa in Southern Haiti, which uses readily available poly bags holding such dietary staples as rice, barley and wheat. Filled with a mix of moistened sand and clay, the bags are used like bricks to build housing atop a foundation of river rocks and mortar. Few if any additional materials need to be imported to the island.
Similarly, Independence Recycling of Florida (IRF) is planning to move two mobile crushing and screening plants to Port Au Prince to recycle earthquake debris for use in new construction. By salvaging and reusing this material, Haiti can keep it out of landfills, dramatically minimize new material shipping costs and save significantly on new construction costs.
Open source has become a major component of the rebuilding effort as most groups realize they cannot scale their work on their own. By putting design solutions under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license on sites like the Open Architecture Network, individual designers, smaller firms and others can share information, ranging from materials used to lessons learned, and solutions, which other non-profits are free to implement.
In an e-mail conversation, DPZ’s Fernandez wrote, “Tantalizing as it may be, a universal approach to emergency housing . . . is a fallacy.” The complexity of any rebuilding effort cannot be overstated, and this quick rundown is unavoidably narrow in its focus. But I want to highlight the collaborative efforts under way — and keep what remains a dire issue in the news. Haiti’s rainy season looms heavy on the horizon: let’s hope these efforts can begin to have an impact on the ground before the storms come.