Haiti: Shelter Coming Both Too Slow and Too Fast

Talk is already turning to reconstruction in Haiti. Architecture for Humanity, a “non-profit design services firm” that specializes in post-disaster reconstruction, has released some general concept notes. Writing at the firm’s website, Cameron Sinclair, an architect and the group’s founder, referenced controversies following Hurricane Katrina in the United States:

I remember vividly well-known news personalities standing on the rubble of homes in the lower ninth [New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood] proclaiming that ‘this time next year we will see families back home.’ Some well-meaning NGOs, who usually have little building experience, are even worse — ‘we'll have 25,000 Haitians back home if you donate today.’ In reality, here is what it really looks like:

  • Pre-Planning Assessments and Damage Analysis (underway, will run for a year)
  • Establish Community Resource Center and Reconstruction Studio (Week 6 to Month 3)
  • Sorting Out Land Tenure and Building Ownership (Month 6 to Year 5)
  • Transitional Shelters, Health Clinics and Community Structures (Month 6 to Year 2)
  • Schools, Hospitals and Civic Structures (Month 9 to Year 3)
  • Permanent Housing (Year 1 to Year 5)

Early reports on the damage pointed mostly to lax building standards in Haiti. At the Earth Institute's State of the Planet blog, the focus was on bad construction:

Much of the rubble seen in the terrible videos we are now appallingly used to is composed of chunks of cement – and just cement. This is the style so typical of poorer parts of the world. Just cement is not enough; columns and walls should be built with high quality cement, with the right amount of sand, and sewn through with steel reinforcing bars – rebar. That’s what gives them strength. Next time you look at a video or a still image of damaged buildings in Haiti, look for rebar. I haven’t seen any yet.

But Adolphe Saint-Louis, a 49 year-old quake survivor interviewed in Port au Prince by New American Media, describes something more complicated than iffy concrete. Her home was built as a series of additions, — and with rebar, she says — to keep extended family under one roof, and share building costs in the family. Making the building expandable served an important function, but proved catastrophic when the structure failed.

Maybe your child marries and they need a place to be for them and their husband. You can build just a room on the roof of your house and put a tin roof on it. Then when you have more money you can add more rooms or finish the entire floor and create a new roof for the building. That is what we did at my house. We added some rooms and a new roof to our house. There was a place for my nephew to live in the front and a large room for my daughter and her husband in the back. The way we had done it, it was so pleasant. We put many plants and flowers in pots around the side of the staircase outside because my daughter loves nature very much. She was so happy when she saw the place that we made for her. But when the earthquake came, we lost everything….The floors of the houses fell, one on top of the other.

She claimed the expansion system included re-enforcement:

In Haiti, when you want to add to your home, you build on top of the roof, which is concrete held up by pillars or strong walls on the floor below. A mason builds new walls of concrete blocks to make a room or to enclose the entire area to add a new floor to the house. Some blocks have holes to allow the air to circulate and if the mason is talented he will use the blocks to make a pretty pattern or type of decorative window. The weight-bearing blocks are always solid and they have metal rebar running through the middle to support the structure of the house. When the addition is finished, the mason will leave the rebar exposed so that another floor can be added later if it is needed.

A Canadian nutritionist living in Haiti, Ellen in Haiti, describes checking in on a friend — identified only as M — who had just bought a house built with stone rather than concrete. The older design had also failed:

This house is made of rocks filled in with mud/clay and covered with something like cement or plaster, the way they were made before concrete blocks took hold in Haiti.  The rocks in one wall all tumbled out, leaving the house uninhabitable. The family is living in their cooking lean-to, which has never had the luxury of four walls.  Their possessions are all bundled up under the thatch roof, where they will be susceptible to rain and bad weather.


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