Rebuilding Haiti's Houses


Writing in Metropolis magazine, Karrie Jacobs argues that Haiti needs inexpensive improvements to the architecture that's already common in the country, not elaborate new schemes that don't take local materials, habits, and history into account:

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….

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….

[Mario] Flores, of Habitat for Humanity…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."

In other words, incremental improvements to local know-how that rely on local resources are more useful than experimental blueprints designed far from the scene of the devastation. This should not be a surprising discovery, but it's still a point worth stressing.