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:

Instead of an alt-text, click the photo for some alt-country.

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.

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  1. I hope the New York Times is working on a front page story about the shocking building inspector shortage in Haiti. Maybe Bruce Ratfuck can be induced to come down and build some spiffy low-income towers; maybe the plans to Cabrini-Green are on file somewhere.

  2. Just tossed my plans for earthquake safe Haitian housing constructed of 100% styrofoam into the trash.

  3. There is currently a shortage of 20 foot cargo containers on the East Coast. Thousands of them have headed to Haiti. Quick, cheap, and functional. And they’re not going to fall down in an earthquake.

  4. There is currently a shortage of 20 foot cargo containers on the East Coast. Thousands of them have headed to Haiti.

    I am so pleased to hear that. The first thing we saw how bad the earthquake was, was that the enormous oversupply of shipping containers in this country is perfect solution. I hadn’t heard they were actually putting them to use, though.

  5. Those foreign volunteers who go over to design new structures and then construct them deserve our praise but I think too often they forget the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching a man to fish.

    The standard practices over in Haiti are horrible for seismic design. But it won’t get any better if a bunch of foreign dollars and volunteers just rebuild for them. Everyone from architects to engineers to masons need to understand best practices for ductile detailing of connections.

    Their rebar lacks the bumps that ours have so it pulls right out. They don’t use nearly enough of it. Contractors get away with using trash as aggregate in their concrete mixes. As someone mentioned above they use concrete slab roofs when seismic load is proportional to mass and height above ground. They don’t use enough ties to confine columns and they don’t do 135 degree hooks to keep them engaged during earthquakes.

    So many cheap and easy things to implement, but teach them to do it for themselves.

  6. So many cheap and easy things to implement, but teach them to do it for themselves.

    That’s what they’re doing.

  7. But when you do the cost analysis–shipping, customs, logistics, transportation, …

    See, there’s your problem

  8. Wow! Nice topics, I am looking this type of topics. But I need more informations. I know a New Drafting CAD Site gives away over 100 House plans for free.

  9. The Fuller Center is rebuilding homes in Haiti. We plan to use local labor and stimulate the economy as much as possible. Here’s a video that mentions our goals if anyone’s interested…

  10. does the house can keep outing cold and hot IFDFBEBUD

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