The community-focused approach of Architecture for Humanity in Haiti

Eric Hunting reacts to this article in Shareable about architectural reconstruction efforts in Haiti:

“Cameron Sinclair is well known as one of the chief proponents of the new socially responsible architecture movement that has been sweeping across the design community over the past decade. It is no surprise to find he and Architecture for Humanity so immediately in the thick of the Haiti crisis, teaming with NGOs, developing a recovery plan, and putting people on the ground. In this recent article, originally from the Architecture for Humanity blog site, he offers a light overview of their reconstruction plan as its being developed and an interesting glimpse at the complex situation it must cope with.

The breadth of practical recovery logistics knowledge AfH has gathered together is remarkable for such a still relatively young organization. And their community-focused approach is very significant. This is not the military-style short-term thinking that deals only in mass populations as is common to relief agencies but real long-term planning that actually recognizes communities as functional entities in the reconstruction process. But, perhaps owing to the very light overview approach of the article, there is a lot missing that this author would like to see. Though he describes their plan as open, there is no place on the AfH web site where we can publicly see the very important “Rebuilding 101 Manual” and “Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual” mentioned as key information for their program. Perhaps this may become available in the future. Haiti represents some big challenges in terms of applied building technology and it would have been interesting to learn more about the specific building methods they anticipate using.

Haiti is extremely poor in natural resources and has long relied heavily on imported construction materials -which is one of the reasons so much housing was marginal to begin with given the long history of extreme poverty. Much of the landscape is quite denuded, topsoils are thin, and the usual earth compositions needed for the earthen building methods common to relief efforts today may not be available. So the choice of building technology and its relation to local industrial potential is key to the overall recovery strategy and its ability to rebuild economic infrastructures as well as houses. It would be interesting to learn more on their plans for dealing with this unique situation. Island nations are expected to become particularly vulnerable to natural disaster in the near future given the impacts of Global Warming and many share similar resources challenges.

This author was thinking about this very topic recently, wondering what building technologies offered the most potential in Haiti for use of indigenous materials and the establishment of local industry to support them. If typical earthen construction methods -compressed earth block in particular- are not practical the options for low cost housing become extremely limited since so few other locally produced materials may be available. But there are some interesting -albeit perhaps a bit unusual- options.

In collaboration with Michael Bauwens or the P2P Foundation and Agatino Rizzo of City Left, this author recently worked on a transitional housing concept for the earthquake struck region of Abruzzo Italy based on the repurposing of shipping containers. (see Like much of the Caribbean, Haiti may already have a small local industry for the repurposing of these containers -left-over from its very trade-dependent economy- for business and housing. Could this be built upon? We tend to think of cargotecture as something of a recent novelty but, in fact, these have been repurposed for housing in poorer nations for about as long as they’re existed. No doubt, container structures are already in use to some degree in the current relief efforts, most likely in the role of transportable buildings brought by relief agencies themselves. But these expensive prefab structures would not be a practical basis of housing as they are in this context. What would be needed is a strategy for the reuse of containers as a raw material for a local industry. With our Abruzzo proposal, we suggested the development of a modular building system based on prefab -but not all-inclusive- elements that could be used in innumerable combinations as building blocks for structures collaboratively designed by communities themselves in peer-communication process. These basic buildings elements were infinitely customizable and reusable to accommodate local adaptation over the expected protracted recovery period.

In Europe an already well established commercial container prefab industry made this strategy quite logical but the heaviness and bulkiness of whole container modules is something of a liability where there is a lack of heavy equipment to transport and manipulate them. In the context of Haiti, this may limit this application to the very close proximity of the chief source of this raw material -port areas- though the availability of economical military-type modular Container-Lift-Transport units might make a big difference here. But can we go a step further in the notion of the container as raw material? Can we turn the material of the container into a more easily transported collection of parts as apposed to a whole unit module? Certainly, the variability in container structural composition within the unit module standards is an issue, but there are some interesting precedents. It’s not uncommon in the Middle East and Africa to see container doors removed from containers and repurposed whole as gates for the common walled compound home designs using earthen construction. (anyone with recent military experience in the regions is probably very familiar with these) How else might we ‘de-part’ a container into reusable structural components? What is their architectural potential? What sort of building industry might one develop from this?

Though container ‘cast offs’ may be relatively plentiful in a region so heavily reliant on marine trade, they are still not a truly indigenous material. What options might the region have for something that is more wholly locally produced? A couple of interesting possibilities have occurred to me. Though typical earthen construction techniques may not be practical given the nature of the local raw material, one interesting exception is the SuperAdobe technique developed by the late Nadir Khalili and the CalEarth organization. This technique is more indifferent to earth composition and can actually use sand as a building material. In Haiti there already exists an industry for the production of hessian bags for the coffee industry that could be turned to production of continuous tubing for SuperAdobe construction purposes. However, there is still a need for a cement binder for SuperAdobe and this is an imported material. But a promising alternative may be found in the cultivation of hemp production which would neatly produce both raw materials for the bag tubing and siliconized hemp chard which can be used to produce Isochanvre; a crude geopolymer cement and plaster alternative developed in France through reverse engineering of ancient Roman concretes. So there would seem to be potential here for a Haitian construction industry based completely on indigenous materials that builds upon already established industries. The chief catches with this notion are that there are still some issues with seismic resistance for SuperAdobe structures that may limit their individual scale and, unless someone has already experimented with this in the past, Isochanvre-based SuperAdobe is an untested material and there may not be a lot of time for its research.

Hopefully, in the future Architecture for Humanity will share more information with the public as to the specific architecture they employ in their recovery plans and we can see what solutions they’ve arrived at for the unique Haitian situation. It will be interesting to see what they devise, given the great challenges.”

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