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Haiti, Two Years After the Quake

January 11, 2012

While architects report some progress, rebuilding challenges persist.

By C.J. Hughes

Ecole de Choix, a school in Jacmel
Photo © Aric Mei

Architecture for Humanity recently completed construction of Ecole la Dignité, a school in Jacmel. Read more about the project in an upcoming issue of Architectural Record.

 

Photo @ Jenna M. McKnight
Dozens of housing prototypes are now on display at an expo outside of Port-au-Prince. Click on the slide show button to see images.


Read more about the expo: Haiti: A Housing Expo Gone Bad

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On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude slammed Haiti, killing an estimated 316,000 people, leaving 1.5 million homeless, and destroying much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Today, exactly two years later, the island nation has made some strides, say architects and builders working there. But despite billions of dollars in aid, the country is hardly back on its feet.

“I am very frustrated by the pace of reconstruction,” said Haitian-American architect Herve Sabin, co-founder of Studio Drum Collaborative, which relocated to Haiti from New York City in the spring of 2010 and is now designing homes, clinics, and schools there. The firm, in collaboration with Chicago-based MDM Development Architecture, recently completed construction of Ecole de Choix, a primary school in Mirebalais, a town 37 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

There are a host of challenges to rebuilding in Haiti. For starters, building materials like steel and lumber are hard to come by due in large part to inefficiencies at the port in Port-au-Prince, notes British architect Andy Meira, who works as a consultant for the Clinton Foundation and Deutsche Bank and has been living in Haiti since 2010. Plus, many projects are stymied before they even get started because of land ownership questions. Poor recordkeeping and corruption make determining who owns certain parcels—and clearing title to them—maddeningly difficult, Meira adds. 

Moreover, housing prototypes proposed by many foreign designers are too pricey for most Haitians. A middle-class family makes, at most, $10,000 a year, but they comprise only 8 percent of the population. Everybody else is “selling mangos on the side of the street,” Meira says. Indeed, in a country where 70 percent of the people are unemployed or underemployed, 8 out of 10 Haitians live on $2 a day, according to the Haitian government. To create a housing market, which is a key to attracting more builders, “you have to understand what people can afford and find ways that they can pay over time,” Meira says.

Political instability and lax government oversight aren’t helping the situation. Riots erupted last year after early rounds of voting for a new president, before President Michel Martelly emerged as the winner in April. Resistance to his rule meant Martelly did not install most of his ministers until December, according to news reports.

“I never see any government officials visiting work sites,” says Haitian-American architect Yves Francois, who relocated to Port-au-Prince from New York in 2006 to establish an architecture and construction firm, YCF Group, there [Read an Architectural Record interview with Francois]. He adds that proper soil tests often aren’t being conducted, and many drawings are not being reviewed by engineers.

Plus, a number of aid organizations that flooded the country after the quake have left, as their resources were depleted by the dragged-out rebuilding effort, Francois says. At the same time, only $2.4 billion of the $4.5 billion pledged to Haiti by foreign nations had been spent by the end of 2011, according to the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti.

“I don’t think everyone has forgotten Haiti,” says Francois, “but it is important for the Haitian government to show progress, so international investors can see opportunity.” Patrick Rouzier, a government official who oversees the reconstruction effort, did not return an e-mail for comment and could not be reached by phone.

For all the worries, there are hints of optimism. The Iron Market, a popular bazaar, has been restored [Read full coverage in the February issue of Architectural Record]. HOK recently partnered with the U.S. Green Building Council to rebuild the Fondation Enfant Jesus, an important orphanage. And in general, streets once packed with displaced residents are clearer and cleaner, observers say, even though nobody is certain where all the those people now live.

Architecture for Humanity is also making notable progress. Since opening its Haiti office in March 2010, AFH has completed four schools, has seven more underway, and is also working on several master plans for various communities. Plus, it opens up its office every Friday to the public to offer design and construction advice, explains Eric Cesal, director of AFH’s Haiti office. “Reconstruction has suffered some setbacks,” he says, “but there is a sense that in 2012, large-scale projects will come.”

Donald Stevens, founder of Virginia-based Shelter2Home, a for-profit builder of homes and schools, recently participated in the “Building Back Better Communities” housing expo sponsored by the Haitian government. His impression of the overall rebuilding effort: “There is a lot of optimism that things will turn the corner this year,” he says, “but it is a big corner.”

 

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