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Rebuilding Haiti

How Can Architects Get Involved in Haiti Disaster Relief?

January 22, 2010

By C. J. Hughes

Like many architects, George Gekas saw the destruction caused by a massive earthquake in Haiti and wondered how he could tap his talents to help.

But, as the resident of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, placed phone calls and clicked around the Internet, he realized options for immediate, hands-on action were limited. “It was very frustrating,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s no time to waste.’”

Collapsed two-, or possibly three-story reinforced concretebuilding in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Photo courtesy International Federation of Red Cross
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Gekas’s experience, which is not unique, illustrates a larger point. The scene after the January 12 quake, which killed up to 200,000 people, is still so unsettled and chaotic that the need for design professionals is still a long ways off, according to aid workers, government leaders, and disaster experts.

Indeed, architects are roundly being encouraged to donate money instead of lending hands, says Cameron Sinclair, director of Architecture for Humanity, a not-for-profit that focuses on humanitarian crises.

“It’s just going to take a really long time before people start focusing on construction,” says Sinclair, who’s become a major force in the relief effort because of his extensive contacts in the island nation. Before the quake, Sinclair had been designing a sports facility in Haiti that could double as a hurricane shelter.

In the eight days following the 7.0-magnitude quake, Sinclair received 7,000 e-mails, with many from unemployed architects eager to pitch in. But until he meets with world leaders to discuss strategies, Sinclair cannot offer anybody positions. In the meantime, he says, the $100,000 he raised online will go a long way. (For his part, Gekas donated to OxFam International.)

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is also taking somewhat of a wait-and-see approach, even if it eventually aims to put up sturdy, environmentally friendly homes like it did in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, says spokesperson Marie Coleman. “We definitely want to be a part of the rebuilding process.”

While the details are ironed out, the USGBC is encouraging people to donate via the Web site of the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund, an effort organized by former President Bill Clinton.

“Haiti at the moment is pretty much the last place you want to put a group of enthusiastic, well-meaning architects,” says architect Robin Cross, a director of Article 25, a London-based not-for-profit named for the part of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees housing. “What you need now is water, food, and medical supplies,” says Cross, adding that he is recruiting architects for long-term planning, with more than 200 already signed up.

About the only out-of-town architects now on the ground may be the seven employed by the Emergency Architects Foundation, a Paris-based first-responder-type organization that lays the groundwork for future building through block-by-block inventories of destruction.

Plus, because there’s so much fear among residents that aftershocks will send more structures tumbling, Haitians “need professional advice about whether they can enter this building or that building,” says director Alice Moreira.

Among the first to build houses in Haiti, or at least simulacra of them, may be Habitat for Humanity International, whose on-island staff of 40 was unharmed by the quake, says senior director Kip Scheidler.

With 200,000 homes destroyed and 1.2 million people homeless, Haiti is poised to receive its first tarp-and-panel “shelter kits,” with 4,000 arriving in the next few weeks, Scheidler says.

And they will likely be set up on the edges of the city, where there’s more land to work with, he adds, rather than in downtown Port-au-Prince, which is glutted with smashed concrete slabs that speak to the country’s lack of building codes.

“There was no one to ever say, ‘There’s not enough rebar in there,’” he says, “or, ‘There’s not enough sand in the cement.’ ”

While opportunities for working architects to set foot on Haiti, or design for it, may be scarce for now, ideas are abounding on campuses.

At the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia, for instance, students will grab hammers to team with the nearby Building Goodness Foundation, a charity that’s already constructed homes in Haiti. Those homes are “still standing, so that’s a good start,” says dean Kim Tanzer.

And at the College of Environmental Design at U.C. Berkeley, the faculty is mulling a fall-term studio in Haiti that will feature hands-on design work, in the spirit of what’s been done in Kenya in the past, says spokesperson Kathleen Maclay.

Local AIA chapters are starting to brainstorm, too. After some of Seattle’s 2,000 members started calling up looking to assist Haiti, the chapter put together a “Diversity Roundtable” with representatives from the Red Cross and other relief groups, in order to strategize what could be done down the road.

“The culture of Seattle is very community-minded, sure,” says executive director Lisa Richmond. “But I think architects also see themselves as responsible world citizens.”

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