Having studied architecture for over 6 years, and having being inspired to do so by the vibrant architecture of my native Haiti, it is upsetting at best to see how little many think of Haiti as they position themselves to make millions out of our tragedy by proposing sub-standard alternative housing for Haitians .
If a building system was not approved by a local Architectural Board and/or by professionals with the right credentials after passing the standard tests, administered by reputable testing institutes, as required in the US and other developed nations, it should not be imported or built in Haiti. This includes transitional housing proposed by non-profit architectural organizations. In that spirit, only vetted professional firms from Haiti and abroad should be invited to participate in the reconstruction of Haiti to ensure that we rebuild properly. That should be done as we thoroughly investigate and examine ways to improve Haitis vernacular architecture.
This is important because Haitian vernacular architecture has evolved over 200 years, it is sustainable and resilient. It utilizes local materials, mostly organic and biodegradable. We should apply modern technology and scientific expertise to design and improve the architectural technology native to Haiti which utilizes local materials before we implant new unsustainable design practices (if a practice is so alien to the population that they will not be able to implement it without extensive help from foreign professionals then it is not sustainable) and imported materials, which the developed world should be phasing out of in the first place.
Haitian Vernacular architecture can resist both earthquakes and hurricanes and it can be made to withstand high wind velocity or lateral loads. They are convenient for the countrys hot climate, cheaper to build, and they draw on the culture and way of life of Haitians. Instead of importing tents to Haiti or parallel to doing so, it is worthwhile to look at the benefits of sponsoring locals if they elect to build transitional vernacular homes on their plots while we develop a building standard and establish authorities having jurisdiction to assure proper implementation of any future codes.
In fact, in the Cul-de-Sac region, near Port-au-Prince, Haitians customarily build transitional smaller vernacular homes, while saving money to build a proper family home. The government should have a moratorium on building formal houses (typically concrete), while encouraging people who can afford it (and sponsoring those who cannot) to build 1 and 2 room traditional straw houses (kay clisse and kay vetive) on their respective plots. This would give us time to properly investigate and document Haitian vernacular architecture and devise the right way to improve it. Most importantly, this would be a viable alternative to tents. Such initiative would help employ locals, and sustain the livelihood we need during the massive reconstruction to follow.
It would also alleviate the emergency and give enough time for a commission of professionals with knowledge in both architectural design, structure, urban planning, and environmental sustainability to convene in order to explore and devise a new curriculum that integrate the vernacular with better engineering practices to train a new generation of Haitian builders. The sensitivity of these builders to the concept of safety in the context of economy if articulated in terms the greater Haitian community can relate to will help implant a new building culture.
This is important because as buildings evolve both their morphology (aesthetic) and their materiality (technology) incorporate the best of a civilization. To repudiate the architecture of a region is to deny the people of the very essence of their patrimony. I am not merely referring to the concrete houses of Port-au-Prince or the famous gingerbreads of the upper class, but the mud homes, the cays pays (straw houses), the houses with metal roof, and so on. Most of these houses are built with true cultivated native skills, and most did sustain the earthquake; or at least they did not kill the occupants when they failed. We should not cut out a whole leg because a toe nail is defective; let us not dismiss everything good about Haiti on account of the bad.
Most importantly, the conception that the Haitian professional class is not up to the task may be misguided. Haitis problem when it comes to building technology is directly linked to the lack of an intermediary class and the endowment to educate that class which serves the greater Haitian population. By introducing a new technology without envisioning a mass educational campaign to satisfy the actual issue will only exacerbate the problem. Indeed, Haitians do have aspirations and seek out what is best. Our deficiencies in proper housing are a quantitative as opposed to a qualitative problem. Our tragedy stems from a lack of planning, bad endowment of our educational system, and a lack of trained professionals. The bulk of the investment to remediate the problem should therefore be directed toward resolving those underlying issues.
We are a country full of artisans and skilled laborers; we need technicians such as trained designers and architects to help us validate these local human resources by improving native skills, not venture capitalists with mid-level or technical education trying to find a scheme to get rich quick and introducing mass produced and prefabricated shelters which will delude our Haitian character and put centuries of practical knowledge out of commission. Why put qualified and educated Haitians aside to make way for their less educated counterparts? One is not more skilled by virtue of being a foreigner, yet, to be in Haiti those days, this is the sense one gets.
True architectural investigation will reveal that Haitian architecture is not the problem, but economic hardship forcing too many Haitians to bypass commonsensical procedures when building. While we still lack the basic resources, no matter what new techniques are imported, they will not be implemented properly and the problem will persist. If we could import a new building type that is more accessible and more attainable to replace the former, that would be justifiable. But if we import something that is more expensive and less efficient, we are digging a deeper hole and we are going to exacerbate the problem.
The planning and housing problem in Haiti and the rest of the developing world is at the core of the insolvencies of our communities, therefore, we must promote a true architectural dialog among professionals who understand how planning, architecture, and economics create the matrix for the kind of growth that Haiti needs in order to emerge from its sordid pass. I deplore the approach many are taking that: Haitians merely deserve an upgrade from their deplorable condition of life. We need the best, and we need to strive for excellence. This is the time to plan for a better future for both Haiti and the other countries suffering like it. We will not achieve that goal by promoting industries over culture, but by upgrading the cultures to the technologies available.
The world cannot build a descent home for every Haitian family. The world cannot provide an expert to oversee the construction of every Haitian home. The world, however, can provide Haitians with the basic knowledge to help them validate their local materials and knowledge to find better ways to employ these materials in building safer homes. Any other approach will create a dependency that will reinforce the status quo, and ultimately will constitute a catastrophe of a much greater caliber than the eathquake.
2010-Gamaliel Eaton Frederick -President, CEO The American Institute for Educational Exchange and Global Integration, INC Haiti-Nouvelle: Planning and Development Consortium, INC. 38 Montvale Avenue # 207 Stoneham, MA 02180.