Engaging Haiti – How designers facilitate long-term recovery

oz35_cover-sm(Oz Journal – co-written with Stacey McMahan)

There is a reason why Pétionville is the center of the recovery effort in Haiti. Its perch in the hills above Port-au-Prince offers relative isolation from the metropolis, in addition to the mind-boggling panoramic views of the basin and bay from which that city has grown – qualities enough for establishing a national financial center, and some of Haiti’s most luxurious hotels. From the conference rooms at the Montana, to the courtyards of the Karibe and the Kinam’s poolside restaurant, Pétionville has, since the 2010 earthquake, become the focal point for international investors, discussions, and visions for Haiti’s future.

The latest member of Pétionville’s hotel pantheon opened last December – the Royal Oasis. A seven-storey, 128-room edifice, the Oasis all but delivers the tourist paradise envisioned in Haiti’s Grand Plan for reconstruction, and should be a symbol of the country’s robust recovery after a three-year struggle.

Of course, visitors today meet another reality when they tour Port-au-Prince, the city in the basin. Most neighborhoods show little sign of improvement; thousands still live in tent camps, the slums are as dangerous as ever, and downtown businesses remain condemned, squatter-occupied skeletons – not thriving participants of a mixed-use district served by shiny new streetcars. It seems forces are pulling Haiti and Haitians back to pre-quake conditions, if not worse.

The gap dividing these two perceptions of a recovering country is by no means irreconcilably divergent. Plenty of developments in Haiti attest that efforts and investments in recovery are being very successfully executed, albeit out of the public eye. Some communities, rural and urban, are seeing their infrastructure and quality of life improve by leaps and bounds, often as a result of their own empowerment. These accomplishments do not attract headlines for being grandiose, sweeping reforms; neither do the complex challenges that have prevented a swift recovery. In fact it’s the very low-key nature of this work that has made it successful: grassroots design and reconstruction, introduced by foreign organizations but directed by Haitian communities, establish precedence of a recovery that, little by little, is fostering strong foundations, resources and built work supporting more sustainable communities.

A designer may be left to wonder: how on earth can I as an individual join in the milieu to assist? Is this possible? At what point do I engage a community to improve it? What precise service do I offer that is missing for the institution of a community-driven project? How do I measure that my impact leads to a more sustainable outcome?

Healthy Communities by Design

Consider sustainability a pursuit of self-sufficiency within communities – whether that vehicle be material, energetic or economic, whether it preserves human rights, livelihoods or identity as building blocks to a community’s health. The aim of sustainable development at this scale is to secure the longevity of built improvements affecting the quality of life against health-threatening detriments. When communities lack an agency liaising critical needs to professional support, resources, or wisdom to achieve this transformation, a designer can establish these connections and guide a process of sustainable development.

This has been the approach of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit bringing design and construction services to communities who cannot otherwise afford them. In client-driven design, the nonprofit designers do not work in a community where they has not been invited, and they defer to local wisdom and priorities in developing solutions specific to local needs. While there is a range of engagement required of designers in helping a community, its permission, enthusiasm and ownership of the project are critical to the project’s success.

In Haiti, Architecture for Humanity founded the Rebuilding Center to assess and execute the steps necessary to ensure communities in Haiti were “built back better.” Projects engage local builders in construction and vocational training, and in the reconstruction of safe, strong, delightful and permanent architecture, introducing international standards at once foreign to and welcomed by the local building industry. The Rebuilding Center expands on similar programs established in Biloxi following Katrina and in post-tsunami Southeast Asia – the “one stop shop” model for design and construction services, coordinated at the grassroots level but establishing a precedent of enormous potential impact.

In grassroots work the victories start smaller, and demand flexibility in responding to unforeseen challenges. The team at the Rebuilding Center quickly realized that their long-term services were not only needed in the realm of architecture and training, but had to address systemic challenges otherwise making sustainable recovery impossible. Broader neighborhood reconstruction plans and sturdy economic foundations, as well as an earthquake-resilient ones, were needed to tackle glaring issues such as sanitation and accessibility, stormwater drainage, construction financing and access to safe public spaces. The team broadened their services, launching a planning studio and an economic development studio to assemble the tools needed for holistic reconstruction. As of Summer 2013, the Center now manages more than twenty projects ranging from schools to community action plans to business surveys and regional mapping – different facets of the intricate challenge of sustainable development.

The diversity of work can nevertheless be broken down into simpler categories–of precisely how a designer engages a project, its end users, and the local professionals executing it. (These latter parties share the “client” moniker.) On one extreme of design intervention is the Prescriptive solution, where the designer asserts their professional wisdom to unilaterally resolve a design challenge (“Private Interest Design?”). In Public Interest approaches taken by the Rebuilding Center, the strongest influence a designer has is (1) Directing a client; though we are often in a role of a (2) Mentor; an (3) Assistant; at times a (4) Resource Provider; or simply facilitating (5) Sponsorship. The precise role depends on the nature of a project, and often several roles engage that project at its different stages, and for different project clients.

1. Direction

Haiti’s disastrous earthquake resulted from systemic problems in building construction and quality enforcement. To quote Architecture for Humanity’s Resilience and Reconstruction Studio director, Eric Cesal, “the earthquake did not cause a disaster, it revealed one.” Clearly Haitian builders did not suspect such an affront to their craft, and were wholly unequipped to modify it for either powerful seismic events or the day-to-day longevity expected of, but not present in, the way they were building. In this situation, it is incumbent upon the international community to instill construction wisdom and best practices, and to assist in reforming the nation’s design and construction industry.

Rarely do top-down solutions correlate with public interest, but with such professional and technical imbalances, and with such a large impact, direction is appropriate. This leaves the question of how to implement in a way the information can be adopted, understood and employed.

In Haiti masonry is a craft; masons approach each project working from experience, and not relying on construction drawing sets as we use them in the United States. One of the first challenges was adapting drawing sets to be better understood on site. The use of color to show rebar placement and views of 3D digital models to show steps of complex procedures (like foundation pours), help cut through the abstraction that Westerners take for granted. Intensive training precedes the construction phase, reviewing principles of better construction and taking builders through techniques from slump testing to stirrup tying. Despite the primarily one-directional nature of these sessions, builders find the instruction rewarding, and are proud to be able to improve their craft.

2. Mentorship

The Rebuilding Center follows construction administration through a team of Construction Outreach professionals that liaise between the job site and the main office, inspecting and correcting construction practices on each project, and reporting their progress. The Outreach program employs half a dozen Haitian engineers learning firsthand how to enforce and audit international construction standards with mentorship from the Rebuilding Center. Several members from the initial outreach team have been able to launch their own practices with the knowledge gained in this program.

Other rotating members of our office have profited from an intensive learn/work program, as Rebuilding Center volunteers. Between 2010 and 2013, the Center hosted young professionals to apply their experience and get exposure to nonprofit work. Over the course of a couple months these designers are not only digging into projects, but producing final drawings and documents with their work overseen by the Rebuilding Center staff. Volunteers tend to return eager to share their experiences, frequently staying involved within the realm of humanitarian design.

3. Assistance

Charrettes are intensive workshops organized by the design team to structure engagement and feedback from members of a project’s community or stakeholders. They are perhaps the most familiar tools of client engagement, and is generally valuable for everyone involved, provided the charrette is properly calibrated. Through modeling exercises, mapping and focused dialog, participants identify their priorities and take the first steps to addressing them. Charrette outcomes build an unmatchable set of inputs and sense of ownership, in some cases empowering a community to carry the project through itself.

In their school projects, the Center begins design by working with faculty and students over a series of workshops. At Coeur Immacule de Marie, these sessions guided discussion of the project’s constraints through team building, prioritization and modeling. Faculty and students workshop on different days, but the workshop format is essentially the same for both groups.

The informal urban neighborhood of Villa Rosa in Port-au-Prince is an example of the inherent possibilities of a tactically structured series of workshops. Community engagement involved neighborhood infrastructural mapping bookended by door-to-door surveys and validation sessions. After data was verified, a series of charrettes brought residents together to discuss specific critical issues like access, drainage and sanitation. While the Rebuilding Center applied seasoned professional wisdom to the products of these charrettes, it was the Villa Rosa community that worked with these documents to hire contractors, purchase materials, and see through small-scale built interventions that have made their neighborhood safer, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Since the completion of Villa Rosa’s initial phase, its community engagement approach is being replicated in a government-coordinated program assisting 15 other informal neighborhoods around the city. This is an ideal outcome of the work.

4. Resource Provision

Designers can develop toolkits, manuals, or other resources for the client’s use before a project commences, or before the roles of a project are even established. In some cases these resources can streamline a project timeline; in other cases these documents are critical companions to navigate complex systems or esoteric languages the client is expected to understand.

Before we had eyes on the ground, weeks after the earthquake, Architecture for Humanity had assembled a “Rebuilding 101” manual for concrete block construction that could be printed, in the event unskilled Haitians started rebuilding without oversight. Designed for universality the manual relied on graphics and diagrams, black ink, and letter sized paper, and was translated in four languages (Kreyol included).

These days a Property Law Working Group is tackling a terrific quagmire in reconstruction, the bureaucracy surrounding land ownership claims. The Group has worked this past year analyzing the structures in place for ascertaining rights to land parcels when they are in dispute. In February, 2013, the group released a manual any Haitian can use to navigate the labyrinthine legal system with their claim. The Haiti Land Transaction Manual is the first step of a larger campaign to reform how property tenure is recognized in Haiti.

5. Sponsorship

Frequently a client’s needs for realizing a project are simply the financing to do so, or the matchmaking of their skills to a project seeking them. A designer can sponsor such endeavors with little further intervention required on their part for execution.

This level of engagement opens doors to programs that would not otherwise be proposed as part of disaster recovery. Business rebuilding grants have been difficult to establish in Haiti, largely because local banks knew no precedent for disbursing micro-loans. The Rebuilding Center facilitated business and economic corridor (or street-oriented commercial district) surveys, organized meetings, and made inroads to get a business financing program off the ground. The program recruited several  local banks to work with qualified small and medium-sized Haitian businesses to rebuild.

In 2011 the Civic Arts for Haiti Schools program granted Haitian sculptors funding to create installations for rebuilt (or rebuilding) schools. It is easy to question the necessity of such a program, yet expression, camaraderie, culture and pride – byproducts of civic art – were elements of a holistic recovery rarely included in rebuilding efforts. The simply structured Civic Arts grant program allowed a dozen Haitain artists to develop cultural anchors impacting hundreds of students.

Engagement Levels Along a Project Timeline

As we outline a spectrum of designer engagement in a project it is important to note that this relationship will fluctuate over that project’s course, and its different stages of development. Direction, Mentorship, Assistance, Resource Provision, and Sponsorship may all find place in a project’s timeline. If we assess the weights of clients’ and designer’s relative roles, we should break our “client” out into the community that will have ultimate use of a project, and the local industry recruited to bring the project to completion.


We can quickly analyze the contributive forces at play at two of our projects: École Baptiste Bon Berger (“Montrouis School”) and the initial phase of Villa Rosa previously mentioned.

The Montrouis school, developed in partnership with the school’s supporters and headmaster, was an early project for the Rebuilding Center – and an opportunity to put all of their Public Interest values into play. In Predesign, the designers held conversations at length with members of the school to envision how a new campus would look and feel, and what the school’s needs were; Design Development was taken in-house, with feedback and approval; Construction Documents were also done in-house, with continued refinements to improve legibility for contractors; the drawings went out to bid before construction.

When a contractor was selected we partnered with nonprofit Build Change to hold construction training onsite, heavily involving the construction crew; the contractors carried out construction with oversight from the Outreach team, who, for the sake of this exercise, wear both “designer” and “industry” hats (in this stage we also subcontracted decorative elements to be made by local metalsmiths; the craftsman industry and construction industry alike benefitted from Construction Administration at Montrouis). Of course the completed school most benefits the school children, but the art installation also benefits the sculptor, as the building-as-object bears testament to the quality work executed by the contractors.

In the initial phase of the Villa Rosa Community Action Plan, designs were strengthened by further development at the Rebuilding Center of its community engagement tools – to the extent that the project designs were self-executed by the community.  As noted, this form of collaboration carries a powerful impact for the clients involved, who needed a minimum amount of intervention to leverage important improvements in their neighborhood.

Charting designer/client involvement for both projects would look something like this:



The final step for Architecture for Humanity at the Rebuilding Center is to transition ownership and operation to a wholly Haitian capacity. This assures that the Center can perpetuate itself without the presence of the foreign founding party. After three years, this transition is underway–a local network has been built, Haitian staff are filling administrative roles, and the Center is pursuing Haitian Non-Governmental Organization status. Sustainability comes full circle when a satellite office can source its own projects, funding and support, and carries on under its own inertia.

Mission Accomplished?

Transitioning out leaves the foreign public interest designer to disengage from their post and move on. While there are a lot of differences between how Haiti and, well the rest of the world, operate, the above definitions of client engagement carry a certain universality. Back at our climate-controlled offices in our hometowns, we see issues in our backyards that can be addressed through design, and we have tools assess how the invisible work of a designer can make lasting local improvements.

The Royal Oasis Hotel may well be the standard bearer for new business and industry in Haiti, but after three years these signs are still too hard to read. However promise exists today in the grassroots development efforts that may after all determine the strength of the foundations of reconstruction.


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