Honest future architecture, Haiti

AFH-Haiti_2014-10-30_Argentine-0156_Sven-Kalim_900Last October, the second phase of a school opened in the Bel Air neighborhood of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The new spaces – four classrooms, a kitchen and multipurpose dining area, an admin building and a composting toilet bloc – were nestled beneath a dramatic single-pitch roof and impermeable vaulted ceilings. The corrugated uppermost plane deflects beating sunlight and encourages air to flow between it and the vault, thereby whisking heat away in a fashion fit for Caribbean classrooms.

These are modest details by some standards, and yet they showcase an international standard of achievement possible in a place where everything that can go wrong, does.

It’s all the more astonishing then that Ecole Nationale Republique d’Argentine Phase 2 – a more ambitious program than the interminable two-year development of its seven-classroom structural retrofit predecessor – was completed in nine brisk months.

“Phase 2 was my child,” says Natalie Desrosiers, who has just completed her service to Architecture for Humanity – Haiti (AFH) as its construction services director. She oversaw outreach personnel and procurement, managed schedules and execution, filed progress reports and met with the stakeholders. “I watched it from the starting sketches to the opening ceremony.”

Natalie doesn’t purport to be fluent in English, though she could fooled just about anyone in that regard. Reviewing the school project over Skype, Natalie draws a blank on the translation for a large cookpot. I assure her there wasn’t really a common English word for that. Unconvinced, Natalie proceeds to describe why the kitchen needed special attention.

“One portion of the counter needed to be lowered from about 65 cm to 30 cm so they could easily pull the bowls to the ground.” Feeding 1,000 students isn’t exactly a walk in the park, but, thankfully architects were in the position to make life easier for the school, its students, and its community. “And storage,” Natalie adds. “They needed a place to keep the 50 giant bags of rice that were delivered each week. The Director asked that the eating area be open – a multipurpose place to eat, play, and have ceremonies.”


Funded by the Clinton Foundation and Boeing, Phase 2 of the Argentine school opened on October 30, 2014

AFH-Haiti_2014-10-30_Argentine-0164_Sven-Kalim_900Natalie, second from left, assists the Ecole Argentine’s 2014 ribbon cutting with colleagues, builders, faculty, and the Minister of Education


The school’s opening ceremony included a flag raising, speeches, and songs and dances from the students


The Argentine school site plan includes Phase 1 classrooms (pale yellow) and perimeter walls (mustard); the Phase 2 program and services (salmon); and existing and reclaimable construction (blue). Visit Students Rebuild’s coverage of the project’s initial community outreach and trudge through 2013 for more background.

AFH accommodated these requests. Such design modifications amounted to the greatest challenges of Phase 2 – a small miracle for a Haitian construction project in a disaster recovery Red Zone.

Of course any project conducted by  Architecture for Humanity is completely open sourceright down to design documents and regular project progress as collected for partner and public consumption on the Open Architecture Network. Upon reviewing the development of each phase, the sequel feels like a dream:

AFH-Haiti_2013-04-02_Argentine1-4779_Rene-Balan-Jr_600400 m2 (est.) Damaged building structural retrofit – 7 classrooms; rainwater catchment system and cistern; provisional toilet bloc; perimeter and retaining walls. Timeline adjusted from prior reporting AFH-Haiti_2014-10-30_Argentine-0064_Sven-Kalim_900500 m2 (est.) Ground-up and foundation-up new construction – 4 classrooms; admin building; multipurpose dining hall; kitchen; permanent toilet block; anaerobic baffled reactor, for composting.

MARCH – Grant announced and work begun to interview 20 candidate schools for funding. Argentine ID’d as most critical and having largest potential impact.

JUNE – First site inspection. Notes of tent camp (projected move out July 2012), rubble and condemned buildings (projected cleanup August 2012), condition of salvageable buildings (projected assessment June 2012). Brett begins project reports.

JULY – Structural report insufficient footings and columns in surviving buildings. Team devises means to intercede, reinforce. Geotech crew visits site to examine soils (boring whole deeper than 20′), security threatened by robbery. Team responds by beefing up community engagement aspect of project. Geotech crew projects to complete site work in September.

AUGUST – Structural report recommends reinforcing every other bay to minimize building impact. This still means encasing existing columns and beams with proper steel and concrete, an intricate process. Discussion whether to strengthen for possible second story. Tent camp still on site; removal NGOs had run out of funding and withdrew from Haiti; Haitian Ministry of Interior also in flux, meaning responsibility for camp is up in the air.

SEPTEMBER – Community engagement begins with outreach to gang leaders; the meetings go well and understanding is reached, neighborhood flyers recommended; local workers employed on project. Students, teachers and parents return from vacation for fall enrollment; charrettes for each of these groups planned.

OCTOBER – School started on 8th. Kickoff scheduled for 15th – two classes to be temporarily moved to another school until January while retrofits on one building, then the other, proceed. Sensitization flyers distributed. Charrettes held with teachers, students and parent groups; good turnout and many tent camp speculators, and a few disruptions. 18th, contract for structural retrofit construction signed; window and door frames a subsequent contract. 22nd, kickoff, demolition (projected completion within the week). 26th Hurricane Sandy suspends work. 30th construction begins.

NOVEMBER – Demolition stops; demo org out of money, withdraws. Team reworks schedule, aware of critical timing to complete by January return of other classes to campus. Door and window frame prototypes delayed; a new framing crew is selected to complete. Security threatened by adjacent gang altercation; community leader brought onto site permanently to deter flare-ups.

DECEMBER – Construction quality issues: local workers disrupting work flow. Window and door frames redesigned for simplicity, rapid construction. 24th a major security threat: a clash between Bel-Air and Delmas 2 gangs. Tensions sweep over entire city for several days; construction halted.


JANUARY – Further frame delays cause team to modify window drawings and prototyping. Construction resumes but will not meet 1/7 deadline. Adjacent security issue of inter-gang rock throwing and gun brandishing necessitates community leaders and school director presence on site for all hours of construction. Classes move back and continue school in unframed rooms.

FEBRUARY and MARCH – Security threats directed at construction workers. Community leaders to ensure resolution before construction recommences; it does. Structural retrofits completed on both buildings.

APRIL – Frames completed on both buildings. Tent camp still on site; school director opts to install temporary plywood window screens. Further work on school (new construction) cannot proceed until the camp is cleared.

MAY – Tent camp remain past 5/15 move out projection. Brett hands project off to teammates and prepares for departure.

JULY – Tent camp clears out. Specs for perimeter walls finalized. GC evaluates construction strategy, working around site and security conditions.

SEPTEMBER – Site rubble cleared out. Classroom punchlist items executed. Perimeter walls begin construction piecemeal. Disruptions plague the process.

DECEMBER – Work discontinued due to a life-threatening run-in with bandits. School owner commits to finishing work with own crew.


JANUARY – Work is completed. Final punchlist and walkthrough executed. Barbwire installed on perimeter walls. Temporary bathrooms installed.


JANUARY – 20th Bid set for buildings and landscape issued; six general contractors (GCs) invited. 22nd Site visit with GCs; three of six show up. 24th Bid set addendum issued; includes engineered electrical drawings and updates.

FEBRUARY – Heat and air flow analysis for toilet block conducted pro bono by Grant Engineering, NYC.

MARCH – Contractor selected, after reviewing four submittals and conducting two interviews. 12th Contract signed, drawings reviewed. 21st Groundbreaking.

MAY – All footings poured, foundations come above ground, following major Spring rain storms. Structural drawings modified to reflect discoveries on site. Foundations 96% completed, despite high water table. Theft of rebar on site. Team responds with revised policy and drawings.

JUNE – Construction progresses. Roof truss construction issues arise when HSS (tube steel) is not locally available and the GC misquoted his bid, based on available angle steel.

JULY – Trusses redesigned. Lack of crane availability force team to raise trusses manually; a test is conducted to guarantee that process. Artisans are selected to fabricate metal doors. Upper beams formed and poured; crepissage plaster treatment applied to completed walls.

AUGUST – Upper beams completed. Trusses raised on Building A; installation ongoing for Building B. Anaerobic baffle reactor work proceeds. Door and window contract countersigned; work is ongoing. Bldg A primer painted. Final frame design selected. Toilet tanks subcontracted.

SEPTEMBER – Roof decking up. Doors and windows installed. Toilets installed; sidewalks poured; door and window final installation; guardrails installed; interior and exterior sinks formed and poured; kitchen countertops poured; chalkboards installed; septic pits built.

OCTOBER – Toilet partitions and tiling installed; classrooms painted; electrical installed; louvered windows operational; site plumbing; benches; waterproofing; gate; general finishing; school signage installed. 29th Completed. 30th Opening ceremony.

Proven pudding

So what had changed between Phase 1 and Phase 2?

“Those last few months everything fell into place – we had put together an amazing team and a common vision. Argentine 2 was a new way of doing things! We created new standards for schematics, drawings, presentation, quality assurance and control, constructability, new procedures…things were tighter. We had different types of [internal] meetings.”

In other words, AFH Haiti had tackled the kind of codification which had eluded them growing from a one-person staff to a thirty-person staff, and navigating a cascade of unanticipated and barely surmountable challenges. In 2014, there was at last a critical mass of wisdom, and the line to follow became clear. Phases were crystallized and tracking solidified, also due in part to program management migrating from AFH’s San Francisco headquarters to the field office.

Of course news hit in November that the field office would close.

“Now,” Natalie sighs, “hopefully, the people who were part of that team can carry on in that way,” employing the lessons for whatever comes next for each of them. There’s a good chance the former team members, nationals and foreigners alike, will continue working in Haiti for other organizations.


Artist sketches for school doors, above, and finished work, below


Systemic shortfalls — still

A Haitian national herself, Natalie studied and worked in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, before January 2010 brought her home. She initially worked for UNICEF in their recovery efforts, and joined AFH in 2011, first as a volunteer, then a Design Fellow, then staff.

“I learned a lot about site supervision at UNICEF, and learned more at AFH,” she tells me. “It’s unbelievable how the more you want things to change, to employ easier techniques, the more difficult it gets to see it through.”

“It’s going to be a long road, ” she adds.

Even after five years and $13 billion in aid, the Argentine school is a rare achievement for Haiti reconstruction. Country-wide, very little can be built, schools, housing or otherwise, as systemic challenges continue to plague recovery from every angle.

Land tenure issues are accountable for much of the hold-up. Identifying who owns what can be an impossible task. For that reason, the projects that AFH took on, starting back in 2010, first underwent land title verification as part of their feasibility analysis.

The next tallest hurdle to reconstruction is the enforcement of building codes. Since the earthquake, Haiti has adopted new codes to follow – but the policies have no teeth without an effective inspection system. Joachim Dieudonne, a journalist for Le Nouvelliste, touches on the bureaucratic quagmire practically encouraging illegal construction across the country.

It’s not for lack of builder compassion, defends Natalie.

“You simply cannot do things right without that discipline.” The fact is, workers need to get paid, and the boss foreman (traditionally employing the dubious title of “engineer”) commands the payroll.

The trade’s the thing

“It’s frustrating,” Natalie says, to see capable builders fall back to corner-cutting. “Every chance I get I take time and tell people why something wrong is wrong, why it must be corrected.” This level of instruction is important, and yet has a future in Haiti. Natalie is now investigating how to move the industry forward, code enforcement or no.

A good place to start is launching a certified trade school; while code enforcement is out to lunch, training, or “formation” in French, is not off the table.

“The few trade schools now in Haiti are not at the level they need to be. I’ve visited two in Port-au-Prince where the tools aren’t modern, and there’d be one piece of equipment for 50 students.” Classes are often held under hot tents. The ‘engineer’ instructors teach outdated techniques: a masonry class would work with outdated mortar ratios, and recommend hand-building CMUs. “A machine can churn out 100 units per hour; by hand it takes 2-3 days.”  At one workshop, the trainer clearly had no idea what he was talking about.

A nationally recognized certification, Natalie thinks, will carry weight. She was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship based on her observations, and on her hands-on, comprehensive education of building and engineering principles that she employed with AFH’s construction outreach team.

Lessons spread, little by little

The construction outreach program, launched in 2011, enlisted Haitian builders as liaisons between the job sites and AFH’s field office. Natalie’s first and foremost job was overseeing the 10 or so overseers, relaying international standards of construction and ensuring they’re rigorously employed on site. Over time, and after daily site visits, the outreach officers developed a knowledge base to become superior job foremen.

“We wanted to make sure they were more than just the Haitian enginuer. We’d promote the officers to an ‘Associate Engineer’ title, where they would take charge of site management and construction administration paperwork.

She regrets not having even more time to work with them, but recalls a recent invitation to see an alum’s job site and independent operation.

“He had everything. It was…remarkable to see him grow his company and put his lessons into practice.” Marc Henry was now working on a handful of residential projects.

“I was so proud,” Natalie says. “It was one victory.”

“This will sound cliche – I didn’t use to believe it but now I do. Success starts with oneself. The things I’ve been able to share were VALUABLE. Because we did something GOOD. We’ve touched workers and contractors. Seeing the practice carried on, I’m speechless. That I’m able to witness it.

“And I’m sure I can do that for more people now.”

As far as entrepreneurial alumni go, Marc Henry was not an isolated incident.

“I visited Gerald Jeanty too. He doesn’t have a physical office or anything, but he’s working! Running around between a few sites…all you need is a cell phone and a laptop!”

Today, in Haiti, the rebuilding beat goes on. With people like Natalie dedicated to the best work possible, and extracting ever better achievements in the midst of chaos, we may be in for some positive infrastructural surprises yet down that long and bumpy road.


Images from the Ecole Argentine Phase 1 and 2 project pages taken by Architecture for Humanity Haiti staff: Rene Balan, Jr.; Natalie Desrosiers; Sven Kalim; Jacques Nixon.


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