Innovation: Tool for Rebuilding
By Linda Unger*
May 20, 2011—Heavy concrete that in homes and buildings in Haiti divided one storey from another was meant to protect the constructions and those who lived or labored in them from hurricanes and severe storms. During last year’s earthquake, however, those concrete floors and ceilings had a contrary effect.
“They were one of the leading causes of the great loss of life,” says Rev. Jim Gulley, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Global Ministries coordinator in Haiti. “When the buildings started falling, the momentum of the collapsing concrete made them pancake; people inside had no way to escape.”
UMCOR understood that it would not help the Haitian people to simply rebuild the same type of constructions. Rather, it was important to find innovative ways to rebuild homes and make them safer and stronger than they were before.
For some time, UMCOR has been receiving proposals, many of them unsolicited, from individuals who were either experienced builders in search of a reconstruction partner in Haiti or who had a solution to another persistent problem there—access to pure water.
“We decided to hold a forum, where we could bring these people and their ideas together in Haiti in a collegial and creative environment,” Gulley says.
UMCOR, Eglise Methodiste d’Haiti (EMH, Methodist Church of Haiti), and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) sponsored the Reconstruction and Pure-Water Forum, April 26 – 29, in Petionville, on the edge of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The 50 participants included personnel from all three sponsors, particularly UMCOR Shelter Coordinator Kevin Hale and EMH’s head engineer, Roger La Planche, as well as contractors or developers with experience rebuilding homes after natural disasters.
The latter came from a variety of organizations and enterprises, including World Hands Alliance, Life Giving Force, Homes for Haitians, AngelCare, Icology, and Pure Water for the World, among others, and individual contractors.
The gathering was a kind of think-tank, but its goal was very practical: present and debate home construction designs for pilot projects in two contrasting communities, the rural village of Mellier and the more urban setting of Carrefour.
Mellier is located near the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake, and 80 percent of homes there were destroyed. Gulley describes Carrefour as the “choke-point” for westbound traffic out of Port-au-Prince.
In total, 40 families were selected to receive new homes. They had been homeowners before the earthquake, and the remains of their homes had been marked “red” by government inspectors, meaning they had either collapsed or were too dangerous to inhabit. “We wanted to go to the people who had lost the most,” says Gulley.
The contractors and developers, who had come to Haiti for the forum at their own expense, were challenged to present solutions that would benefit Haiti’s rebuilding in other ways in addition to the provision of shelter.
Designs had to rely primarily on Haitian labor and, as far as possible, Haiti’s natural resources. The homes produced should be permanent structures but allow for expansion or addition by the homeowner. And the designs should be creative.
“We had proposals that contemplated three or four different types of building materials,” Gulley says. “One of the most innovative is an aerated concrete—a concrete block that can be made in standard form with half the weight of regular concrete. That could have great appeal because it’s similar to what people are used to, yet it’s better in terms of quality and its lighter weight.”
UMCOR, EMH, and UMVIM staff brought the contractors and developers to the actual sites where the homes will be built, so they could have a clearer view of the communities and make any necessary adjustments to their proposals.
“The forum was a great learning experience,” Gulley says. “It really helped us to accomplish our goal of finding builders who could partner with us to do the building.”
There are still outstanding questions to be answered, such as how to incorporate homeowner equity labor into the building process; whether to put up only the shell of the house or the interior walls to divide into rooms or to let the homeowner do that; and how to include water and toilets.
But the process will move swiftly. By June 1, potential partners in the rebuilding will have submitted their revised proposals to a review committee that includes Gulley, Hale, La Planche, and Lauren James, UMCOR’s liaison with EMH, and Rev. Tom Vencuss, who represents UMVIM in Haiti.
Builders will be selected by June 21, and ground broken by July 1. The pilot projects in Mellier and Carrefour will be completed by December 31 and next steps will shortly follow.
“The forum provided us a way to hear alternative solutions and to get a picture of what has been done already in Haiti and elsewhere to rebuild homes. It allowed us to hear from Haitians in the communities regarding what they feel makes sense and what they find attractive,” says Gulley.
“We’re blending it all together to come up with solutions that won’t just get people out of the weather but give them a chance to start back into a home that is a new beginning for them,” he says.
*Linda Unger is staff editor and senior writer for UMCOR.