It’s been a year and a half since the poorest country in the Western hemisphere was levelled by the 7.0 earthquake that killed over 300,000 people and left at least 1,000,000 homeless. Still today, Haiti has seen little reconstruction, and 1.5 million people remain displaced and without access to basic services. Back in November, in response to that disaster, the Haitian Ministry of Tourism launched an international Building Back Better Communities housing competition backed by the Clinton Foundation, with the aim of building low-cost, sustainable and disaster-proof homes for the Haitian community. Sounds great, but how can we be sure that the endeavour will truly result in better communities?

More than 360 submissions later, roughly 70 of them were chosen to exhibit on a site north of Port-au-Prince. After consecutive delays, the exposition is set to inaugurate tomorrow, according to this article (oddly enough, the date is not announced on the program’s own website.) In the meantime, the initiative has run into criticisms regarding the nature and the quality of the work being presented, a number of which we look at in this article as a way of exposing the some of the critical issues that come into play in reconstruction projects.

Keeping it local

In the most recent coverage of the BBBC, journalist Rene Bruemmer at the Montreal Gazette surveyed the competition on the ground just last week: “Perhaps about 10 per cent of the total are built by Haitian contractors in the local style of cinder block or concrete walls reinforced with steel bars. Most of the rest were foreign-built designs, mainly from the U.S. and Europe.”

Prototype by Veerhuis-Voda of New York, based on a Dutch model | © Natash Fillion/The Gazette

“Pole-house”, a foreign-built design | © Natash Fillion/The Gazette

At Colorlines, Isabel MacDonald reports, “Among the 59 units on display, only seven are made by Haitian companies, according to Fauresmy, who estimates than at most 10 percent of the models in the expo rely exclusively on local materials.” Fauresmy, one of the housing expo’s engineers, claimed that a major problem was that so many of the units relied on imported materials. “Unemployment is a major problem in Haiti, so there is a desperate need for job creation, which is undermined by the outsourcing of reconstruction projects.”

The Editor’s Blog further points out that given the goal of the IHRC (Interim Haiti Recovery Commission) to build 400 homes in 100 days, and “one makes the fair assumption that these assemblers will be paid hourly, the BBBC really doesn’t amount to much” in terms of local job creation.

It’s not enough for the competition guidelines to encourage partnership with local firms, it should be a prerequisite. From the designers and materials used to the style of the homes and the labor it requires, solutions are no good if they do not involve the local community, reflect their cultural values or stimulate their own economy.

Sustainability and structural quality

If there’s one thing that’s crucial to the sustainability of the new communities, it is that they can resist the forces of nature to which they fell prey, not to mention be as ecologically sound as possible. According to the cited articles, the entries weren’t promising.

Ready Corporation’s prototype constructed of compressed wheat or rice straw | © Natash Fillion/The Gazette

Bruemmmer said “Although developers promised they could withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, the flimsiness of some structures put that claim into doubt,” while MacDonald was shocked to hear one of the entrants say they hadn’t tested their unit for sturdiness in the event of say, a hurricane, because “they don’t have to be tested.” In the opinion of her guide the Haitian engineer from the Ministry of Tourism (who I’m hoping doesn’t get fired), “a full half of the housing models on display would not withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.”

Time and cost

This is where it gets tricky. Bruemmer explains, “While ideally it would be Haitians doing the rebuilding and providing the materials, the country lacks the resources to fulfill its enormous needs. Foreign companies and their prefabricated designs of foam and steel with factories that churn out 50 houses a day can fill the need quickly, but since the main components are polystyrene, a petroleum-based product, and steel, little of the material would come from Haiti, and few jobs would be created.”

In addition, the sturdier and more permanent a house, the more expensive it is to build, and cost is of the essence when the majority of potential buyers earns $2 a day. With mortgage plans virtually inaccessible to most Haitians and a large chunk of pledge money still missing-in-action, it’s difficult to see how it can work.

Steel frame of prototype by Canadian company Thoron | © Natash Fillion/The Gazette

Haitan prototype, constructed in cinder block or steel-reinforced concrete | © Natash Fillion/The Gazette

If the goal is to create permanent homes, cost-effective is not the only thing they need to be.  Of all the designs on display, Bruemmer reported that locals embraced a local design by architect Leslie Boulos, but which would inevitably take too long to mass-produce–a maximum of 200 houses in 8 months. The design they like the least? A yellow sweatbox with tiny windows built with Chinese components which they dubbed “the Chinese chicken-coop.” Everyone knows what a dignified home does or doesn’t look like.

The challenge

The challenge is complex, with the structural difficulties of politics, economy and development aid making for a rocky road to building back better.

The Editor’s Blog eschews the idea of the competition altogether: “If you think the problem is housing, than I will reply with a common American phrase, no, ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ The Haitian government needs to say “no” to this plan. It has more cons than pros,” claiming that a home mortaging plan would allow people to build their own homes to their liking, building real ownership–the lack of which has been one of the main causes of delay in reconstruction–and stimulating the economy.

Ownership is certainly a central issue, but enforcing building codes and good design are also an essential part of the equation. As is the involvement of the local community and injecting aid money into the local economy, rather than back into the hands of foreign companies.

Surely the competition has produced a fair share of promising designs. But it remains questionable whether this is the most effective route to take. Perhaps a telling sign that this competition might have gotten off to a wrong start is the fact it chose to erect its exposition in the community’s only park, as described by Macdonald, “a well-lit public space where kids can do their homework.” Albeit, unknowingly, but perhaps they should have asked first.

As Paul Farmer asserts in this article, “In terms of ‘building back better,’ it’s not just houses and buildings. It’s also the entire process of development and the involvement of the majority. That has to be ‘built back better’ too.”

We hope to see that happen soon.


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