Architecture Watch: Homes for Haiti


“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed.” — President Rene Preval of Haiti

As Preval noted, Haiti’s rebuilding efforts in the wake of January’s 7.0 earthquake won’t be complete without a manifold approach, as the entire infrastructure of the nation and its capital, Port-au-Prince, has crumbled under thousands of tons of rubble. The shelter issue is pressing, however: 3,000 people sleeping on a school soccer field, machete fights over tents, an estimated 1 million people displaced. So how are architects responding to an immediate humanitarian crisis? They are problem solvers, after all.

Clemson University Architecture had been working on a shipping container prototype called the SEED Project before the earthquake on January 12. Spurred into action by the disaster, the SEED team is working with shipping container companies, the government, and other manufacturers to coordinate an effort for importing the materials into Haiti, a logistical nightmare seeing as how the port is “a complete wreck.” Here’s how the building concept works:

Caribbean nations inherently import more goods than they export generating a steady surplus of shipping containers. Shipping containers are designed to carry massive amounts of cargo and withstand extreme weather conditions making them a logical housing component. Completely constructed of steel, a 40′ shipping container can carry 67,200 pounds and resist overturn when exposed to winds up to 140 mph. Without modification a 40′ shipping container has 304 square feet of floor space and eliminates problems associated with insects, fire, and hurricanes. With modification a 40′ shipping container can be a safe, comfortable, and environmentally friendly home for numerous local inhabitants who would otherwise have less.

Models from SEED’s shipping container project.

Miami architect Andrés Duany — who helped develop the vernacular Katrina Cottage design as the antithesis to FEMA trailers following the New Orleans hurricane disaster in 2005 — considers himself a New Urbanist. Speaking to the Miami Herald, Duany claims that he’s devised a new pre-fabricated solution for the homeless in Haiti, a “miraculous” material (“thin but strong, durable, fireproof, waterproof and mold-proof”) encasing a core house that sleeps eight people in a bunkhouse arrangement.

On the temporary end of the spectrum, Bay Area architect Joseph Bellomo proposes a lightweight, modular pod supported by a shell of steel tubes. The design, based on a backyard studio for a client in Hawaii, has a small footprint, weighs less than 3,000 pounds, and can easily be assembled onsite in the vein of IKEA.

Even more short-term is the shelter box, a rescue kit of sorts that costs $1,000: each one weighs 110 pounds and is packed impermanent sheltering supplies like a ten-person tent, blankets, sleeping bags, tools, and other items.

Of course, putting a band-aid on the wound won’t staunch Haiti’s longer-term residential problems. Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr of Architecture for Humanity weigh in: “In a developing country like Haiti, the biggest danger is the effect of bad post-disaster planning and construction. Waterborne diseases spread like wildfire in temporary camps and dumping sub-standard materials is not only dangerous, but undermines an existing yet fragile construction industry. Additionally, without proper oversight, structures are usually rebuilt in unsafe ways by well-intentioned volunteers.” Instead of dropping in readymade materials, the partners prefer to “work with the locals to develop proposals built from indigenous materials” that will get the support of everyone. Read their in-depth plan here.

If you’ve got viable ideas of your own, we encourage you to make your voice heard in GOOD magazine‘s Spontaneous Architecture competition. Submissions can be “strategic, organizational, institutional, and/or architectural,” and are due by February 15, 2010.