Designers seek creative solutions to rebuild Haiti

Posted at 02/02/11 6:31 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE - From hemp to Styrofoam, from bamboo to recycled rubble from Haiti's streets, ideas are flowing here on how best to rebuild the 200,000 homes and buildings damaged or lost in last year's quake.

More than a year after the capital was devastated in the January 12, 2010 earthquake, real reconstruction has yet to start with Port-au-Prince streets still strewn with an estimated 10 million cubic meters (yards) of rubble.

A long-delayed conference this week gathered hundreds of international firms aiming to help the Caribbean country "build back better."

At Hotel Karibe, international and local homebuilders shared blueprints and dollhouse sized-models of Haitian homes at an outdoor exposition.

"It's basically Styrofoam with a cement coating on the outside," said Scandia Pacific president Kim Christiansen, showing off the materials developed by his company based in Kirkland, Washington.

He works with foam building materials, but says the company will build with whatever materials the Haitian people want.

"That's what Haiti needs to get involved in. Not the old stuff," Christiansen said. "The pyramids have been around for a long time. Stone, brick. What we need to do is something new. Pre-fab."

But David Mosrie, whose Push Design firm is based in North Carolina, said most companies were only paying lip service to innovation.

His proposed home is built entirely of hemp, pounded into fibers and molded together with a limestone derivative.

But asked whether fun-seekers could smoke it, he laughed, saying: "It takes 2,500 pounds (1,130 kilograms) to get high. So good luck."

Homebuilders traded business cards and queries, but spoke mostly to each other as no real funding opportunities were offered.

Gabriel Verret, executive director of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, accused the international community of shirking on its promises to help rebuild Haiti.

"Everyone keeps saying rubble removal, rubble removal," he told AFP. "What am I supposed to do? Move it with my own hands?"

He said the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission had allocated just $52 million to rubble removal, but to get rid of it all will cost upwards of $600 million.

So some innovators suggested using the very rubble still strewn across the streets to rebuild the battered nation.

Hugh Brennan, a shelter consultant from Haven, an Irish non-governmental organization, is working on a pilot project that involves taking a truck-full of rubble, sorting it, then compacting it and filling wire "baskets" to make up the walls of the house before covering them with cement.

Haven's first four houses being built in Croix-des-Bouquets outside Port-au-Prince will be funded by Oxfam America and cost $10,000 each to build. He hopes in time the price will fall to less than $5,000 per house.

Tim Cornell with Polehouses.com offers adaptable metal frames that can be fitted with wood walls, Styrofoam or bamboo.

"We're not selling the house as much as we're selling the system," he said.

Yet another company offered molded cement houses.

"We have a mold and we cast the whole floor walls and ceiling in one go. It's one cube. A standard size that we make one bedroom, two bedroom, two stories," explained Moshe Saldinger, with the Jamaica-based Ashtrom Building Systems Ltd.

A studio apartment or one-bedroom house is one concrete piece, he said, while a two-bedroom house requires two pieces. The product ships on a barge from Jamaica, "just around the corner," he noted.

Florida-based ALT Technologies LLC was launching its product of "reinforced fiber polymer eyebeams fitted with magnesium oxide boards" for the first time for a mass market.

It's "mold proof, termite proof and resistant to water," said treasurer and company secretary Terence Freeman. "We've had a piece of this in a tank of water for four years. Didn't absorb a drop."

Despite the bright ideas, the question for most participants remained the same: Where do we begin? Where is the money to rebuild? And what to do with all that rubble? Consensus was in short supply.

The interim recovery commission is tasked with leading the rebuilding and channeling of international funds. But so far, the money has not appeared.

Andres Duany presented another idea to rebuild Port-au-Prince, on behalf of the Prince of Wales Foundation for the Built Environment.

He suggested the best option was to leave the rubble in place and build on top, using the rubble to elevate buildings an estimated 80 inches (two meters) to make them less vulnerable to floods.

The foundations' preferred, yet controversial proposal involves investing in individual city blocks and equipping them with independent generators and water treatment facilities.

Such a plan would see reconstruction totally independent of large-scale infrastructure renewal in Haiti.

"Whatever ideas you have, if they can't happen quickly, they're worthless," said Duany, a "New Urbanism" design movement leader from the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. "Because things are moving forward without a plan."

Rebuilding the aging infrastructure would cost an estimated $154 million, experts say. Developing one block at a time -- and treating each as an independent ship inside its own hull -- would cost $3.5 million per block.

"They couldn't maintain the infrastructure they had," Duany said. "I talked to a lot of people and no one came up to me and said, 'Hey, how about I rebuild you a 19th century system.' Or 'How would you like Paris?'"

The Prince's Foundation says it was commissioned by the Central Bank of Haiti to conduct its study and analysis.

But Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour said the foundation will "have to go through the normal governmental process" to get approval.

Exhibits at the conference mostly focused on single-family homes adaptable to a rural environment. But many said they could be fitted for an urban plan.

Saldinger was ambivalent about the usefulness of the conference.

"It's all nice suits and conversations and studies and things. But they're living in plastic bags out there. They have to start now," he said.

Speaking in the government's defense, Delatour countered: "I'm forced to look at the total picture... And by the looks of things, it looks like we're talking about a 20-year market for construction."