Introduction to Rebuilding Haiti ‘REALOMETER’ Series

Introduction to Rebuilding Haiti ‘REALOMETER’ Series

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By: Greg Higgins, Architect and Managing  Director, HabiTek, LLC

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times the author re-introduced a term coined by the naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, “realometer”:

Thoreau’s [imaginary] realometer would allow an inquiring person to measure the reality of his perceptions, to push past the ‘mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance…to a hard bottom.

For over a year, Aldy Castor, MD and I have been involved in getting to the “hard bottom” of a myriad of problems that have surfaced with regards to Haiti’s rebuilding.  Dr. Castor perceives rebuilding as a critical component of disaster prevention and preparedness, and I certainly agree.  Building an infrastructure that is unequivocally designed to withstand natural disasters, and be healthy to live in, should be the first order of business.

Our plan is to post a series of dispatches, we are calling ‘realometers’, based on our research, and provide on-going ‘reality-checks’ to exhibit our findings and reaction to several critical and neglected areas, including:

  1. Elimination of obvious post-earthquake dangerous and life threatening conditions.
  2. Explore alternative approaches to discourage the continuing use of weak quarry-sand to make structural concrete and concrete blocks.
  3. Evaluate new proposals designed to house internally displaced persons (IDP).
  4. Explore strategies for building safely on slopes and in areas prone to minor flooding.  In identifying safe strategies, we plan to argue forcefully that many areas prone to serious flooding, or on or near earthquake fault lines, should NOT be built upon – period.

Many of the observations to be provided in the ‘realometer dispatch’ series are based on my visit to Haiti in September, 2011 with Dr. Castor.   The trip, hosted by Haiti Resource Development Foundation, gave me an opportunity to see a significant portion of Haiti – from Port-au-Prince to Aquin, and many points in between.

The rebuilding of Haiti, especially providing safe, dignified, permanent housing for internally displaced persons (IDP) has barely even begun in any meaningful way.  Well over a half million people are still living in tent camps, amid terrible squalor, almost 2 ½ years since the horrific earthquake.  This must change – and fast.

Unfortunately, in our research to identify solutions, we found that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency that has directed many of its resources to design and building of permanent housing, has, to our deep disappointment, come up miserably short.  USAID has arranged for the construction of thousands of new permanent “shelter houses” that do not meet minimum standards for health, safety, or comfort.  Haitians deserve better.

In concert with two other architects, and several advisors with expertise on Haiti rebuilding, a document was recently prepared that spells out the glaring deficiencies in USAID’s housing plans.  It is called, “Construction Documents for 750 Permanent Houses on the Caracol EKAM, Haiti – Architectural Peer Review.”  This 750 unit project, just underway by USAID, is designed to house apparel workers for the new Caracol Industrial Park.  I am calling this initial entry, REALOMETER DISPATCH #1 (click to read the preface to the “Architectural Peer Review”).  Additional ‘realometer’ dispatches will be appearing here periodically.

On the creative side, collaboration between HRDF and my company, HabiTek, LLC, will also be a part of this R&D initiative.  We plan to explore ways to, in fact, really build back better.  HabiTek has developed an innovative métallique ‘erector-set’ like framing system, that, as stated by two Haitian architects Dr, Castor introduced me to in Port-au-Prince, “is perfect for Haiti”.  The HabiTek System is a do-it-yourself concept, especially strong to resist hurricanes and earthquakes, and can be assembled with one hand tool.  We will also be exploring other building systems that can stand alone, or be integrated onto HabiTek’s chassis.

The HabiTek-Haiti initiative, in cooperation with HRDF, will explore strategies for introducing this technology to Haiti through the formation of a new business entity, set-up as a non-profit builder’s cooperative, or possibly a so-called benefits corporation.  HabiTek-Haiti would stand to create many new jobs in Haiti, while providing safe attractive structures for housing, apartment buildings and schools.  Initially we plan to explore opportunities in Haiti to demonstrate HabiTek’s technology with components manufactured in Spokane, Washington, where HabiTek is located.  During the demonstration phase, avenues will be explored to fabricate HabiTek’s components in Haiti, by a Haitian owned entity.

Disaster prevention and preparedness, key missions of HRDF, must become a major component of new construction in Haiti, especially housing.  As we have all heard before, “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do” – and where else in the world has this fact appeared more obvious than in Haiti.  Please visit the HRDF web site from time to time as we continue to add additional ‘reality checks’ and proposals for building a solid and inspiring future for Haiti.


After introduce the subject, you can read the next : “REALOMETER” DISPATCH #1: ARCHITECTURAL PEER REVIEW OF CARACOL EKAM USAID HOUSING

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The Haitian Resource Development Foundation prioritizes programs that enable and empower various Haitian locales to further personal and collective independence. Engaging in a range of programs over 20 years, the HRDF continues a commitment to providing measurable results for program beneficiaries and program benefactors. Working with multiple international partners from North America and Europe, the HRDF is committed to fundamental improvements in Haitian villages to ensure greater economic vitality in the near future.