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06.02.2010
Editorial> Hands-On Help for Haiti
An increasing number of desk-bound New Yorkers are finding modest means to make a big difference in Haiti, writes Jeff Byles.

Since Haiti’s devastating January 12 earthquake, NGOs have arrived en masse in Port-au-Prince, working with architects and engineers to shelter displaced residents and draft visions for the country’s future. Among them, Shigeru Ban is designing waterproof shelters made of paper-tube frames. Andrés Duany is working on flat-packed prefab houses. And Steven Holl, Guy Nordenson, and Matthias Schuler have proposed dense new villages built with recycled concrete and served by solar desalination plants.

It is heartening to see prominent designers working with Haitians during this critical time of rebuilding. Many desk-bound architects in New York yearn to do the same, but have had little luck connecting with groups in Port-au-Prince that are in a position to make a difference. Last month, a number of New Yorkers found an opportunity to do just that—and in their modest way showed how small, sustainable efforts can add up to big steps forward not only for Haiti, but for other communities seeking a socially and environmentally equitable future.

The call went out from Building Foundations with Haiti, an organization that is tapping New York’s design community to help rebuild shelter, care, and education facilities around the country. As their first project, the group partnered with Haiti Outreach Ministries, which operates schools, medical clinics, and a microloan program in a nation with precious little by way of social infrastructure.

The team focused on a Port-au-Prince community known as Repatriote, where designers were asked to create a reconstructed church sanctuary along with an elementary school, health clinic, vocational education facilities, and a neighborhood sports field on a site that suffered severe damage in the quake. “This is not just, ‘Let’s do a charrette, and maybe something will happen,’” said Bob O’Brien, chief engineer for Haiti Outreach Ministries. “This is real.”

Over an intense weekend charrette, 15 architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers, and experts in sanitation and solar power from firms large and small forged a sustainable masterplan. The site, stretched across three separate properties, offered an ideal scale to integrate green infrastructure in a place with no public utilities. After studying how flows of wind, water, and waste would travel across and through the campus, the team designed a series of reinforced-concrete buildings oriented to take advantage of prevailing breezes. Basic water- and energy-saving features included rooftop solar cells, rainwater capture, and composting toilets, while flora were selected to integrate as many edible plants as possible.

Beyond providing a sustainable plan for Repatriote, the charrette proved energizing for designers who rarely have opportunities to work so intensively with interdisciplinary colleagues on an integrated sustainable design, given New York City’s existing infrastructure and highly regulated environment.

Building Foundations with Haiti is gearing up to raise funds for the campus construction, and is exploring future projects with a number of nonprofit partners. As more designers from New York and beyond get involved in Haitian efforts—the Institute for Urban Design’s Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti symposium on June 4 is another good place to start—it’s clear that Haiti’s sustainable future is well within reach.

Jeff Byles