Transitional Classrooms Help Haiti Head Back to School

Transitional Classrooms Help Haiti Head Back to School

Architect Jack Ryan designed this temporary school building in Jacmel. (Courtesy Jack Ryan)

More than six months after January’s catastrophic earthquake, Haiti’s need for new infrastructure remains an urgent challenge for the many nonprofit groups seeking to rebuild nearly 300,000 structures across the country. Among them is Plan International, a children’s development organization that has worked in Haiti since 1973. Having mobilized in the wake of the earthquake to build transitional schools, among other reconstruction projects, this summer Plan completed a cluster of six classrooms in Jacmel, in the country’s southeastern region, as the first step toward an ambitious goal of building 80 classrooms throughout Haiti by September.

Anticipating delivery delays, the organization purchased materials before hiring volunteer architect Jack Ryan of Providence, Rhode Island to design the prototype for the schools. Plan decided to work with wood instead of concrete out of concern for both quality control and the project’s short timeframe. Based on these initial parameters, Ryan was asked to complete the design in slightly over a week.

Because the buildings were constructed by local workers who were well-versed in unreinforced concrete construction and less familiar with wood, Ryan designed buildings that consist of two primary components: wall panels and roof trusses, which can be pre-cut in a workshop by a few skilled workers and assembled on-site. “That way we could ensure more quality control in the sense that we only had one or two people making the cuts,” Ryan explained.

The truss system allows for column-free classroom spaces.

The final design joins two transitional classrooms in a module that has been approved by engineers from Haiti’s Ministry of Education. The buildings are sufficiently resistant to inclement weather and seismic forces, requirements that in turn influenced aesthetic considerations. “We wanted an open classroom without columns; therefore we went with a truss structure,” Ryan said. “The trusses are a key component because they create a very strong roof.”

The roofing features a hurricane nailing pattern, which requires three times as many nails as typical roofing applications. Steel straps around the trusses are tied into vertical studs, anchoring the roof into a concrete base with metal anchors.

The team has made slight changes to the prototype’s design and continues to build the schools under the supervision of a local Haitian engineer. Ryan, now back at work in Providence, noted that all of the local workers were enthusiastic, and despite their lack of carpentry experience, quick to learn the trade.

Each module includes two classrooms with a capacity of 50 students each.

Despite the design’s success, the group has struggled to locate sites on which to build. Many public schools collapsed in the earthquake, and their sites remain cluttered with rubble that public agencies have yet to clear. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education, in partnership with OCHA, the United Nations’ coordinating humanitarian agency on the ground, gave Plan a list of hundreds of schools and potential locations to help the nonprofit find land for the project. That list, along with conversations with other NGOs and education partners, has resulted in identification of enough sites on which to build 152 temporary classrooms serving over 7,600 children by the end of the year.

The crew has continued to build toward the project's goal of 80 classrooms by next month.

Still, building temporary structures in Haiti has proved controversial in recent months. Some humanitarian workers have raised concerns that, in light of Haitian politics, transitional buildings can often become permanent. Ryan acknowledged this reality, noting that the design is expected to last well beyond the timeframe for temporary structures, which is typically two to five years.

“The Ministry of Education, which knows the reality of Haiti, stated the structures would more than likely be used as schools for at least ten to twenty years,” he said. “Despite the challenges, being able to see hundreds of students return to school and attain a semblance of normalcy in their disrupted lives has been a worthwhile effort, and one much needed as the long-term reconstruction continues.”