Rebuilding Haiti: Houses for Haiti's homeless


Village Renaissance, built by the Aristide government in 2003, notwithstanding U.S./Canada aid embargo, photo Roger Annis

By RENÉ BRUEMMER, The Gazette (Montreal) July 9, 2011

Quebec tent designer Maurice Monette thinks he has the solution to Haiti’s housing crisis in his prototype home of foam and aluminum dubbed The Human. The 64-year-old grandfather makes a good living renting tents and selling swimming pool covers, yet he’s chosen to invest $270,000 of his own money, taking out a second mortgage on his beautiful but modest home on the shores of the Milles Îles River in Rosemere, to create a house he says will bring dignity to Haitians.

Monette is a man of passion. Last fall, during a particularly memorable press conference, he tossed a 30-kilogram cinder block (the building material commonly used by Haitian builders) onto the stage to exhibit its bone-crushing capability. He teared up while describing the living conditions of Angolan refugees for whom he had supplied homes, some of whom had lived in tents for 20 years.

“Our time on this world is short,” Monette said in a recent interview. “I want to bring houses to the people.”

Monette’s Human is an engineering marvel of steel-sheathed foam panels and spring-fitted bolts that can bounce, shift and adapt like a living being in an earthquake or hurricane.

But a visit to Haiti’s Building Back Better Communities exposition in an arid field north of Port-au-Prince, meant to attract the world’s best low-cost, earthquake-proof housing designs, reveals the competition is intense. Monette has his work cut out for him if he is to win a contract with the Haitian government that will allow him to bring his houses to the people, recoup his investment and keep his own home.

Web link feature: Take a closer look at the earthquake-proof model homes for Haiti here

On a baking hot morning in mid-June, there’s an air of last-minute panic at the Haitian exposition site – former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Haiti’s newly-elected president Michel Martelly are coming the next day, so developers from Haiti, the United States, Canada and Europe have been flocking in to put finishing touches on their homes. Or in many cases, actually build the homes. Haitian workers are screwing together steel-frame skeletons, plastering cement onto hastily constructed structures with Styrofoam walls and hammering down roof shingles in the 34C heat.

A lucky few will be selected to construct homes for the hundreds of thousands of Haitians left homeless by the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.

Eighteen months after the earthquake, roughly 700,000 people are still living in tent camps, some with populations of 50,000 or more. Many who could no longer bear the camps have returned to homes with walls that are cracked or listing ominously.

The Haitian government hired British architecture firm Malcolm Reading Consultants to organize an international design competition that would bring out a variety of innovative, low-cost, permanent housing ideas. The homes have to be able to resist earthquakes and hurricane-force winds in excess of 200 kilometres an hour. They should be breezy and cool in the Caribbean heat, be able to store rainwater and use solar power, because it could be years before they’re hooked up to water, sewage or electricity networks. Developers have to create jobs locally and develop skills, and, ideally, use materials found in Haiti. They were encouraged to partner with Haitian firms, and are responsible for all costs, including materials, shipping and taxes. At the end of the exposition, they will have to donate their model home to Haiti.

More than 360 entries were submitted, which organizers say made it one of the most successful international competitions of its kind. Of those, roughly 70 were chosen to exhibit, two of them from Canada, including Monette. By mid-June, about 60 were on site, preparing for the official inauguration that was supposed to occur July 1, but which, like much in Haiti, has been delayed. (It’s now set for July 21.) Monette’s was not among those on site. His aluminum supplier had trouble with the order, putting him weeks behind schedule. He hopes to have his home up by the end of July which means he will miss the official opening to be attended by Clinton and Martelly. Monette said it’s not a major setback because the exposition is running into August. When it’s over, families will live in the houses for several months to rate their livability.

With a few somewhat off-the-wall examples (a hexagonal house from Puerto Rico is perched several feet in the air on a central pole like a massive birdhouse; a squat square from Arkansas built entirely of plastic resembles a Lego set), most of the homes are constructed in one of two basic designs:

Perhaps about 10 per cent of the total are built by Haitian contractors in the local style of cinder block or concrete walls reinforced with steel bars. Most of the rest were foreign-built designs, mainly from the U.S. and Europe, similar to Monette’s: The frames are made of wood or light-gauge steel posts and beams, and the wall panels are made of high-density polystyrene (commonly referred to here as Styrofoam), which is light and provides good insulation. The walls are covered in plaster or cement, either with a spray gun or by hand, and can be painted. Although developers promised they could withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, the flimsiness of some structures put that claim into doubt.

The majority of builders interviewed seemed, like Monette, genuinely devoted to creating sustainable, dignified housing for Haitians while making an honest profit. (Builders said profit margins would likely be about 15 to 20 per cent of the total cost.)

“I think most of us have an admiration and love for the Haitian people who need help,” said William G. Hancock, a former U.S. lawyer who is now CEO of Ready Corporation. His company builds houses using wall panels constructed of compressed wheat or rice straw- a material readily available in Haiti. (“I don’t see what’s ‘sustainable’ about using petroleum-based foam products, or concrete, which requires an incredible amount of energy to produce,” he said, in reference to most of his competitors.)

There were also some, however, with the air of “trauma vultures.” Like the developer with a yellow sweatbox with tiny windows built with Chinese components who told me he got into the industry because “frankly, the economy in Las Vegas stinks right now.” (During Clinton and Martelly’s tour, Haitian protesters singled out his house for criticism, calling it a “Chinese-made pigeon coop.”)

Many houses, however, were indistinguishable from standard North American models, with solid walls, electrical outlets, steel doors and dual-pane windows.

The design presented by New-York based Veerhuis-Voda, using a model invented in Holland, was typical of the better-looking homes, with polystyrene walls a foot thick and a good cross-breeze from the large windows dropping the temperature indoors. The steel frames and walls of the two-bedroom house were erected on a cement slab by a half a dozen workers in four days and residents could move in within a week once the plaster was applied, managing director Channa Perera of New York City said. The house has a 1,000-litre water tank and a $1,500 solar panel system strong enough to power lights, radio and a television for four to six hours. It’s guaranteed for 70 years, and has been tested for high winds and seismic resistance.

The 620-square-foot house (about the same size as a one-bedroom condo in Montreal) would sell for about $20,000 Perera said. If they win a contract, Veerhuis-Voda would build a factory in Haiti to make the materials locally to build 6,000 houses annually and avoid shipping costs and delays at Haiti’s bureaucratic and often corrupt customs. (Almost all exhibitors suffered waits of weeks or months at customs, despite the fact they were shipping to a government-run exposition.)

At the other end of the spectrum from the pre-fabricated foam style was a home built by the Haitian firm Gaudi Architecture. Constructed of cinder block walls reinforced with concrete and rebar, the home features a walled-in courtyard, incorporating the Haitian fondness for the outdoors and desire for security. It’s an airy home with a sloped tin roof providing cross-ventilation and three bedrooms, covering roughly 700 square feet indoors. Building it would take 30 days and employ 30 men, at cost of $27,000, architect Leslie Boulos said. All materials save some tin and steel would come from Haiti.

“I want something that will work in the culture of my country,” he said. “I don’t like foreigners bringing ideas that are not right for my country.” Haitians who viewed the house loved it. Boulos calls his development “The Dignity Project” – bringing jobs and proper homes to his people, as opposed to the squat, 200-square-foot transitional homes rapidly erected in some neighbourhoods often referred to as “doghouses.”

“Even if you’re poor, you can have a space to live a dignified life.”

But Boulos could make at most 200 houses in eight months. At that rate, it would take a company like his 500 years to fill Haiti’s needs.

Time lies at the crux of the shelter issue. While ideally it would be Haitians doing the rebuilding and providing the materials, the country lacks the resources to fulfill its enormous needs. Foreign companies and their prefabricated designs of foam and steel with factories that churn out 50 houses a day can fill the need quickly, but since the main components are polystyrene, a petroleum-based product, and steel, little of the material would come from Haiti, and few jobs would be created.

“I don’t think there’s any one answer,” said Haitian engineer Alexandre Byron-Exarcos, representing the SIF construction consortium. “I see good and bad in all of the houses here at the exposition.” Aid organizations support a multi-pronged approach of returning people to apartments, erecting some transitional housing, and creating permanent housing.

But with nearly three-quarters of a million people still living in tents, Martelly is under tremendous pressure to house the homeless quickly, especially since he repeated that promise regularly in his presidential campaign. The reasons for the delay in creating housing are numerous, but the main cause is land tenure: Most of the homeless were uninsured renters whose apartment blocks are now rubble, and whose owners don’t have the funds to remove the debris and rebuild. Many who did have land lack registered land titles, so ownerships can’t be proved, or they were squatters, sometimes for years, and never had title. Land supplies are tight, and there is little space to build in the city where the jobs are.

To solve that, Martelly wants to build villages on the outskirts, complete with their own economic engines of markets and services and factories. But he has been criticized for creating ghettos just for the sake of looking like something is being done.

(At the same time, the housing exposition is surrounded by a housing development called Village Renaissance with 2,000 residents. It is bright, tree-filled and popular with renters there, proof that outlying communities can work, although it must be noted Renaissance is only five kilometres from Port-au-Prince).

Although building a house in a week that will last 100 years for $20,000 would seem miraculous in North America, it begs the question how the average Haitian, making $2 a day, could ever afford one. Developers responded that there was a significant Haitian middle class that was seeking such homes, and some said they were working with the government to create mortgage plans (inaccessible to the majority of Haitians). Many are hoping the billions in aid money pledged will be used.

Some houses were less expensive – between $10,000 and $15,000, but they tended to be small, hot and dark, more transitional than permanent. Building a house, even in Haiti, is not cheap – even the, 220-square-foot transitional homes made of plywood and two-by-fours built by the Canadian Red Cross cost $4,000, since most materials have to be shipped in. A good-size, three-bedroom middle-class home in Port-au-Prince runs in the $80,000 and up range.

Compared to the other homes, Monette’s Human is among the best-engineered, which could spell its downfall. With expensive aluminum posts, and steel-covered foam panels that can slide up and down in the event of an earthquake, along with add-ons like a compostable toilet and water treatment facilities, a 400-square-foot model of the Human would cost $43,000, more than double many of the larger homes on display.

Monette is undeterred. A high-school dropout who got into sales to see the world, he built his way up to supplying tents the size of soccer fields for lawyers’ conferences and the weddings of families with names like Desmarais and Saputo. He built an insulated tent to house a skating rink in Cairo – proof, his friends say, he can sell anything. Years ago he supplied 6,000 specially designed tents for Angolan refugees. As with many of the other developers, Monette is hoping to win private contracts to build his houses, even if he doesn’t get a large government deal. By bringing his house to Haiti, he can introduce new design techniques that could help, he said. His company has three employees, but he has 13 different suppliers with a total of 40,000 employees, and their experience, backing him up.

Now he is in talks with the Haitian government and the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, of which Clinton is the co-chair, to build entire villages for 30,000 people complete with industrial parks, schools, hospitals and abattoirs where farmers can kill and refrigerate their livestock. If his plan is accepted (he’s got approval from three mayors to create the villages in their jurisdictions, but has yet to specify how these villages would be paid for), the villages could be worth $200 million each, he said.

In his backyard in Rosemere sits a small boulder he took from the opening ceremony of the monstrous Manic-5 dam north of Baie Comeau, for which he supplied the tent. The cheap electricity we use comes thanks to the dreams of individuals like René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa who dared to stick their necks out, he said. Humans with a vision, and some drive.

“After the wheel is started, we can bring houses to the people,” he said. “Once the wheel gets going, someone else can drive the bicycle.”
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