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In Haiti, laws of physics meet a culture of magic

Post-earthquake construction in Haiti must address the dichotomy of American efficiency versus Haitian tradition.

By Paul E. FallonContributor / February 6, 2013

A worker carries a load during construction at the BeLikeBrit Orphanage and Mission of Hope School in Grand Goave, Haiti, near the 2010 earthquake’s epicenter. The project merged American engineering with local Haitian capability.

Paul E. Fallon

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[Editor's note: Paul E. Fallon is a Boston-area architect who has made 17 trips to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake to design and supervise construction of a school and orphanage. He blogs at www.theawkwardpose.com and is publishing a book of essays about his experience.]

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Creating earthquake-resistant buildings demands sound engineering and careful construction, but in Haiti construction is enlivened by a culture that requires everyone reach d’accord before placing the first shovel, equating noise with effort, and embracing magic more easily than physics.

Since 2010 I have designed and supervised construction of the BeLikeBrit Orphanage and Mission of Hope School in Grand Goave, near the earthquake’s epicenter. Both buildings opened in January; two small contributions to Haiti’s reconstruction. Building in Haiti illustrates many cultural differences, provides perspective on why so many reconstruction efforts fail, and highlights Haiti’s charms.

Post-earthquake construction in Haiti must address the dichotomy of efficiency versus tradition.

Earthquake-resistant structures are typically built of wood or steel, materials that flex when the earth trembles. Many new buildings in Haiti adopt this approach as erection is quick, but these materials must be imported, and few Haitians possess the requisite construction skills.

We chose traditional concrete construction, engineered with integrated reinforcing, in order to boost employment and provide local tradesmen the opportunity to use familiar materials in an earthquake-resistant manner.

I am accustomed to locating a building using surveys and geometry. Instead, we established property lines through negotiation with neighbors, and laborers set string at eyeballed right angles to establish the building’s corner. They were incredulous when I doubted their accuracy and insisted we measure the floor plan’s full diagonals. It took half a day for Pythagoras and Haitians to agree.

Although shoddy construction elevated the earthquake’s death toll, local building is dominated by bosses as recalcitrant to change as people in power everywhere, reinforced by a predisposition to attribute the earthquake to angry gods rather than shifting plates. Though we demonstrated how to lay out reinforcing bars, overlaps, bends, and ties, and fabricated templates to guarantee spacing, the bosses bucked until we singled out workers receptive to accuracy and alignment, praised them, and gave them bonuses. Eventually the bosses realized this new mode of construction was not going away, and understand it or not, they followed.

Concrete is the construction material of choice in Haiti because aggregate is readily available, but I also believe it is popular because it satisfies the Haitian dictum that work requires "banging.” Haitians are remarkably strong, work site camaraderie is deep, and displays of physical prowess abundant. This justifies an intentional lack of craftsmanship that I came to appreciate.

Concrete buildings are essentially built twice. Wood forms are erected inverse of the final shape, then reinforcing steel and concrete are placed. Once the concrete hardens, the forms are removed.

There is nothing praiseworthy in the carpenter who cuts formwork with such precision that it slides into place, but if the plywood is too long and the carpenter can poise a mallet over his head, swing a giant arc and force it into submission, that is work. Similarly, if the plywood is cut short, the carpenter has the gratuitous opportunity to bang shims into the gap.

Setting steel into forms provides additional opportunities for banging. Time and again, benignly stubborn Haitians force fit oversized steel into undersized forms. Whenever I identified locations of insufficient clearance, the workers argued my claim from a "no-lose" position. If I capitulated, they triumphed; if I prevailed; they got to bang some more.

A rule of thumb in the United States posits that labor represents two-thirds the cost of construction; materials one-third. In developing countries these figures are often reversed.

In Haiti, they are reversed, then doubled. Even with many materials donated from the United States, labor still amounted to less than 15 percent of our total cost; $6.50 a day buys a lot of muscle in a land of few machines and expensive materials.

Due to this inequity, unfathomable construction techniques make sense here. Every site has a guy who sits on a pile of boulders and chips them into aggregate. Workers spent 1,250 hours hand carrying 2,500 pieces of rebar, 40 feet long, up the orphanage’s dirt road because delivery trucks could not maneuver the climb. Concrete crews had 80 men.

We mixed concrete in troughs where guys in hip boots shoveled it to bucket brigades that stretched up stairs and across suspended reinforcing. Initially we poured 20 cubic yards a day. When we built temporary ramps and introduced wheelbarrows, productivity more than doubled. Larger pours required multiple crews working continuously.

We reached the limit of hand-poured concrete when 240 men placed 160 cubic yards in 39 hours straight.

Although we envisioned our construction as establishing new standards, our buildings have not become prototypes. They contain more than 10 times the reinforcing found in a typical house, and even with the knowledge that rebar saves lives, people install inadequate steel.

Reinforcing is the most expensive component of concrete construction; with no codes to ensure quality, and hungry mouths pressing all around, the desire to reconstruct better is eclipsed by poverty.

Instead, we have set a new standard of Haitian capability. Visitors marvel at the structural integrity and high-quality finishes. Though 66 orphans and 500 school children represent a tiny fraction of those who deserve protection from the next quake, I have learned that prototype solutions are inappropriate for Haiti.

Haitians are the most independent people on earth. When they gained their freedom, and the rest of the world shunned them, they created a unique, insular society. True, the society is backward, corrupt, and poor when measured by any developed standards. True, Haitians would like to improve their condition. But they will not condescend to conditions imposed by others, or improvements that reflect someone else’s understanding of their needs.

Even though it took more time, and probably more money, to build these buildings as hybrid efforts of American engineering and Haitian capability, I believe we followed the right course.

The buildings are safe and durable yet undeniably Haitian. They represent a successful mingling of physics and magic; a combination that can help Haiti become more stable while retaining its unique place in our world.

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