Follow us as we document our philanthropic adventures rebuilding Haiti with Architecture for Humanity.

AFH Haiti turns 1

(Top- Gerry and Stacey behind the bar.  The rest- Dancing on the terrace.)

On April 1st, 2010 (April Fool’s Day) Architecture For Humanity officially began operation in Port au Prince, Haiti.  It is (almost) one year later.  On Saturday, the 26th of March, AFH had their first anniversary party.  Given all of the work that AFH has done in that year, it was certainly time to celebrate.

We invited all of the NGOs in Port au Prince (I guess there’s an email list or something.)  Since the invite only went out a week in advance, and the house is a bit out of the way, not all of them showed up.  We did have a fairly decent crowd though, at around 50 people at the peak. 

Everyone at the house chipped in 1000g, ($25 USD) for drinks and the sound system.  We stocked the big bar in the living room full of alcohol, especially the famous Haitian rhum.  The soundsystem was, in true Haitian style, late in arriving.  What it lacked in punctuality, however, it more than made up for in size.  What we wound up with was four HUGE speakers that were stacked two and two, and each stack was about 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide when set up.  We could have blown the roof off of the place.  (We didn’t.)  Apparently Gerry didn’t know what he ordered! 

With a great audio system and a loaded bar, we had to get some visuals going.  We decided to strap a projector on the top balcony and project images onto the big terrace below, which was the dance floor. It was awesome.

The party was a great success, and a great way to unwind for us all.  The guests had a fun time, too.  At some point Lyndia’s drum and maracas came out and we had a jam session to some Kompa (traditional Haitian music).  I think I even heard some Martelly at some point in the night.  Happy anniversary, AFH!

Meet and Greet

(Above- watching the video on Delmas [del-MAH] 32.)

The last Friday evening of every month AFH hosts a “meet and greet” for local people in the design and construction field and even the general public.  Usually a local architect will give a presentation on a project he or she is working on, and there will be discussion afterwards, preceded and proceded by drinks, food and general socializing and networking. 

Last Friday it was very hot and after sitting through the open office review the last thing I wanted to do was to sit through another presentation. Once the Prestige beer arrived and people started flowing in, however, I changed my mind. 

While enjoying beer, a few finger foods and a platter of sunset colored fruit, we gathered in the conference room for the presentation.  The presenter was a gal from NYU actually who showed a short film that her colleagues put together on their experience with a planning project in Delmas 32, a very dense and poor district of Port au Prince that was hit hard by the earthquake. 

It has been said that it will take years to remove all of the rubble from the streets.  Much of it is gone already though.  People have been very diligent about piling up rubble on the streets, and then removing it.  In places like Delmas which are a real concrete jungle, however, it could take a very long time. 

After the meet and greet, a few of us went out to eat at a nice Italian restaurant called “Fleur De Latte.”  We went there once before and they let us bring in our own wine without a corking fee, but this time they didn’t.  Last time I had a really great lasagna, but this time I ordered a salad which honestly left a lot to be desired.  I don’t think I’ve seen any lettuce other than iceberg here.  Regardless, the ice cream at this place is great.  I ordered chocolate ice cream which came in a real cacao pod. 

Looking around, I saw a lot of white NGOs and a few wealthy Haitians.  Money does exist in this country, and there certainly are places to spend it.  It’s just very tightly concentrated at the top, in these hidden places.  Overall though, Haiti is said to be the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and I believe it.  People live off of very little, and even children are not too proud to beg. 

Just last weekend I went to a little produce stand outside Giant market to get some fruit (A different kind of meet and greet).  First of all, the ladies at the stand started shoving fruit in my face to buy.  “Bananas!”  “Pineapple!” “Papaya!”  They see a blan – that’s Creole for blanc, which is of course French for “white”- and they think I am so rich that I can buy everything.  In the midst of trying to decide what to buy (or which of these gals would be least offended by not buying from them) a little Haitian girl of about 10 approaches me and begs me to give her some food.  She actually grabs my arm and hangs off of it for dear life as she pleads in Creole.  Of course, this did not please the produce market ladies, so they shooed her off with a sharp eye and wave of the hands.  The little girl simply drifted off and found another blan on which she could try her luck.  Confused about what I should be feeling at that moment, I bought 4 bananas and a HUGE avocado.  Unfortunately the bananas you get on the street here are so ripe, they are bad within 2 days…

To see the video from he meet and greet, follow this link:

Client Meeting

It’s time for a project update. After looking at the classroom module buildings and coming up with a lot of ideas about materials and form, we had to spend some time narrowing down our choices to something functional, safe, and still pleasant.  I had a lot of communication with BAR last week about the design.

The client really wants the classrooms to feel light, open and airy, yet still be able to function like a classroom.  They also wanted more area for each classroom than what is typically allotted.  What we came up with is a fairly simple structural frame which encases 2 rectangular classrooms, one corner of each which is open-able with sliding gates for spill-out onto a generous covered porch area that wraps around. Filling in the other corners are a few solid walls and operable louvers/shutters/shades of some sort.  The roof is lifted up of the walls with a high sloping truss, which allows for ventilation of hot air, and the feeling of not being closed in.

I had a meeting with John, Hannah and Peter of Haiti Partners, and Caroline and Dominique, friends of John’s that are directors of an elementary school in Petionville.  We met Friday morning at this school in an office just outside of a playground area filled with jumping, dancing, playing, singing, happy children.  Haitians are so polite and friendly.  Even the young children greeted John and me as we walked by them to the office.  People are always saying hi as you drive by them on the road.

It was very nice to meet with people who are so enthusiastic about the school.  They all liked the development of the design very much, and really saw its potential.  I essentially got the “green light” to move forward with this design, and a couple of minor site plan revisions.  My immediate marching orders were to get ready for a community presentation on Sunday (yesterday).


(Above- my cozy little top bunk bed, before I moved in)

The room in which I sleep at the AFH house used to be some sort of entertaining room.  It is large and L shaped with a bar and projector screen- neither of which are used.  There is wood paneling all around.  There are about 10 beds in there, several of which are wiggly bunk beds.  

Upon arriving I chose a top bunk in the corner, because it is close to 2 windows, so from the bed I can look out to the yard on one side, and off to the mountains in the east on the other.  The windows go lower than the bed and they are always open, so I really feel connected to the outside.  As long as my mosquito net is properly hung, I am protected.  The soft breeze feels really nice too.

I brought with me some really good earplugs just in case, but the first night I decided to try sleeping without them.  I was lulled to sleep with a symphony of crickets, frogs, dogs in the distance, cars rumbling up and down the street down the hill, sometimes honking, roosters hollering constantly, and the occasional gun shot.  Needless to say I woke up a couple of times.

I decided that it wasn’t that bad, and that I should try it again.  Well, each night became easier to sleep and now I sleep the whole night through. The roosters really crack me up. 

Last night was an exception however. In the middle of the night I heard a gunshot- really close.  Then another, and another, and another.  When they kept going I got so startled that I jumped out of the bed (the top bunk) and flew to the floor.  The breeze is nice but it’s easy to feel a little too exposed when guns are firing!  This morning at breakfast, Simone and Jeremy both asked me if they were dreaming or if I really did jump out of my bed last night.  I said that It’s my survival instinct!

The nice thing though, which is really why I stay in this bed, is being welcomed into the new day with the gentle rays of sunlight caressing my face as the burning red sun crawls its way over the mountains way off in the east.  Sometimes I wake up just before the sun comes up, and the mountain ridge is lined with brilliant gold light, and the sky is deep red.  What a way to start the day!  I know it’s time to get up when the sun is halfway between the mountain ridge and the window head in my room.

(Above- the view from my bed, about 6am.  It’s usually early to bed and early to rise around here…)

Madame vs. Mickey

(Above- not my photo.  Martelly and Manigat posters)

Just when I was going to catch up on blogs last night the internet was down at the house….

Last Sunday the 20th was Election Day in Haiti.  FINAL Election Day.  The Primary Presidential election was in November, and the top two candidates proceeded to the runoff election on Sunday.  The two candidates for president were former Haitian First Lady Mirlande Manigat, and former singer/entertainer Michel Martelly. 

Manigat is a law professor who’s stint in the palace was brief when her husband was president since he was ousted by the military after 4 only months.  Martelly boasts his ability to relate to the masses, being 20 years younger than Manigat.  He became known for his flamboyant shows with costumes and wigs and -some say- dropping trousers onstage.

Both candidates had similar campaign platforms which include reform to the poverty stricken country through improvements to education, and the re-installation of an army. 

In terms of campaigning, posters have been plastered everywhere of both candidates, and a few posters for candidates that did not make it to the runoff still remain.  The dominating image, however, is a bright pink poster with a smiling bald Martelly, or “Sweet Mickey” as he is known to the people here from his days as an entertainer.  Martelly has even been aggressive in the digital realm, sending text messages and voicemails to… probably everyone with a phone.  When I was out to dinner with Stacey, Darrin, Rick and Teresa after work on Friday, they were all getting calls and texts.  None of them signed up for upd

Location, Location, Location

Thursday was an exciting day for me.  I finally got to meet the client for our project, John.  He is one of the founders of Haiti Partners who is having the school built. John is a great guy and is very excited for this project.  He picked me up in the office shortly after 9am, and we drove up to the project site.  It took about 25-30 minutes to get there, even though it’s not that far away- it’s just up, up, up some very rugged roads in what feels like a very rural area.  Joining us was an architect friend of John’s who happened to be in Haiti with a traveling group, and the director of one of the nearby National (public) schools.

As we arrived, we were quickly swarmed with locals who were eager to see us.  Everyone knows John and that he is having a school built on the site.  They like him a lot, and since the nearest school is overcrowded and a LONG walk away, they are looking forward to the CHildre’s academy.  I can see why they like him so much because he gave them a new soccer ball and an air pump!  Several of the younger kids were fascinated with my camera.  I let them play with it and we all took a few pictures of each other. 

The site can be described in one word.  Breathtaking.  As you know it’s at the top of this hill overlooking the city of Port Au Prince.  There are several trees scattered about, including one huge tree (about a 70 foot diameter canopy!) which will be the centerpiece of the play yard.  There are higher hills to the east, south and west but not high enough to block the sun.  Natural daylighting will not be a problem in the school!

As I walked the grounds, I had to keep aware of where I placed my foot, because several of the locals are using parts of the land as a garden.  There were rows of little hot pepper plants scattered about.  Have no worries, by the time we start construction this summer the current crop will be finished, and  part of the master plan for the school includes generous garden space. 

I collected some limestone rocks and other stones from the site for our collection at BAR back in SF.  One idea that we have floating about is to use the mud and stone from the site to build some of the walls for the school.  It’s all about the buildings being OF the site, not ON the site. 

One woman tried asking me a question, and I felt so bad that I couldn’t understand her.  All I could say was, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” John wasn’t around at that moment to help out either.   Apparently her question couldn’t have been asked by pointing or hand movements, because when my sad face and palms facing up told her that I couldn’t speak Haitian Creole, she gave up.  Its times like these I wish I knew the language. 

After I got back to the office I used the time to do some more drawing and prepping for another meeting with John, to open the discussion about the design of the individual buildings…

The bull is grazing about where the 1st grade classroom will be.

Future students of the Children’s Academy

the marketplace

(Top- The Iron Market.  Bottom- Artist about to make something beautiful from the 50 gallon steel drum lid)

Sorry, the body of this post didnt show up when I posted..  fixed now.

Happy (Belated)St. Patrick’s Day everyone.  I realized this morning that I didn’t pack anything green with me.  Oh well.

I’ll update you on what happened last Sunday.  Somehow Sunday slipped through the cracks. 

Sunday morning we relaxed and lazed about the house- it’s the only day we can sleep in, not that anyone really did.  Around noon, several of us decided to head out to the Metal Market, a little neighborhood out past the airport full of metalwork artists that have their own shops along a couple of dirt roads.  I must say that I was very impressed with the quality of work here.  One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Haiti was the dozens of street vendors selling finely crafted goods.  It looks like there is a lot of creativity and talent in this country.  If only a proper infrastructure was able to be developed, they could harness this energy and use it to propel their economy.  These metal artists are a testament to that.

Most of the art in this neighborhood is derived from 50 gallon containers, what the Jamaicans use to make steel drums.  They make intricate wall art of all shapes and sizes, bowls, cups, jewelry, candle holders, and the like.  Most of the art revolves around sun, trees, animals, fruits… typical Haitian motifs. There were also lots of pieces that had a voodoo theme.  Stacey helped point out certain elements in the art that are of voodoo nature.  Apparently voodoo isn’t all about the demons and devils and ghosties that we make it out to be.  I really should read more about it.  Anyway,  most of the group bougfht something that they liked- I bought this nifty bowl, good for fruits or the like, that is made of strips of metal made to look like seaweed or some other foliage bent up into a bowl shape.  I only paid $11 USD for it. 

After the metal market, we went across town (a few of us riding in the back of the pickup truck) to the Iron Market. This place is similar but different in that it’s all in one big building.  It’s a place for artists and vendors can display their goods and sell them.  The structure is new, and was actually imported from France.  Apparently this building was supposed to be a train station in Cairo, Egypt, but the Egyptians didn’t want it so it wound up here.  It’s a nice big pavilion building with hundreds of stalls for vendors.  This place is also located in a part of town that was very devastated by the earthquake.  It just looks ruinous.  The Iron Market stands out like a jewel amidst rubble….

When we pulled up, the building was gated shut.  When it was noticed that a truck full of white folks came by looking through the fence, the gate was opened and we were let in.  They knew we would spend money.  There were only a few vendors there actually manning their stalls. I wound up buying a neat abstract painting of boats on the water.  I know the vendor from which I bought it didn’t paint it, because this and other paintings are seen all over in several variations.  It’s a real painting on canvas though, and its signed. 

At both markets, the vedors/artists were VERY eager to get us to look at their goods.  They do all but grab you by the shirtsleeves and drag you over to their booth!  Especially at the Iron Market, they will start the negotiation process even before you say that you want it.  Good thing is that they are willing to negotiate.  As a buyer, you just have to be as firm as they are.  I wound up paying $15 for this painting that was first quoted at $45!

I know, I know, this blog is supposed to be about Haiti.

But, it is impossible to ignore what is going on in Japan right now, especially since our partner in the Haiti reconstruction is on the forefront of reconstruction and aid in Japan.  Architecture for Humanity released a statement and plan for helping the Sendai earthquake/tsunami cause. Click on the links below to see what they have to say, learn how you can help, and to follow progress for aid and reconstruction:

In addition, Heath Ceramics (a favorite among architects and designers alike) will donate 25% of all online sales to Architecture for Humanity’s efforts in Japan, now through March 24, 2011.


shovel or bulldozer?

It’s now Tuesday evening, and I feel like the days are flying by.  I’m only here for 21 days total, and 4 are gone already.  Funny, though, that even in 4 days, I feel like I really know this place.  There is still so much more to learn however.

 I spent yesterday and today in the office drawing.  I need to try to get through schematics by the time I leave, and there are about 8 buildings on the project site, in phase 1 alone.  Good thing is that we are trying to standardize the architectural language as much as possible for all buildings.  This accomplishes a few things:  Having all buildings look similar makes them easier to draw, and easier to detail when we get to CDs; keeping the number of materials down makes construction easier; and having a consistent language makes the project feel like a cohesive whole.  

I have my first meeting with the client on Thursday, so tomorrow I will meet with Rick, the structural engineer with AFH to get some preliminary sizing on the structural alternatives I drew.  Then, hopefully I can run this by Yves, the construction manager who works in the building to get a quick cost comparison to present to the client.  Of course the design is not set yet, but knowing approximately how much more steel or heavy timber costs over CMU or concrete will be helpful in the long run. 

I have also been working on a couple of site sections to understand how the buildings sit on the site, and how much digging and grading will have to be done.  I’m afraid there may be a lot.  The plus side is that on one side of the hill, we have a 2 story building that sits behind a 1 story structure. The site is steep enough that the bottom floor of the 2 story building might be able to look out over the roof of the 1 story building in front of it!  Bulldozers are not very common here, but I heard a rumor that we may get one for this project.  Labor is so cheap here that about 200-300 men for a day costs about the same as a bulldozer for a day.  The question is, can shovels dig this site?

Haiti Wheelie

After returning to the house and having dinner Saturday night, Lyndia (from AFH) decided she wanted to go downtown to see some motorcycle event.  I, always up for an adventure, went with her.  There was one small street in a commercial area that had a big banner draped across it that said “Haiti Wheelie.”  There were probably a couple hundred people crowding around the sidewalks and spilling into the street to watch some folks with motorcycles and 4 wheel ATV vehicles pop wheelies while they drive up this sloped block.  The show was nothing death-defying, but it was a lot of fun to be in a big happy crowd just there to be entertained.  Some of the wheelies were done with one hand, one foot, or leaning to one side.  The crowd cheered everyone on.  It was also humorous to see some of the motorcycle riders have a hard time trying to mimic the style of the more talented riders…  At some point everyone crowded in the middle of the street and the MC (up on a balcony of an overlooking building) announced a dance contest. No I did NOT enter.  Lyndia and I just watched from the crowd.  It was a lot of fun; there was a tremendous amount of energy and excitement! There were two girls that dominated the contest and they had a dance off.  Everyone went crazy when they really got down.  The winner received this little hand-held radio!  I guess she can practice her dancing all the time now!

Unfortunately I dont have any pictures from this…