Haiti Quake: A Plan for Reconstruction

If we build homes the same way they have been built before, we are just setting people up for this again. We can force better building codes by building examples of what the future will look like.
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For those not used to working in disasters the first week is chaotic, filled with stories of heroism and despair. The first responders are not the NGO's or medical personal but the families of those who are injured or lost their lives. It is an overwhelming situation to be in. It is also not the time for architects to show up thinking they can rebuild. People are trying to find their loved ones not think about what their lives will look like in 5, 10 or 15 years.

Trying to keep perspective is extremely hard. We've personally lost colleagues, friends and extremely valuable people in the last few days. On Thursday, one phone call ended with 'they are all gone.' For those of us who are part of the reconstruction effort, we need to think about immediate needs for shelter while planning for the next three to five years of rebuilding.

When we are rebuilding, do not let the media set the time line and expectations for reconstruction. I remember vividly well known news personalities standing on the rubble of homes in the lower ninth proclaiming that 'this time next year we will see families back home.' Some well meaning NGOs, who usually have little building experience, are even worse -- 'we'll have 25,000 Haitians back home if you donate today.' In reality, here is what it really looks like;

  • Pre-Planning Assessments and Damage Analysis (underway, will run for a year)
  • Establish Community Resource Center and Reconstruction Studio (Week 6 to Month 3)
  • Sorting Out Land Tenure and Building Ownership (Month 6 to Year 5)
  • Transitional Shelters, Health Clinics and Community Structures (Month 6 to Year 2)
  • Schools, Hospitals and Civic Structures (Month 9 to Year 3)
  • Permanent Housing (Year 1 to Year 5)
As for a long term plan, our team is growing day by day and thanks to hundreds of individual donations we now have the resources to start enacting a long term reconstruction initiative. The details are being fleshed out, but as here is our plan (so far):

1. Community Based Anchors
We will set up Community Resource Centers to supply architecture and building services to community groups, NGOs and social entrepreneurs on the ground. This is not an 'exclusive' center, it is open and collaborative. We've already talked with a dozen local and international organizations to create the Haiti Rebuilding Coalition. This team will be housed in each of these centers. See below for the value of these facilities. Want to start another? Donate here.

2. Distribute lessons learned
Translate and distribute a Rebuilding 101 Manual that we originally developed after Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami. If you just read aid agency websites you'd think they never got it wrong. In eastern Sri Lanka I sat with representatives from nine other NGO's and we discovered in our 'no BS sessions' we had made the same $500 mistake. Collectively, that is a transitional school for 120 kids. Don't get me started on New Orleans. If we only share 'best practices' we never really adapt and learn. The handbook of 'what not to do' is far more valuable. P.S. Read The Man Who Tried To Save The World on the work of Fred Cuny, the original NGO whistle-blower.

3. Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual
Adapt, translate and distribute an Earthquake Resistant Housing Manual for local NGOs and community groups. A coalition of partners will work on this, including Haiti-based AIDG, Build Change, Engineers Without Borders and other engineering partners. We developed one after the Kashmir Earthquake a few years ago. This time we need to put them on every NGO workers' Kindle.

4. Provide Building Expertise
Provide teams of architectural and construction professionals to develop and build community facilities, including schools and medical centers. These teams will be local and regional with some international support. The full time staff must also have a unique knowledge of disaster mitigation and long term sustainable development. Also, the team is very site specific. In one of our programs we had an elephant migration expert to help locate buildings so as to not disturb the flow of animals. If you are a building expert, sign up here

5. Build A Construction Workforce.
Train and educate incoming volunteers and community members in building safely, emphasizing the need for sustainable materials and construction techniques. It is not about just building homes, but jobs.

6. Disaster Preparedness.
Hurricane Season! It is primed to devastate Haiti once again. The time line is such that if a hurricane hits Haiti head on, the loss of life will be severe and every temporary housing camp will be wiped out. Last year we had developed a youth sports facility and hurricane resistant disaster recovery center for Port au Prince. We will complete that project and look to implement other centers.

7. Build Schools
We will design, develop and implement community and civic structures for various locally-based community partners. This will include reconstruction and building educational facilities given the particular loss in structures and our expertise in school construction. Beyond the basic human right to give children access to eduction, if they don't have a place to go, parents can't work and there is no economic stability. Schools are the focal point in community recovery. We've talked with elementary and high schools all over the United States to adopt the rebuilding of schools in Haiti.

8. Implement Digital Acupuncture.
Working with groups like Inveneo, Samasource, AIDG and the 50x15 Foundation, we can incorporate ICT into all of the community facilities. Bridging the digital divide, we can give the aid agencies the technology they need to expedite the recovery process but also upgrade the digital infrastructure of Haiti in the long term.

9. Safe, Secure and Sustainable Housing.
Haitians are not going want to hear ideas; they need shelter. It is our job to build homes that are not only safe but incorporate the needs, desires and dreams of the families that will live in them. Additionally, like after Katrina, we are not just building a roof over someone's head -- we are building equity. To many, their home is their safety net. They don't have 401Ks or investment accounts. If we build homes the same way they have been built before, we are just setting people up for this again. We can force better building codes by building examples of what the future will look like. Again, this will be a coalition of building partners.

10. Support Social Entrepreneurs and Job Creation
Like in many of our other post disaster programs, we will reach out and work with women's empowerment groups and artisans (like Lulan Artisans) to help rebuild their facilities, speeding up job creation and the ability to distribute micro-loans (aka Kiva, etc.).

11. Open Source and Share Everything
If your focus is social change and not financial gain, it is only innovative if it is shared. We were fortunate enough to win the TED Prize in 2006, and from that we built the Open Architecture Network. All of the works we produce are shared openly, under Creative Commons license, and distributed through the network. In the two years we've run it, hundreds of other organizations and individuals have uploaded humanitarian design solutions.

By connecting with other NGOs and open sourcing construction documents, we can influence many building programs in the region. We can leave a legacy of innovative, locally appropriate solutions to protect from future disasters.

Ironicall,y we offered this entire system for free to the Obama administration for open sourcing all government infrastructure and making programs more transparent. If anyone in the administration is reading this, the offer is still on the table. I would personally love to see what was done with my Red Cross donation and our tax dollars.

Community Resource Centers

As we have reviewed the damage we've assessed the greatest impact is to open community recovery centers -- much like the ones we help develop after Hurricane Katrina. The Katrina studios, supported by local partners, a myriad of NGO's and staffed with building professionals, were integral in the housing of hundreds of families in Mississippi and Louisiana. If there is to be a community-focused long term reconstruction initiative for Haiti, we need to do the same.

Three reasons this is important:

1) Aid organizations, especially local groups, will know where they can go to get professional design and construction services. We can serve not one organization doing one project, but many. When we get it setup, they know they can walk in any day, at any time, to get professional help. This will prevent a lot of shoddy construction. We can host training sessions in job site safety and in basic building. We can make sure that these volunteers really do have the skills and knowledge they need to build safely in a seismic and hurricane zone. We can engage local officials and coordinate the services we and they provide better.

2) Volunteer professionals who want to come down for a week or a month or just a few days will have a place to check in and be helpful doing damage assessments, making housing plans, etc. Architects and engineers partnering with NGOs will have a local place where they can touch down and understand the local building codes and conditions. They can design remotely and know that someone will be shepherding the project on the ground and assisting as they need it. At the same time, the services will have some continuity and the community will have a place they know they can come for design and construction help.

4) We've already funded the first center independently, through online donations and support from our existing donors. We can run and manage specific building projects through the center with our design studio staff sharing resources and best practices. We can also vet contractors and train community members to be a part of the rebuilding process -- making sure clients' funds are directly benefiting the community, not only with an innovative structure but with job creation.

Our Katrina centers were filmed as part of the Iconoclast show I did with Cameron Diaz. Check it our on You Tube or the Sundance Channel.


There is no 'ownership' in rebuilding lives. It sickens me when I hear agencies say their processes are proprietary. If you like what we are doing either support us or steal this plan. We need dozens of tug boat NGO's working together to build back Haiti better. Let's not waste donor dollars on working in silos. Haiti has suffered enough.

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