Taking the First Steps Toward Progress

The Haitian elections of last November are finally over and the recently-installed government led by Michel Martelly seems to have brought a new energy and air of hope to Haiti. Instead of just sparse pockets of reconstruction activity, demolition, rubble removal and, increasingly, widespread building construction have become common sights around the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Haiti remains a nation in great need, but progress is being made.

One important group taking steps to recreate itself and aid in the revitalizing effort is the College National des Ingenieurs et Architectes Haitiens (CNIAH), the Haitian counterpart to the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Created in the 1930s and sanctioned in 1974 to help regulate the design industry in Haiti, the CNIAH had at one time been a well-organized and solid platform for Haiti's design professionals, but eventually went dormant due to political turmoil and economic difficulties. June of last year proved to be a turning point for the CNIAH when 80 Haitian engineers/architects attended a free, two-week seminar on paraseismic design taught by Professor Patrick Paultre of the University of Sherbrooke, Quebec. As a result of the gathering and seminar, the attendees regrouped to begin the resurrection of CNIAH.

Today, its members are Haitian citizens and include engineers of all specialties, architects, planners, electricians and chemists with degrees from institutions recognized by the Government of Haiti. The CNIAH's resurrection and role in helping to revitalize Haiti is an important step toward a sustainable and stable recovery after the devastating earthquake.

Representatives of the former CNIAH have joined with younger active professionals to hold a General Assembly and elections to legally revive the College. The current ad hoc organizing committee consists of ten Haitian professionals who have been meeting for approximately one year. When re-established, CNIAH will work toward the following:
  • Codify and adopt regulations with respect to the Haitian design professions
  • Publicize examples of progress benefitting Haiti and promote regional development
  • Establish relations with similar associations in other countries
  • Create a discipline counsel and ethics board
  • Search for international exchange opportunities
  • Develop a mentoring and internship program to interact with Haitian architecture and planning students
  • Provide and actively participate in continuing education (and have an AIA conference presence)
  • Set qualifications standards for professional Registration
  • Register foreign design professionals for practice in Haiti

The organizing committee is interested in AIA's organizational structure, activities and governance to use as a model for their own program. They are looking for a healthy collaboration to develop exchanges, a mentoring program, and participate in professional continuing education and exchanges between the two groups.

"Seminars such as the one provided by Paultre are incredibly valuable," said Gina Bungener who is an architect and a member of the organizing committee. "We are all volunteers working to revive the College and carrying on a practice at the same time which as you can imagine is incredibly difficult in this context. The information we receive from seminars and continuing education is freely shared with other professionals and put into practice. I have clients come to me to design a building and say it doesn't need to be seismically designed. I tell them to go somewhere else. It is not a matter of choice."

As a licensed architect in the US, this caught me off guard, but it's true of most things in Haiti. The government regulates very little to the benefit of its people, so the regulatory authority lies within the skill and understanding of its individuals. Grassroots change is helping to create safe buildings in a chaotic and unregulated environment. To build on this, the AIA is well positioned to have a substantial impact in Haiti through continuing education and information exchange. If a relationship is developed, CNIAH will create an advising council to coordinate activities.

Currently, CNIAH is searching for office space to serve as their headquarters. It wishes to hire an administrative person and find space for regular meetings, a library, and special events and exhibitions, which will also be used as a counseling/training center. Its start-up estimate is $43,000.

Bungener stated that it is important to find funding sources independent from the Government of Haiti.

"The current government may provide steady funding, but who knows what the next election or political event will bring," she added. "We used to be funded by a simple tax of one gourde per bag of cement, but that was taken away during unstable times."

A membership fee or similar will eventually help, but their first need is organization.

Earlier this year, the AIA sponsored a Haiti reconstruction conference called the AIA Summit on Haiti. This conference provided a great forum to discuss the coordination of design assistance teams, building assessments, gathering resources, organizing recovery and other programs as well as next steps in working together to rebuild Haiti. Some participating organizations included the United States Green Building Council, Public Architecture, National Organization of Minority Architects, and the American Red Cross, National Urban League -- Greater New Orleans, All Hands, and Adecco Group North America, and Architecture for Humanity.

The conference was designed to be a working session to hear from organizations that have been on the ground already making a difference and to focus on potential collaborative solutions addressing housing, safe structures, and schools and centers of economic activity.

The event was a direct result of initiatives the AIA has worked to implement in Haiti, stemming from a resolution unanimously passed last year by its Board of Directors to support the Haitian architectural community. The resolution further commits to developing a process under which AIA volunteers will be able to provide assistance to those affected by the earthquake.

It's critical that the CNIAH becomes active once again in the region and follows the lead of the initiatives learned from the AIA in order to help guide members of the Haitian architectural community.