Apr 22, 201101:20 PMPoint of View

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Minnesota Students in Haiti

Minnesota Students in Haiti

We are among six students and one professor, from the University of Minnesota Architecture School working in Haiti on the Collège Mixte LaConcorde Orphanage project, under the auspices of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), to design a school and orphanage complex from site-work to construction documents in Carrefour, Haiti.  AFH’s relief efforts here are currently being operated out of the Petion-Ville based Rebuilding Center, where they support reconstruction efforts through coordination and collaboration with other NGO's, education and training for Haitian masons and other building trades, and directing the design and construction of primary and secondary schools. We are privileged to work with AFH in Haiti on a number of projects over the course of our six week stay, having the opportunity to support and serve the reconstruction needs of the Haitian people.

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In the city of Carrefour there’s a small orphanage and school that symbolize Haitian resilience and perseverance, despite the devastating earthquake that occurred more than a year ago. Over the last two weeks, our team has visited LaConcorde Orphanage and School twice: first, an initial site visit to understand the client’s programming needs, and later to present our schematic design. From the moment we met our clients, the director Frantz Bastien and his mother, Mama Bastien, their dedication to the children was apparent. Prior to the 2010 earthquake LaConcorde provided education for some 280 children and adults. On January 12th, the day the earth shook, the three-story concrete building that was home to the orphanage and school for over 10 years, collapsed. Mama Bastien refused to leave the site. She stayed with the children under the shelter of a persimmon tree to ensure that they were safe and cared for. Even though there was minimal loss of life, it is evident from the current conditions of the orphanage and school that they are all still victims of the earthquake.

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The site lies within a dense city block where sanitation infrastructure for water and sewer is not available; and electricity is neither reliable nor affordable.  While the school and orphanage present a small and simple program, construction in Haiti introduces many new challenges. There is a tradition of incorrect masonry construction, compounded by expensive, limited, or poor material availability.  Additionally, the Haitian government has not adopted nor does it enforce any building codes, making it  the responsibility of the architect and engineer to ensure that structures prioritize human health and safety, and are resistant to seismic forces.

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Currently, the LaConcorde Orphanage is operating in a 251 square meter (2,700 square foot) site, providing services for 45 orphans and 11 adults who live there, with an additional 15 students who commute to attend morning classes.  The orphanage is secure within a seven foot tall concrete block perimeter wall, but shelter within consists of three temporary plywood structures provided by the Danish People's Aid. Other structures include a patched concrete latrine and storage shed, and a tarp that shelters the 60 children in a kindergarten, primary, and secondary school.  Walking through the confines of the site we encounter a disorienting maze of enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces, where primary structures shelter primary spaces and the space in-between is enclosed and made habitable as well. The Bastiens have made the most of their cramped quarters with the resources they have, attempting to provide adequate shelter for the orphans, while also providing classroom space for all of the children.  Over the course of the past week, the three of us have worked to translate our understanding of the school and orphanage's program needs into an efficient and functional layout.  In an effort to make the initial layout as legible as possible for the Bastiens, our team worked to transform the design from an architectural planning and massing exercise into a space with understandable dimensional form.  Floor plans were rendered with color to differentiate ground surfaces, wall materials, and furniture layout within the context of the site.  Aerial and interior perspective renderings from a digital model were employed to give a more accurate depiction of space than the flat 2D floor plan.  It was important for us to effectively convey our design to the Bastiens in order to get necessary feedback as to the appropriateness of our design proposal.  

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We began our first schematic design meeting by arraying the drawings across one of the children’s dining tables, shaded from the sun by a collage of tarps secured over a wooden frame. The Bastiens and Sarah Sibbernsen (a caregiver and healthcare volunteer from a nearby orphanage) huddled around, eager to see the initial design. As we stalled over how to begin, our Haitian driver, Jimmy, began translating the room labels into Creole for Mama, tracing his finger over the plan, drawing to indicate different spaces and their relationship to each other. Within our proposal we outlined the new program for the orphanage, which consists of three classrooms to accommodate 90 students, sleeping quarters for 45 orphans and 11 adults, office spaces for the teachers and the director, as well as the core utility spaces of the kitchen, storage, hand-washing stations, bathing/washing stations, and latrines. After the initial “walk-thru” we began to explain each space and how we understood it to function and relate to the whole. We paused and waited for Jimmy to translate, Mama nodding in return. We were working through multiple language barriers, both spoken word and representation of space.  Frantz has studied English and for the most part he understood our explanations. But Mama can only speak a handful of English words, so it became apparent that a strong visual presentation was important for us to effectively convey our design intentions. Frantz was mesmerized by the aerial perspectives. He rotated the pages and tilted his head as he glanced from the pictures to the floor plan in front of him. He stated that the 3D images helped him to understand the design much better. This will inform how we proceed through subsequent design phases and presentations, as we find a visual language to communicate our ideas adequately.  

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When the initial walk-through of the proposal was completed, we asked the Bastiens what they liked or disliked about the overall design.  Both Mama and Frantz claimed that it was perfect.  We smiled and humbly thanked them, but insisted that there must be improvements and that it was important for us to know so that our design would meet their needs. During our initial programming meeting, when we asked what was “ideal” for the orphanage, Frantz would describe the scenes that could be found around us: four children sleeping together on a twin-size bunk or mats rolled out on the floor, sixty students within a 20’ x 20’ area, a charcoal stand and one long counter that serves a kitchen in the 4' alley between two plywood shelters, exterior child-size toilet holes and empty buckets in which to urinate; rubble, animal feces, flies and standing water amidst tarps and benches to play. We listened to his replies and then asked, again, "But what would work better, what would be more ideal?"  After some time, Frantz and Mama realized that they could permit themselves to think about having more, about what they really needed.  As they began to talk about what they would like for the children, Mama Bastien smiled, revealing much tenderness and love in her eyes. It was then that she and Frantz expressed a desire for additional items, such as a motion sensor security light over the front gate, less paved space to permit more gardens and, ideally, more classroom space. While we had provided classrooms to accommodate their current enrollment of 60 children, they would like the opportunity to grow the school to its pre-earthquake capacity since tuition provides a source of income for the Bastiens to sustain their orphanage.

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After our initial programming meeting and schematic design review, we began to understand our role in the LaConcorde Orphanage project.  Our responsibility is two-fold: to help the Bastiens envision and to help Architecture for Humanity create a new space that will provide a healthy, safe, and sustaining home for the school and orphanage. The children sent us off with a playful song that concluded with extended hands and a drawn out "MERCIIIII"!  The immense enthusiasm and gratitude that we felt at the schematic design meeting has strengthened our commitment to assist the Bastiens and their family at LaConcorde Orphanage as we continue the design process.   For additional information and updates on the Collège Mixte LaConcorde Orphanage refer to the projects main page on Architecture for Humanity’s Open Architecture Network at http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/laconcorde_orphanage

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