Bienvenue a Haiti!

This October 5, Project Haiti was announced at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to an audience of 15,000 during the keynote at Greenbuild 2011. HOK is the USGBC’s official design partner for the project, the redesign of an orphanage and children’s center badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince. The importance of this project was stressed by both the  USGBC’s Rick Federizzi and the official project video, which can be viewed here.

Project Haiti is a physical testament to the incredible work lovingly done by Gina and Lucien Duncan, founders and directors of Fondation Enfant Jesus. The Duncans’ mission is to provide a safe, nurturing environment to children whose parents are unable to care for them and to offer educational opportunities for families in the community. Programmatically this children’s center will focus on child health restoration and family planning education. Additionally, the team hopes Project Haiti – targeted for LEED Platinum certification – will become a model for sustainable building on the island.

To properly tell the story of Project Haiti, we need to go back to August 17 when representatives from the United States Green Buildings Council, HOK, and Adaptive Building Solutions landed in Port au Prince to see the site and meet the Duncans. Thrust into a culture foreign to us, we quickly realized that things in Haiti work in ways all their own.

Bienvenue a Haiti!

Welcome to Haiti, a country teeming with binary opposites. Welcome to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, yet one where on the first night of our visit we dined without guilt at La Montana – a gorgeous luxury restaurant and hotel, nestled in the mountains and overlooking the ocean. Welcome to a tropical island where the streets are full of rubble and garbage, yet the walls are lined with brightly colored paintings and intricate metal-works. Welcome to a people who own so little and have endured so much, yet who are proud, resilient, and resourceful and who strive to make a better future. And welcome to a place where at one point I did not think that I could stand one more heart-wrenching moment, yet a place where I sincerely hope to return.

View from La Montana

When we arrived in Port au Prince I was in the midst of reading IDEO General Manager Tom Kelley’s book, The Art of Innovation. “Seeing and hearing things with your own eyes and ears is a critical first step in improving or creating a breakthrough product,” writes Kelley. Given the short amount of time we spent in Haiti and the limited amount of passive observation time we had scheduled, I tried my best to engage and interact with as many Haitians and ex-pats as possible. Among those who enlightened me on matters of all things Haitian are Jeffrey Blatt of Multi-Text; Alex Georges of Enersa Solar; staff members at Helping Hands for Haiti and Architecture for Humanity; Emerson and Lovely, children living at Melissa’s Hope Orphanage; and the children at La Main Tendre Orphanage, who taught me Creole dancing.

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Dancing aside, here are a few other things I learned:

1. Do not go to a place thinking you have all the answers and that you know how to fix their problems. It is important that we learn how to work with what is there and with what Haitian people are willing to accept. They have a set of values that need to be respected.

For example, considering the lack of sanitation infrastructure, composting toilets in our building make a great deal more sense than Western-style flushing toilets do. However, without a reliable system that will provide service to these toilets – a factor that is far beyond our control – they would be rendered practically useless as owners will not want to maintain them, on top of their other responsibilities. Would you want to maintain the septic system in your house?

Also, composting or biodigesting toilets need to be designed to have the visual appearance of being progressive and modern. They may not currently have it, but Haitians know what is out there in the world. Why should they be satisfied with a virtual hole in the ground when they know there is something much better?

2. Kids are kids, wherever they are. This became incredibly apparent as we visited three orphanages during our stay. Kids want to play. Kids want to hug and hold hands. Kids can figure out any piece of technology much faster than we can. Infants and toddlers like to be picked up and held and teenage girls like to gossip with older “girls” – if I might call myself that – and style their hair. Thank you for the lovely ‘do, girls!

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3. It is somewhat ironic that in a country whose roads are lined with eight foot high concrete walls and where armed guards patrol guest house properties – a bit scary the first time you see one – their airport security is nuts! Three, count them three, sets of metal detectors and X-ray machines but no limits on liquids?! What we found is that this appearance of security and order is important to Haitians, especially since so many aspects of their lives are dangerous and chaotic.

We have a lot of work yet to do for Project Haiti and our utmost goal is that it will bring a moment of peace to an area in turmoil. It’s a small step compared to all that still needs to be done but one, we hope,  in the right direction.

P8182210Sarah Weissman graduated from Binghamton University with her BA in English and from Washington University in St. Louis with her Masters of Architecture and Masters of Urban Design. She is an architect at HOK where she is also the director of HOK IMPACT, HOK’s firm-wide strategic approach to Corporate Social Responsibility. She lives in St. Louis with her partner, Steve Dirsa, and their two furry kids, Porter and Champ.

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