Project Haiti II

When HOK was asked to partner with the USGBC on Project Haiti, a children’s center in Port au Prince, we decided immediately that the most appropriate approach to the project would require an integrated, multi-disciplinary team. So we assembled architects, landscape architects, lighting architects, sustainable experts as well as structural, mechanical, and plumbing engineers to tackle the many challenges and create an innovative design that will showcase sustainable building in Haiti.

Eric Cesal, Architecture for Humanity’s Regional Program Manager in Haiti and a good friend, gave us some invaluable advice before we began: keep things as simple and as passive as possible. Given the chance, anything that has multiple parts with the potential to break, probably will break. And, odds are, the Haitians will not have the resources to repair them. It became our responsibility to design with this in mind and take steps to reduce the likelihood of elements being rendered useless due to maintenance difficulties.

We began our work with a quick observation of the place. What is there? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities? Haiti has a lot of sun and steady trade winds, as well as a moderate amount of rainfall. What can we take away from these observations?

Even before our site visit, we learned that the local power grid is unreliable. There are perhaps six to eight hours of electricity a day and those hours vary daily. Harnessing both solar and wind power will be essential. A building that relies on electricity to run incubators for sick babies cannot risk being without power. Therefore our first design task is to produce the entire project’s power on-site.

Haiti is incredibly dark at night. The darkness limits children’s at-home study time, as they cannot work in a place with no power for lights. We plan to generate net-positive energy to operate street lamps that will be installed along the building’s street edge. By supplying light sources and a bench or two we can create a safe, informal gathering space where the children can study.

Textile factory showing poor natural light and ventilation

Haiti’s trade winds bring relief from the hot sun and allow us to ventilate the building almost completely naturally. All the sleeping spaces and areas for the children will be open to cross breezes. We are working with our engineers to develop the most effective strategies for drawing air into these spaces and creating negative pressure to pull the air through. The only space that will be mechanically conditioned is the one where the sickest children are and where mechanical life-support equipment might add heat to the room. This room will be cooled using energy generated from on-site strategies.

natural ventilationTraditional transom window allowing for natural ventilation

We’ll need to balance the porosity of the building with the need to protect against the hurricanes common on this Caribbean island. So we’re studying the location and design options for safe rooms in the event that the building’s occupants will need to protect themselves from storms.

We think that the amount of annual rainfall on this site can support the entire building’s water supply. This is fortunate, as the groundwater in the area is contaminated due to the lack of sewage treatment facilities in Haiti and the threat of cholera has become a serious problem since the earthquake.

Consequently, our second design task is to implement a series of grey and black water treatment measures to create a closed-loop water system. Composting and biodigesting toilets will cut down on the amount of water needed for flushing. However, as this is an orphanage and clinic, we will need potable water for cooking, bathing, laundry and medical procedures. So we’ll have to make sure to size the cisterns adequately in order to withstand the few drier months of the year.

Prior to the earthquake, Fondation Enfant Jesus purchased water three times a month for approximately $83 per delivery. Our goal is to design a system that will allow this money to be spent to improve the lives of the children and their families.

It became clear to us early on that Haiti has a wealth of human capital with the potential and desire to improve their country and their lives. While there is a lack of skilled labor (by our standards), we hope Project Haiti can provide on-site job training in sustainable, durable construction that can be replicated and used to educate more people in this field.

The third task for the project team is to design this building as a showcase for both vernacular and sustainable architecture. Our design references traditional Haitian architectural and cultural principles such as the use of ornament, the blurring between indoor and outdoor spaces, and the use of plants and other locally available materials. Coupled with the local sustainable practices of utilizing natural light and ventilation to create a design, we feel that our approach will proudly represent and transform Haitian architecture.

street concrete blockHaitians have a strong entrepreneurial spirit

Currently our team is conducting a deep investigation into materials that we will share in upcoming posts. We are weighing the challenges and opportunities for every option and realizing that maintenance and operations play as critical a role as aesthetics, if not more-so.

Sarah 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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