May 18, 2010
by Noushin Ehsan AIA

A team of architects, engineers, and volunteers traveled to Haiti with the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee. While there, the group constructed two structures with the help of local residents.

Noushin Ehsan

Soon after the Haitian earthquake, the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee, which I co-chair, began organizing a program to help. I was inspired by a team called Love for Haiti, an organization that sends groups of physicians and nurses to Haiti each month and takes a practical approach to pitching in with relief efforts. When founder Dr. Muni Tahzib invited me to travel to Haiti and lead a team of eight architects, engineers, and other volunteers, I accepted. Within a few days, we planned our trip and arrived in Port-au-Prince on 03.03.10 at a moderately undamaged school on the outskirts of the city — our base for the next five days.

Upon arrival, we surveyed the conditions of various public and private buildings. Some of our A&E team members specialize in disaster assessment, and with their help we identified the unsafe buildings. We then began collecting data for future planning and rebuilding of Haiti. These investigations were some of the most heart-wrenching and emotional times for the team.

Although architects and engineers often have no experience with hands-on construction, and our initial intention was only to assess and survey existing conditions, we were inspired by the urgent need for housing to experiment and assembled two temporary structures. One structure was made with rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubes, one of the few locally available materials — an idea conceived by Maryanne Fike, the co-founder of Love for Haiti. The other structure was constructed with 1/2-inch-diameter, 30-foot lengths of re-bar, an idea conjured up by Mark Freehill, a Dominican Republic assistant with Love for Haiti. Ironically, both concepts were derived from our non-architect team members, underscoring the idea that we architects must “think outside the box.” These versatile assemblages were easy to build and move; they did not require skilled labor; and they allowed for variations in their coverings. While we began construction, the local populace observed our enthusiasm, offered their assistance, and even helped erect the two structures.

We met Dr. Florentino Latortue, a Haitian with a Ph.D. in structural engineering from the U.S., who took himself away from his prior commitments to tirelessly drive us around and explain why some of the outside help was not working in Haiti. We saw some imported prefabricated houses but were inappropriate for Haitian habitation. For example, even though there is no water or sewage system, these houses have showers, full kitchens, and toilets. Also, the temperature in Haiti often reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit, but ventilation is absent in these houses. Latortue pointed out that every day people are dying from lack of shelter, but well-intentioned foreigners are taking up valuable time to develop extensive building codes with the authorities.

Our trip to Haiti was an eye opening experience and prompted us to recalibrate our thoughts as to how one can effectively assist them. I would strongly recommend such a trip for all architects, engineers, and any interested party who wants to be involved in rebuilding Haiti.

We all know that the devastation in Haiti is vast, and clearly it will take considerable time and effort to help rebuild. Therefore, in addition to Love for Haiti, I am consulting with different people and organizations to work toward additional tangible solutions that can lead to improved habitation. With the Global Dialogues Committee, we will generate new design ideas for Haiti and try to make sure it gets built. Then, we will return for further help and public feedback. We intend to use local technology, materials, and manpower; incorporate Hatian culture and habitation; seek acceptance by the local residents; and teach them additional skills to improve their lives.

In upcoming months, the committee is planning to request proposals for design solutions that can be built by Haitians with available, inexpensive materials. We will give preferences to ideas that can be utilized as interim solutions and, with additional work, can be made into permanent structures. We then hope to fund the winning designs so the designers and a few volunteers can travel to Haiti to build them in a way that Haitians can expand upon and adapt. Our overall goal is not only to create near term, usable housing, but to create a new mindset among Haitians.

I urge interested readers to contact me at to help with this cause. Also, click AdditionalNotesOnHaiti to read my additional notes and lessons learned; the description of the temporary structures assembled in Haiti; and a few suggestions for Criteria for the Suitable Design for Haitian Habitation.

Noushin Ehsan, AIA, is the president of 2nd Opinion Design and the chair of the AIANY Global Dialogues Committee.


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