I'm just about settling back into the pace of London having returned from the third Architectural Association (AA) Haiti Visiting School, which explores the potential for the use of bamboo to develop a new, more appropriate and sustainable light-weight building typology in Haiti. Visit the AA Haiti Visiting School website or read my previous blogs on the subject if you are interested in finding out why we think bamboo could be a viable answer.
This year the brief was set by government department L'Unite de Construction de Logements et de Batiments Publics (UCLBP), who are already working in informally settled areas to provide core housing and promote good building practice across Port-au-Prince (PaP). One such area was our site in PaP this year – Baillergeau.
The core houses currently being built use a method of seismic resistant construction called confined masonry. This involves casting a reinforced concrete (RC) frame with block infill which is securely tied in, with any openings also surrounded by RC. This method is a safer version of what is the dominant typology around settlements all across Haiti. Though confined masonry works well to save lives in earthquakes, it is more complicated to build correctly than the standard, unregulated concrete construction which killed so many in the earthquake of 2010.
The challenge then is to provide an alternative model for a light-weight core house which can be offered to people living in informal settlements (bidonvilles) in place of the concrete status quo. The bidonville residents, who can prove they have a stable rental agreement or have land rights, will be provided with a basic 25sqm core house which can be extended incrementally as the family obtain the means to do so. The idea of incrementally extendable self-build projects are not new by any means - terms such as progressive development (Turner 1976), instalment construction, or building ‘serially’ (Abrams 1964) have been used in the past - but it has become a more widely recognisable model since Alejandro Aravena recently employed it for his housing projects in Chile.
The idea is that the houses are easy for the owners to construct and involve repetitive connection details and components. The owners are required to be involved in the construction to a point such that they can extend safely without the need to hire contractors. The project also needs to be easily replicable by others in the community. The proposal has to be earthquake resilient to 1g (single direction pga) and resistant to hurricane winds of 80 m/s - most of which could be tested to a basic level at the school using sponsored testing software such as Karamba. The structural elements are to be designed using a native species of bamboo and the design needs to respond to local cultural and social practices as well as being aesthetically pleasing enough to change people's perception of the material.
The course was split into two parts - an initial design and consultation phase which was based in the always manic PaP, followed by a trip to a bamboo plantation in the north of Haiti, based in the more rural Marmelade.
The course structure was simple. Introductory lectures defining the brief gave an overall context of development theory and what we feel the architect's role is in this context, helping to prepare students for the consultation and issues surrounding it. This was supplementary to a model-making and digital design workshop to produce the outline design and enough supporting material to have a meaningful consultation with community and local construction representatives.
Two visits were used to introduce students to the benefits of local vernacular and show them the reality of what people faced on site. The first of the visits was to Maison Dufort - a local gingerbread house which had recently been fully restored by cultural foundation Fokal. Farah Hyppolite led a tour and gave a lecture regarding the benefits of an environmentally and culturally appropriate architecture, which were all too clear as we sat comfortably for a couple of hours in a naturally ventilated space while the sun relentlessly baked everything outside. The knowledge of this building typology was present throughout the course as some of the local carpenters, who worked on this and other projects, joined the mixed student teams for the duration of the course.
The site visit which followed was striking and had a large impact on the students' approach. As we were led around Baillergeau by community leaders it became clear just how small 25 sqm really is - especially if split between multiple families with the potential to be used as a commercial space as well as a family home.
The community consultation followed after the designs had progressed significantly in quite a short period of time. These consisted of teams presenting their work to a local home owner and core house contractor. They gave valuable feedback which helped students to deal functional issues they had not previously considered, but also gave rise to strong positive and negative reactions to the proposed forms. A lengthy Q&A session then took place where the group as a whole fielded queries regarding bamboo construction and its appropriateness. It was great to see even the sceptical community representatives leaving with at least a very open mind, if not the aspiration to set up a plantation of their own.
After rain and a bus crash on the only highway halted our plans for 24 hours, we headed to Marmelade armed with lots of comments to drive the design forward, and with great excitement at the thought of getting our hands on the bamboo to start prototyping. The trip north was quite eye-opening. We stopped at the bamboo CASEC office in Cabaret to see how bamboo was already being used and passed the huge open air market at Pont Sonde on the Artibonite River - potentially a great opportunity to build shading market stalls and improve the livelihood of the traders. The only wood being sold there currently comes in the form of charcoal.
On arrival at Marmelade it was clear that this would be a fantastic few days in nature. We were surrounded by bamboo - in furniture, in building construction and growing all around us. There were peacocks, turkeys, chickens and ducks wondering around, not to mention insects the size of small children. The surroundings afforded most of us a welcome break from the city, but also gave us the challenge of coping with scarcity that many Haitians do on a daily basis.
Prototyping of the critical joints was carried out under our resident bamboo experts - Doria and Frank - who were pushed to the limits of their knowledge by the groups. During the day we took walks in the forest to learn about the bamboo; how best to cut, hang preserve and treat the material. In the evenings we had more lectures - such as Rose's presentation of the "urban acupuncture" proposal which was a result of consultation carried out in the north of the country by Gensler while working with the Inter-American Development Bank. There was also a 3am bamboo cutting session to take advantage of the ease of cutting bamboo while the water is at the base of the plant. This led to the harsh realisation that I'm not as much of a morning person as I thought, but it was magical nonetheless.
Along with all the good work happening at the plantation it was frustrating to see the level of inactivity at what is one of the largest and best equipped bamboo workshops in the Caribbean. Though the odd furniture order appears and designs continue to be developed, it seems that higher pay across the border of the Dominican Republic is a constant leach on skilled workers. People simply don't feel they are paid well enough to keep working at the plantation, which was built by the Taiwanese. Clearly there needs to be more of a demand for the product, which will only come if people see what can be achieved through construction and are convinced that bamboo can work for them. With this in mind we left with a strong knowledge of the material and how best to work with it, with 1:5 and 1:10 construction models, and with a new found determination to create the demand which is so sorely required to derive a bamboo economy.
We headed back south where the workshop culminated with a day-long presentation to the head of UCLBP at PaP’s best known gingerbread hotel, The Oloffson. With the very high standard achieved by the students during the 13 day school it was no wonder that the critics thought all the projects were considered and sensitive enough to act as truly viable alternatives to the existing core houses.
The reality is of course not as clear cut as the brief. With many people not being able to prove tenure status due to a lack of centralised land rights records, not everyone can afford a home. Bamboo and timber are seen as a poor man's materials, useful for burning only - a perception that will hopefully change through exposure to well-designed buildings which demonstrate clear benefits. The complexity of funding raises another issue – people don't tend to trust formal loans which are afforded to them by being able to prove tenure, opting rather to use more traditional informal money lending systems which operate on pooled resources. Of course as people start to officially own property there are always new associated costs - the de-risking of service provision means that statutory undertakers can now demand payment for electricity or water where it would not have been possible to do so before. This is something people are not used to and they may not necessarily understand what they are signing up to unless it is clearly explained at the outset.
All this, along with the impending election in October, means there is a great deal of uncertainty around the project in its current form. It remains to be seen if the momentum that has been built in three short years can create more results as tangible as the ones displayed at the school this year.
Despite these potential issues, it is clear to me that the school was a massive success this year, and I remain optimistic. This was due largely to the student's level of engagement, more defined live brief and the inclusion of local community - all of which contributed to some fantastic designs, which UCLBP were very pleased with. This is also, in no small part, due to the sheer determination of school director, John Naylor.
Looking ahead, the next step will be to build part of one of the designs as a prototype for the real thing, so that it can be tested and refined. We are aiming to commence in October this year as part of AA Haiti winter Visiting School. Watch this space for updates.
A huge thanks to:
UCLBP & Fokal and the other sponsors and supporters of the school.
John Naylor & Rose Di Sarno. A huge thanks is due to local tutors Frank Vendryes and Nancy Leconte and our bamboo expert Doria Reyes for teaching us as well as the students.
Of course to the students:
Yussef Agbo-Ola, Anthi Tsagkataki, Jean Widney, James Turner, Simon Adds, Ego Jusme, Astrid Cam, Jupile Facile, Presna Parnel, Hsu Myat Aung, Shnightdy Azilien, Regine Fabius, Morancy Elysee, Jorge Mayorga, Emmanuel Junior Desrosiers, Yukiko Yoshida, Pablo Acevedo, Marc Rochenal.