E2E community reps Lamarre Presuma, front, and Jean Edson, rear, explain the bench-building challenge to the five finalists. - Photo by C. Parrish
E2E community reps Lamarre Presuma, front, and Jean Edson, rear, explain the bench-building challenge to the five finalists. - Photo by C. Parrish
PERMANENT HOUSING HAS BEEN ELLUSIVE to a million or more Haitians left homeless by the 2010 earthquake, but in Léogâne, where 90 percent of the houses were destroyed, creative efforts are under way that could provide a model for building permanent housing that comes from the people most affected.

Houses in Haiti are mostly built out of concrete blocks of varying quality that typically bear the load of the walls and, without sufficient steel reinforcement that can transmit the force of seismic shocks, collapse in an earthquake. To include the amount of steel needed to make traditional construction safe is too expensive for most Haitians in a country where mortgages are not available and where people tend to spend decades constructing their houses, as money allows.

Meanwhile, many dwellings built with emergency humanitarian funds from the United Nations (U.N.) and various aid organizations were built out of wood and tarpaulins and plopped down on the same spot where tents stood in camps that formed immediately after the disaster.

Known as t-shelters, the dwellings were meant to be temporary. They are scarely better than tents. Those with tarps for walls are often broken into with a slash of a knife at night when the occupants are sleeping. Those constructed with wooden walls are a little more secure, but only last three to five years before they rot. Their shelf life is already running out. Leaky roofs, flooding floors and overcrowding are common. The U.N. has acknowledged that development funds for permanent shelter are lacking and t-shelter camps risk becoming permanent slums if permanent solutions don't emerge.

WITHOUT TRYING TO SOLVE WHAT MAY WELL turn into a prolonged housing crisis on a national scale, E2E, Engineering2Empower, started a small community-led development project in Léogâne to find a way to build safe houses that Haitians prefer and can afford.

E2E was started by three civil engineers associated with the College of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Private investment is pending. The project combines American expertise in developing structurally strong building designs and components with on-the-ground Haitian problem-solving and skilled labor.

The E2E basic design utilizes a concrete steel-reinforced frame to create strength and flexibility in a structure that can handle seismic force, and prefab concrete and steel mesh panels to sheath the walls. The house looks pretty much like traditional Haitian houses: two to four rooms with a porch out front. Metal grills can be installed over doors, windows, and the porch for security. The result is rot-free, safe, inexpensive construction. And it can be done in stages, with the frame and floor built first, then sheathed in wood until concrete prefab panels can be afforded. A home can be added on to as finances allow.

That's just the structure.

The other elements of the project, which are Haitian-led with American guidance and partnership, have the potential to provide a community-based development model for use across the developing world once the process is refined, according to Dustin Mix, a co-founder of E2E and the in-country director.

HAITIAN PROJECT PARTNERS AND COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT is no small thing in a country where housing solutions have largely been imposed by the international aid community without local input and with embarrassing failures.

Approximately $500 million in international aid money was spent on t-shelters, according to Haiti Grassroots Watch, but were only available to non-renters. Some former home-owners got more than one t-shelter from more than one organization and tried to rent the extras out. Coordination among different aid groups was a major failure, according to the U.N., and the clustered housing sites encouraged the spread of cholera which has now affected almost 700,000 Haitians.

The 2011 Housing Expo stands as a classic failure of trying to impose a First World solution on a Third World problem without considering what those affected want or need and wasting valuable aid money in the process. In a $2 million international aid effort spearheaded by the Clinton Foundation, 60 model homes were designed and donated by international architectural and building firms hoping for future contracts, then rolled out with great fanfare at a site near the Port-au-Prince airport. The problem was that they were not affordable for most Haitians and the infrastructure and Haitian government institutions were not strong enough to coordinate the effort to go after the development dollars and investment needed to move from prototype to actual housing, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
And those involved failed to ask the Haitians that would live in them if the houses were what they wanted.

Haiti Grassroots Watch checked in on the Expo site two years later and reported many of the model homes were occupied by squatters, while others were empty, vandalized and trashed.

This and other failures provided valuable lessons for E2E.

MUCH OF THE SUCCESS OF THE L...OGÂNE E@E PROJECT depends on the community itself being involved in the decisions about who will build the houses and how they will be completed, who and how prefab parts will be produced, and how to establish a finance program that will work for people who have few financial tools for saving or borrowing.

E2E uses the human-centered design approach developed by the International Development Enterprise (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) to listen to what the community wants, then help guide the community to find innovative solutions to problems through targeted brainstorming.

In Léogâne, Mix and his Haitian E2E colleagues, Lamarre Presuma and Jean Edson, conducted extensive face-to-face surveys of citizens, asking what they wanted in a dwelling and neighborhood and how they saved money to build a house.

"It's really hard to save for a house," said Mix. "Sometimes it is misunderstood how financial life works here. You will save for four, five, or six months and all of a sudden, your kid gets sick or you have to pay school tuition for your brother. There is no insurance, no tools like the ones we have. It's a constant shuffling of money to take care of things."

"We tend to think of savings as savings. You take some of what you earn and you put it aside," he said. "It's not that easy here. You need some tools to do that. People ask us how to distance themselves from their savings as much as possible, while still having access in an emergency. Something better than the tin can under the bed."

E2E is refining a new mortgage model. With a target customer that makes just $600 per year, construction has to be able to be done in stages and financing has to be available. This is, after all, designed to be a business. The houses will be affordable, not free. For it to work, Léogâne citizens needed to own the process, he said, not just the houses.

ONE E2E PROBLEM IN NEED OF A SOLUTION is how to incorporate doors and windows into the prefab concrete wall panels.

Lamarre and Edson tackled it by developing a fair way to select a skilled builder who is also a creative thinker from each of the 10 neighborhoods in Léogâne. Once selected, the neighborhood reps will then get together in what E2E calls an Innovation Incubator to come up with a creative and inexpensive solution that can be built with local materials.

To find the right guy from each neighborhood while avoiding getting trapped in hiring the friends and relatives of local leaders or offending those who were not chosen, Lamarre and Edson set up a Reality TV-type challenge.

First, they took applicants and vetted them, inquiring about things such as when they had been part of teams and what kind of groups they had led, to get an idea of their leadership and teamwork backgrounds.

The five finalists were presented with a creative challenge: build an inexpensive, functional, and aesthetically pleasing bench with the materials provided in three hours.

"The materials provided, the time frame imposed, and the criteria set was all meant to constrain what they would normally do, and thus illicit creative solutions," said Mix.

The winner of the first challenge, Harry Octave, a welder, will act as the representative for all of them at the Innovation Incubator on doors and windows and report back to the others, thus building a future network of workers with different skills that already have a stake in the success of the E2E effort.

"Having the winner be a community representative that would report back to the others turned out to be really important," said Mix. "Lamarre and Edson came up with the idea. I never would have thought of that."

The next steps are to find Innovation Incubator reps for finance and for prefab panel production.

But first, Lamarre and Edson have to figure out a fair way to select them. At the same time, Mix, the American engineer, is now overseeing construction of the first E2E house in the city.

For updates on the project, see www.facebook.com/Engineering2Empower