Project Haiti: The First Charrette

HOK is the USGBC’s official design partner for Project Haiti, a pro bono effort to build a LEED-certified orphanage and children’s center in Port au Prince. The original structure was severely damaged in the January 2010 earthquake that caused mass destruction throughout the country. (Read the first post in this series here.)

When you’re used to seeing colleagues in work attire, it’s strange to see them on a weekend. But there we were – a conference room full of people in shorts and jeans, spending a summer Saturday volunteering for an extraordinary project: rebuilding an orphanage and children’s center in Haiti.

The design process began on June 25, when 14 HOK designers and one USGBC representative met in St. Louis, joined on the phone by HOK and USGBC colleagues and partners scattered across the U.S. Through brainstorming sessions, the group generated ideas that would serve as inspiration for the smaller core team that would lead the design process through the next several months.

The Challenge

The site is a 6,150-sq.-ft. lot near Port au Prince’s Rue Delmas commercial strip. Though the immediate area around the center has no official public areas – no parks, grocery stores or corner stores – some people have turned the fronts of their residences into small businesses such as hair studios.

The current building, a 5,000-sq.-ft. structure, suffered damage in the 2010 earthquake. Its “yellow” rating means that staff can enter it to retrieve items but cannot stay overnight. Targeted for the highest possible level of LEED certification, the replacement building will serve as an intake location for children entering the system. Eighty percent of these kids  are brought in by their own birth parents.

The building’s functions will also include a medical area to stabilize ill or malnourished children, gathering rooms for family educational programs, staff offices and rooms for children and guests.

With the potential to impact thousands of children in Haiti, the design team viewed this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At this charrette, participants split into smaller groups to brainstorm broad themes that would be crucial to the design’s success.

Brainstorming: Water

The facility’s water system needs to provide water for the resident population, not only for drinking but for other everyday uses such as washing and cooking. The system should provide on-site gray and blackwater treatment to purify water and protect children, employees and visitors from waterborne illnesses.

Beyond basic needs, though, how can water be used to benefit the structure, its users and the community? Could it be used for cooling purposes? As an educational tool? Could the system provide an opportunity to train others in water purification techniques to bolster commerce and community health?

Historically, water trucks have brought 3,000 gallons of water from reservoirs to the orphanage three times a month. To avoid this $250/month expense (a large item on an orphanage budget) and make the center more self-sufficient, designers explored water collection options. For example, in addition to collecting rainwater during the island country’s wet season, could moisture be collected from the humid, tropical air?

Waste is a pressing issue, as the city has no sewage systems – just pits or septic fields.

Some energy ideas

Brainstorming: Energy

Since Port au Prince experiences daily rolling blackouts, the children’s center ideally should be able to operate off the grid. To accomplish this goal, the team aims to maximize reduction of energy loads, leverage solar and wind energies and use 100 percent daylighting where possible. Design goals also include reliable Internet access, a means of storing collected energy and perhaps a way to use waste materials for energy collection.

Ideas included LED lighting, passive cooling (perhaps geothermal to utilize the high water table) or a single roof-canopy to cover the entire property. Solar chimneys and low-energy fans could drive airflow throughout the building.

Designers concluded that low-tech ideas would provide the greatest opportunities for energy output. Additionally, to accommodate the unpredictability of Port au Prince’s power supply, the creation of multiple systems could allow for one system to pick up the slack when another system is down. This idea of redundancy carried through to many aspects of the project, just like in nature.

Brainstorming: Materials

The destruction from the 2010 earthquake left many Haitians afraid of concrete – a material previously seen as the “only way to go.” With no building codes in place, designers must create their own safety standards. Is this the time to challenge the status quo for Haitian construction?

Could newer materials, such as light foam/metal stud systems, be the solution? Perhaps woven bamboo could be used as infill for concrete frames? Could rubble from the earthquake be broken down and repurposed as construction material? Would indigenous materials express a stronger sense of place?

Also, when choosing materials, the plan must account for local circumstances. What equipment is available locally? Could introducing new materials and techniques help create new skills and industries in Haiti?

David Buckley, Paul Wilhelms and Cathleen Feland during a breakout session

Brainstorming: Neighborhood

While the center itself is the primary focus, Project Haiti is also meant to create a positive impact on the surrounding area. In addition to being a replicable model for sustainable construction, the building should be a secure, inviting place. Could the building provide resources – excess energy, water or even places to charge electronic devices – for the neighborhood?

Brainstorming: Experience

Above all, the center should be a happy place – warm, inviting, hopeful – for the children and parents as they arrive and throughout their stay. The building should be useful, with many types of spaces for activities and learning opportunities. The property should be secure, including a surrounding wall that provides a sense of openness while maintaining security. The center should instill a sense of confidence, both when viewed upon arrival and from the within.

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Where from Here?

The volunteer design team continued throughout the summer and into the fall, leading up to Greenbuild 2011 (taking place next week in Toronto). Keep following as we continue to share the story, including the design process and an emotional visit to Port au Prince.

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