Five years ago today, January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti. We’ll never know how many died; precise statistics are difficult in that imprecise country. The official toll is 316,000. Other estimates are smaller but remain in the six figures. A month after the Haiti disaster, Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake that claimed 523 lives, a count as precise as Chile’s stringent building codes. The comparative math from these two events is staggering: Chile’s earthquake was 60 times more powerful than Haiti’s, yet Haiti suffered 500 times more deaths.
Workers carried more than 100,000 pounds of steel uphill on their shoulders: more than 1,250 hours of brutal hauling at a total cost of less than $1,000 in wages.
I had visited Haiti the summer before the earthquake and fallen in love with the Magic Island’s casual charm. As an architect, I understood that shoddy building construction was responsible for most earthquake-related deaths. Haiti’s long tradition of concrete construction, excellent at supporting direct pressure but weak if pulled or shaken, exacerbated the tragedy. Concrete requires steel reinforcing to withstand forces from all directions, but steel is expensive, and building codes are nonexistent in Haiti. Insufficiently reinforced concrete crumbled when the earth shook. People were crushed.
My desire to contribute to Haiti’s reconstruction led me to design two buildings in Grand Goave, a town 10 miles west of the epicenter. The Gengel family from Rutland, Massachusetts, built an orphanage to honor their daughter, who died in the earthquake. Mission of Hope, a Haiti-based organization with strong Massachusetts ties, built a new school. Boston-area engineers and craftsmen designed innovative earthquake-resistant structures and trained local Haitians in how to make traditional concrete construction stronger.
After a few more visits there, Haiti had infiltrated my psyche. By 2012, I had left my stateside job to supervise construction and live on the island half-time. Each day in Haiti was ripe with surprise, wonder and frustration. Local women collected the stumps of our excavations to make precious charcoal. The Gengels and Mission of Hope vied with other aid groups for scarce construction machinery, and we built our own concrete plant to cast stronger blocks. Our construction crews mixed concrete by hand, in simple ratios of cement bags to buckets of sand and gravel. Concrete floor slabs, which might take eight guys and a line of ready-mix trucks six hours to pour in Boston, required 200 men working 40 hours straight, day and night. At $6 a day, labor was cheap and plentiful, while materials were expensive and machinery rare.
It took Herculean effort to complete these buildings. The orphanage is a quarter mile up a hill so steep that trucks delivering reinforcing couldn’t climb the grade. Workers carried more than 100,000 pounds of steel uphill on their shoulders: more than 1,250 hours of brutal hauling at a total cost of less than $1,000 in wages.
The school and orphanage have been open for more than a year. We envisioned them as prototypes of Haiti’s vernacular construction, reinterpreted to withstand earthquakes. Unfortunately, they proved too expensive to become a new standard. Before the quake, Haitian buildings cost about $25 per square foot. Post-earthquake inflation has doubled that price. Our engineered buildings cost even more — $75 per square foot. Compared to U.S. construction, this is cheap. But Haitians struggling to feed, clothe and educate their children cannot justify buying sturdy two-dollar block from our factory when they can mix sand and gravel with a handful of cement and a bucket of water to form sun-dried units at half the cost. These inferior blocks crumble under the slightest pressure, but the distant rumble of tomorrow’s earthquakes can’t be heard over today’s growling stomachs.
Transforming a subsistence economy into a productive one requires incentives that reinforce each other to improve the overall quality of life.
We created two sturdy buildings in Haiti, but, like most philanthropic groups, we fell sort of the larger objective: to help Haiti become self-sufficient. Transforming a subsistence economy into a productive one requires incentives that reinforce each other to improve the overall quality of life. Everyone agrees that Haiti needs better education, more jobs and transparent government. From my particular perspective, Haiti also needs to adopt – and enforce – building codes. Codes would require better construction materials and improve construction practices. The increased cost of higher standards would eventually be absorbed by an expanding economy. And many more children would be protected against the next earthquake than our school and orphanage can ever shelter.