Architects on a mission

Architects and business experts share ideas and efforts on how Haiti can rebuild better
People stand in front of the rubble of collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince, April. 3, 2010. A large-scale cleanup is beginning to tackle piles of rubble from the magnitude-7 quake, which generated 20 million to 25 million cubic yards of debris. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Montreal architect Claude Robert wasn't sure what to expect when she left for Haiti in January, four days after the earthquake.

She had already been in Haiti just three weeks earlier, scouting out a project for the aid group Emergency Architects.

That December trip, her first to the Caribbean country, had been a "marvellous experience," she said. But she also found it "really disturbing" in that she could see basic needs and services were mostly missing, while corruption was widespread.

On her return in January, Robert and her group found some sectors of Port-au-Prince, especially the slums, were almost completely destroyed.

Emergency Architects

Emergency Architects, like Doctors Without Borders (Medicins sans frontieres), was started in France, in 2001 following flooding in the historic Somme River valley. Its Montreal chapter was established in 2007.

To date, over 1,000 architects and engineers have applied their skills in about 25 countries on behalf of the organization. It is an example of a small but highly specialized aid group quickly targeting their talents in disaster areas as well as in post-disaster construction.

Haiti has no building codes and few quake-proof buildings, Robert told CBC News, and in these slums the buildings had been constructed in the same manner, using the same poor mix of concrete.

In some areas, she noted, there were old wooden houses still standing while the ones next door made of concrete had crumbled.

A plan to sparkle

One building Robert and her colleague, Jean-Paul Boudreau, were anxious to see was the old Hotel Simbie Continental.

The hotel was the reason for that first trip in December. Emergency Architects and the city of Montreal had teamed up on an aid project to restore Simbie and the surrounding hillside area.

The Hotel Simbie Continental seen on December 14, 2009 during a visit to Port-au-Prince by architects from Emergency Architects and the City of Montreal. (Jean Laberge)

Once a luxury hotel, the Simbie had been abandoned in the late 1980s during the chaos that followed the end of the Duvalier dictatorship. In the years since, it had become home to a squatter community of Haitians moving to the capital from rural areas.

Now, architects, engineers and urban planners from Montreal and Port-au-Prince, working with the local community, had elaborate plans for not just the Simbie buildings. They wanted to turn the entire neighbourhood into a fully autonomous co-operative.

The co-op would grow much of its own food and include some small industry, like producing essential oils. Plus, there would be parks, schools, common areas and, of course, new housing.

The plan was "to generate a sparkle, to create a sense of community," Robert said. But that task would be much more difficult now.

Still standing

Once they were close enough to the old hotel they could see the Simbie was still standing.

But their relief was short-lived when closer inspection revealed the building had sustained the kind of damage that made it not worth saving.

Montreal architect Claude Robert is holding a child while surrounded by people at the site of the Hotel Simbie Continental in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, days after the earthquake hit on January 12, 2010. (François Laplante-Delagrave/Blue Storm Télé)

Importantly, though, for Robert and her team, the Simbie squatters had survived. The renewal project would go ahead, assuming the donors pony up as expected.

Emergency Architects subsequently sent three more teams to Haiti, including one that is there now. These architects and engineers focused on conducting building evaluations, especially for schools and hospitals.

Of the 300 schools they evaluated, about 20 per cent would have to be demolished; 40 per cent sustained important damage, while another 40 per cent required only cosmetic repair.

Financing for all this rebuilding, for what has been called the most important construction site on earth, is not all in place yet. But a key lesson for Robert is that all this reconstruction has to go through the Haitian people.

"We have to be hopeful and we have to keep in mind that nothing is going to happen without them, nothing is going to last without working with them, the answer is inside Haiti."

Her task, she says, is to help them find it.

Decentralising Haiti

At this point, it is not entirely clear what Haiti wants from all this promised reconstruction and disagreements are starting to show.

After the earthquake over half a million people left the ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, for other parts of Haiti and, for some, this shift represents an opportunity to permanently decentralize the country.

According to the government's Action Plan, more than 65 per cent of the country's economic activity takes place in the Port-au-Prince area.

Haitian architect Ronald Blain, the project manager for UN-Habitat in Haiti, was quoted recently saying "we have to make Port-au-Prince less dense. We should keep the people that have emigrated to the secondary cities where they are."

With that in mind, the report to the International Donors Conference advocates building housing and other infrastructure in those regional centres as a priority.

Jobs: priority one

A public opinion poll conducted in the area of Haiti affected by the earthquake found that job creation was the number one need. Among those polled the top three priority needs in Haiti now are employment (26 per cent), school (22 per cent) and housing (10 per cent).

The survey  of 1,765 people was in the field in March and sponsored by the aid group Oxfam.

Jacques-Philippe Piverger stands in front of the ruins of a school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in March, 2010. The charity he heads, Global Syndicate, had supported the school. (courtesy Jacques-Philippe Piverger)

A desire for massive job creation was also what Jacques-Philippe Piverger found on a recent working visit to Haiti.  A Haitian-American, he says that's what Haitians want from the rebuilding effort.

Piverger has been using his experience in the investment business to head up the aid group Global Syndicate, which has four projects -- in health care, education, culture and sports -- with local partners in Haiti.

In an interview with CBC News, he said Haitians are "not asking for handouts, they're asking for jobs.

"They said to us, 'I am ashamed to even have to ask for money, I am capable, I can work, what we want is an opportunity to work, to create, to do things.'"

Action plan?

Haiti's government has now come out with an action plan  to get the rebuilding effort started. But even before its official unveiling on March 31, the plan was generating skepticism in the Port-au-Prince area, according to the Oxfam poll.

Business consultant Alain Armand  said he was disappointed in the government plan because he sees little there that will inspire Haitians. 

After living in both Haiti and the U.S., Armand once again took up residence in Haiti after the earthquake to help with the rebuilding. (His parents are Haitian but he was born in Texas.) 

In a telephone interview with CBC News from Port-au-Prince, Armand said the key to rebuilding Haiti lies in creating better information and energy infrastructure so as to help Haiti "leapfrog" over its many current obstacles.

With energy, he said, that there is the "opportunity to build green and domestic energy infrastructure right now," but that is not in the government plan. As for information infrastructure, Armand said the plan is "totally useless."

Haiti rebuilds

This story is the third part of a "Haiti rebuilds" series:

1. Donors' conference: The next challenge in Haiti (March 26)

2. How social media is changing the aid business (March 30)

In 56 pages there is just one mention of the internet and that is a proposal for a government portal. 

For Armand, "we absolutely need the internet" and to talk only about a government internet portal "is beyond head in the sand."

Having a well-functioning internet would be a huge spur for job creation, Armand says, envisioning French-language call centres if such a network were in place.

Canadian internet expert Don Tapscott agrees that "the infrastructure for the 21st century is networks." 

Students pass in front of a vendor as they head for the Lycee Jean Jacques Dessaline in Port-au-Prince, April 5, 2010. Schools were opening across Haiti's capital for the first time since a devastating earthquake hit the country last Jan. 12. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Coupling that with Haiti's youthful demographic and "good things can happen," says Tapscott, who has written two books on the net generation.

It is an assessment that seems to be gaining force.

For example, Jacques-Philippe Piverger argues that, "We need the young minds, we need the innovative strategies, the innovative thought -- that's what it's going to take to move things forward."

Piverger also senses that there is less acquiescence today among Haitian young people, who are "saying we respect the work that the former generation has put into the struggle but now we expect to be involved in what's to come."