While teaching design and building skills, such classes also will no doubt educate students about the importance of social capital to the efficiency of a rebuilding program. Stohr compares AFH’s experience working in Biloxi, Miss., with trying to get projects done in New Orleans or Port-au-Prince. “Biloxi is a very stable, coherent community; we talked to the building department all the time,” she says. “Versus New Orleans or Port-au-Prince, where there are inherent tensions. That makes it very difficult to build trust.” A measure of political and social stability also makes it possible to institute pre-disaster planning, which is a must, according to Palleroni. “Imagine if Haiti had an emergency plan before the earthquake,” he says. “Pre-disaster planning is essential for a quick transition.”

One way architects can gauge and leverage a community’s social capital is to try to gain more than a superficial understanding of its culture. “If we’re committed as a profession to serving populations that are underserved, we have to be able to go to responsibly work for cultures that are different from our own,” says John Peterson, AIA, founder of the nonprofit Public Architecture. “You have to go beyond the client, to local tradespeople, NGO’s, other design professionals, whatever it takes.” Often, he points out, local religious or political leaders can act as key sources of cultural information.

Failure to comprehend the housing culture of a place before repairing or redeveloping it can negatively impact its social system; if people don’t feel comfortable with the way a house looks or is laid out, they won’t want to live in it. “Reconstruction is more than building houses,” Jennifer Duyne Barenstein, head of Switzerland’s World Habitat Research Centre, told an audience at Swissnex’s “Rebuilding After Disaster” conference in November. “It’s restoring a whole habitat, or as much of it as possible.” And AFH’s Stohr emphasizes the additional importance of understanding a population’s emotional state. “Don’t get ahead of the community,” she says. “You may want to do prefab or other quick projects, but they are grieving. Try to focus on giving support.” Particularly in Haiti, the need for pre-construction services such as rubble clearing, safety assessments, and land title establishment has been so great that in most areas the actual implementation of reconstruction plans has yet to begin.

the long view

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    Credit: Courtesy Mike Stoneking

Speedy shelter solutions are useful and necessary in first-responder situations. Tents and tarps form a crucial first step in keeping people dry and sheltered. But often temporary housing solutions end up becoming more permanent ones. Over a year after the Haiti quake, for example, more than a million Haitians are still living in tents. The sometimes-fuzzy distinctions between temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent housing are undergoing a thorough re-examination. “It’s such an interesting challenge with emergency housing,” Peterson points out. “How do you prepare for this to be used long-term? Or, how do you prepare for it to not be able to be misused past a certain point?”

Potential (though mostly untested) solutions abound, and many experts hope to see more of a relationship between temporary and long-term shelter. The funding for each tends to come from a different source and on a different timeline, which complicates matters. “Can the world really afford not to have them linked?” Palleroni asks. “There has to be some coordination between the two.”

The Mississippi Alternative Housing Program contains a possible option. Some of its temporary modular cottages can be transformed into permanent homes by changing the way they meet the ground (click here for more on the cottages.) Those that aren’t made permanent can be redeployed in a future emergency. This type of flexible design could enable long-term cost savings because it reduces the need for a separate permanent housing project.

Ideas for emergency housing can be explored through design competitions, but many architects question their effectiveness. Plenty of well-intentioned contests produce interesting, good-looking models that never come close to getting built. Peterson, for one, cites their often-shallow grasp of the problems at hand. “One of the reasons I think competitions are so vulnerable for failure is that while they’re great at developing clever ideas, they’re terrible at understanding local conditions,” he notes.

Design competitions do have their fans, though. Like many of his peers, Anselmo Canfora, assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and founder of the Initiative reCOVER design-build program there, believes competitions raise much-needed awareness of disaster sites. “They help bring attention to the issue in mainstream society,” he says. A proposal by Canfora and his students has been named one of 140 finalists in the Building Back Better Communities (BBBC) competition held by the Haitian government’s Ministry of Tourism. The country’s political and economic chaos sidelined the BBBC for months, but according to the organizers a plan is now in place to build or assemble the finalists on a site north of Port-au-Prince, and to eventually construct a community for 125 families using the competition’s highest-placing designs.

Canfora brings up a good point. Regardless of whether competitions are the right way to gain attention, rebuilding organizations need sustained engagement from the public, not only just after a disaster hits but for years afterward. With so many causes competing for dollars, volunteers, and media coverage, it’s not always easy to garner support. Yet the architects and designers involved in recovery projects continue to work their way through the ruins, buoyed by the promise of a more resilient future.


Picking Up the Pieces