Port au Prince (Haiti), Architect Stacey McMahan. Andr©s Martnez Casares
Andres Martinez Casares Port au Prince (Haiti), Architect Stacey McMahan. Andr©s Martnez Casares

Last summer, Stacey McMahan, AIA, LEED AP, became the first-ever Architecture for Humanity (AFH) Sustainable Design Fellow sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). She left her position as a partner/principal at South Dakota’s Koch Hazard Architects for one year to work directly with the Haitian community on rebuilding efforts.

I arrived on Aug. 9 and didn’t look past the skyline for days. The landscape is as CNN and others have depicted—still. I am staying in a house AFH is renting for volunteers in Pétionville, a suburb 30 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince. I’ve always wanted to do some kind of mission work, but never took the opportunity. I would not be here now without the fellowship provided by the AIA and USGBC, so I’m very grateful.

If I have a specialty, it’s figuring out how to work with local materials in school construction, or how to better work with local laborers out in the rural areas. We’re exploring using different types of construction depending on location and are currently working on six or seven projects, some accessible only by foot or donkey.

There are an estimated 1.3 million people still in tents. I know a lot of architects have been thinking about rescue housing here and in other disaster locations. It’s important to consider how materials could be put together so that they will be reusable or transitioned into permanent housing. Is the design flexible enough so that the people can change it in meaningful ways to fit their lifestyles and their culture? We did a study on temporary shelters. About 20 different types have been put up here. The study found that only a few were built with other design considerations in mind, such as natural ventilation, flooring, and pre-wiring for electricity where available.

As architects, we are accustomed to operating within a set of orderly rules. There are literally no rules here. We are practicing architecture in extreme circumstances. We are designing to international standards for hurricanes and seismic zone 4 within a disorganized structure. We cannot assume anything regarding construction quality or labor skill. It’s necessary to have someone on the project site daily and to hold pre-construction training for each step of the way. Our conundrum is that we are all here to help; we want to put our skills to good use because the situation in Haiti is really an architectural disaster. But if we design safe and attractive buildings—only to find the documents are not followed in the field—we are wasting our time.

The most effective work we can do here is translate our knowledge of safe construction detailing into training and construction practice, invent innovative ways to use local materials, which can be used in remote areas, then build demonstration projects using local labor. We live, work, and play here, and that’s critical to our understanding of the culture and how things are done. It doesn’t help to import knowledge without transferring that knowledge, so we are practicing alongside our Haitian counterparts: the builders, engineers, and architects. We’re learning and innovating from our experiences here, and, as a friend told me, “You’re building a bridge as you walk across it.”