Haiti needs re­build­ing, but the right way

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - By Mike Holmes

HOW long ago was the Haiti earth­quake? Less than two months — that’s how long the story lasted. Af­ter the earth­quake, it was all over the news. Res­cue ef­forts and tragic sto­ries, night af­ter night; now, it’s all gone. Turn on the news and you barely have an up­date about Haiti. Our me­dia isn’t built for the long term and, it seems, nei­ther is our in­ter­est.

Most of us have stopped think­ing about the sit­u­a­tion in Haiti, and that’s a shame. They’re still a very long way away from re­build­ing. That’s be­cause news me­dia are not about sus­tain­abil­ity, about last­ing a long time — it’s all short-term think­ing.

I hope that, when the time comes in Haiti, we ap­proach build­ing dif­fer­ently, with the long term in mind. I guess the build­ing equiv­a­lent to the evening news is throw­ing up a tent city — that won’t last long, ei­ther; just un­til the next nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Let’s re­place what was lost in Haiti with some­thing more per­ma­nent, with some­thing that will out­last us all and be a legacy for the fu­ture.

Re­build­ing a coun­try as dev­as­tated as Haiti will take long-term plan­ning. It’s not a quick fix. And if we want to do it right, which I do, and re­build sus­tain­ably, then it will take decades. I don’t want re­build­ing in Haiti to just be a mat­ter of throw­ing up houses as fast as pos­si­ble, us­ing the same meth­ods and ma­te­ri­als that have al­ways been used, and that failed so cat­a­stroph­i­cally. Yes, hous­ing is needed im­me­di­ately, but we need to go fast by go­ing slow, so we don’t make the same mis­takes again.

Sus­tain­able build­ing is a chal­lenge in a coun­try such as Haiti, where there is lim­ited in­dus­try and few re­sources. Ev­ery­thing needs to be shipped in, which, of course, adds to the cost of build­ing.

Does it make sense to talk about build­ing sus­tain­ably in Haiti, the poor­est na­tion in the West­ern Hemi­sphere? Yes. It doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cost more to build sus­tain­ably. Sus­tain­able and en­ergy-ef­fi­cient build­ing saves money — and not just over time.

I’ve learned in my ca­reer as a con­trac­tor that short-term think­ing doesn’t lead to last­ing re­sults. Typ­i­cally, when peo­ple rush into a ren­o­va­tion, es­pe­cially in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, they make poor choices. They of­ten end up just re­plac­ing what went wrong in the first place with the same thing.

Haiti is still looking at months of as­sess­ment and cleanup be­fore any build­ing can start. Apart from short­term emer­gency shelters, and build­ing and in­stalling la­trines and show­ers to serve the needs of the dis­placed and home­less peo­ple, there is no re­build­ing hap­pen­ing yet. Plan­ning will start this year, along with cleanup. Construction projects could start in Novem­ber 2010, at the end of the hur­ri­cane sea­son. It will prob­a­bly take a decade to re­build Haiti.

When that time comes, wouldn’t it be great to re­build in a re­gion­ally ap­pro­pri­ate way, ad­her­ing to seis­mic build­ing codes and by us­ing build­ing ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques that make sense in a trop­i­cal coun­try with high rain­fall, tem­per­a­tures and hu­mid­ity? A coun­try ex­posed to se­vere weather from hur­ri­canes and, as we’ve seen, earth­quakes.

Build­ing ex­perts from around the world can help de­sign sus­tain­able houses that could be cost-ef­fec­tive. Rapidly re­new­able build­ing ma­te­ri­als such as bam­boo — which grows well in Haiti — could be used along­side long-last­ing re­in­forced con­crete. Wind power and so­lar power, as well as geo­ther­mal cool­ing, could be in­cor­po­rated to re­duce de­pen­dency on im­ported and ex­pen­sive fos­sil fu­els. Lo­cal firms and in­di­vid­u­als would be used to pro­vide the labour pool to stim­u­late em­ploy­ment, teach skills and build ca­pac­ity in a de­vel­op­ing neigh­bour coun­try too long over­looked.

We could re­build Haiti as more than what it ever was.

— Canwest News Ser­vice

A woman and her baby peer out from their door at a camp for sur­vivors set up in the Pe­tionville Golf Club, Haiti. Be­low, a Red Cross tent camp out­side Port au Prince.

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