Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Incremental Housing in Haiti

In the midst of all the devastation in Haiti, it is hard to imagine thinking about next steps, when I feel like i haven't even been able to process the initial event. Regardless, in thinking about how to rebuild, many ideas and conversations I have been having come back to the idea of incrementality. I decided to utilize this blog again to see what discussion this may trigger. Also, please check out the good work going on at wired.com. They have a great discussion about issues in Haiti http://haitirewired.wired.com/

It seems that intentionally planning projects to be incomplete, offers many advantages over those that are designed to be built all at once, namely that of time and money. Additionally, because most people in places like Haiti are already building incrementally (pay as you go), this approach offers a more potentially culturally sensitive and contextual approach. Finally, incremental growth may offer the greatest opportunity to shift the large scale redevelopment to one that is more sustainable, inclusive, and weighted more towards the bottom up approach than the top-down. However, as with any project as this scope, the devil is in the details…


Having visited the Quinta Monroy  project mentioned in an earlier post and spoken with residents, I do think it is a fantastic example of how to rethink housing/architecture in areas and times of scarce resources. I do want to make the point, though, that if many people had their choice, and the resources, they would prefer a finished house. This was precisely the case with a follow-up project ELEMENTAL did in Santiago called Lo Espejo. Regardless, the strength in the Quinta Monroy (and other projects) came from a close partnership with the residents and the architects. Without the active leadership and support of people who were already demanding new and better housing conditions and the sensitivity of the architects to listen and think outside the box, the resulting buildings would have been irrelevant. It worked because the architects and the residents served as equal partners.


I think the greatest draw of incremental housing is the ability to do a whole lot with a whole little, using time to one’s advantage. This is particularly important in the case of Haiti where there is such a larger number of people needing new housing (although not necessarily new communities). The idea (not that different from site and services projects that became popular in the 1970’s) is to build a starter house (core). This would allow the most basic and immediate necessities (structure, water, sanitation, etc.) to be taken of, which often are not during self-building and many development practices in places like Haiti. This is essential on both a macro (neighborhood) and micro (each individual building). Once this is taken of, it can provide a pattern of framework in which families can add onto and expand whenever more resources (internal or external) become available. The initial first half of the house in Quinta Monroy is built and sized to withstand earthquakes in Chile’s active northern coastal region. It also structurally supports any new additions that will be made, offering a standard of safety well into the future. The same goes for the bathrooms and kitchens; they were sized to support the home once it was completely built out. This project is only able to work because of clear parameters of when and where people cannot build. There is bound to be a lot of money thrown at the reconstruction effort in Haiti, and we can only hope that it is gets distributed well. By intentionally not completing every house, resources can go further.

Another effective example of this idea is a project coordinated by the Pamoja Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. This project trained local members (with a focus on women, partnering with Slum Dwellers International) in various building crafts to erect the project. They only had money for one floor, but it was designed for two more floors to be added vertically. They even built the stairs up to the third floor as part of the starter house, so as to minimize construction disruptions on the already establish family.


Pamoja Trust was also exploring other ideas that would be pertinent to Haiti’s reconstruction, trying to link both immediate and long-term recovery options. For some of the poorest people, they had proposed a building erected quickly and affordably out of earthen blocks. At the corners, they proposed arranging the block so that it eventually would serve as formwork for reinforced concrete columns as money become available. I think this is particularly important as there seems to always be a disconnect between the immediate housing needs and long term solutions, as was exhibited by the case of the Katrina Cottages in Mississippi. They are now left with thousands of trailers. In Haiti and other places, it will be large tent cities, erected far from existing communities.

To move beyond the failures of sites and services, much greater emphasis has to be given to the involvement of future residents, local contextual conditions, and future growth possibilities as homes/values increase. Additionally, the initial starter house must be able to work on its own even before additions are made to it. Another beautiful thing about the Quinta Monroy project is that it gained a whole new level of contextualization and plurality over time, in a way that could have never been planned by the architects.

Finally, one of the richest components of incremental housing is its potential to put power and capacity back into the hands of the people themselves. While involvement in the design process is essential, so to is involvement in the continuing building of the homes. While not everyone has the ability or time or resources to continually work on their homes, many do. Additionally, people can choose what the best use of the initial house should be. Many would probably choose to build out a store, or some income generating space. As basic items are essential for the regeneration of communities, small stores seem to be an integral part of rebuilding Haiti and its economy. Income generation seems to be incredibly important and will not make every Haitian dependent on the millions of dollars of foreign aid that seems to be having trouble reaching them. Additionally, these income-producing spaces could eventually serve to upgrade the rest of their house. This was the case of the Altamiras in El Alto, Bolivia (.), as they were able to transition from a small one-room adobe house to a much larger six-room house, all on the same plot of land.



There are certainly many other issues and complexities that exist in this particularly difficult situation. The future on the ground realities are far from what most of us could imagine. Some pitfalls of this approach (based on sites and services experiences) are the allocation of properties to politically connected people as well as houses achieving a level/standard that people could eventually not afford. Both of these had the effect of not even reaching those who such projects were intended to serve. Long-term maintenance issues always pose a significant challenge for projects such as this.

The scale of this recovery is massive and it might be difficult to pursue an incremental approach for all the people that need it. A lot of creative and new ideas are going to essential to this process. But, it does seem that a close initial partnership to get the basic things right at first, could allow for much more extensively sustainable and empowered communities on down the road and for growth to happen the way it is meant to, organically. Finally, it could ensure that the aid money is used effectively, to spark the people and the communities, without overrunning them. The capacity is there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Luke, Prof. Jason Corburn in DCRP here. I have an upgrading project with Pamoja Trust and would like to see if you are interested in working on this. Email me ASAP if you are. Best.