Haiti is regularly battered by tropical storms, floods and powerful earthquakes. Jim Grant, our Executive Director, traveled to Haiti in December with 2 professors and 6 students from the Kansas University (KU) School of Architecture and Design to construct a hurricane and earthquake resilient community center, as well as teach local Haitian partners how to build (and rebuild) using an affordable “rammed earth” technique.
This project is the culmination of many years of collaboration between the two organizations, and also marks the beginning of a new partnership which includes the American University of the Caribbean School of Engineering, and Haitian construction professionals. The design was conceived by the KU Dirtworks Studio, under the direction of Professor Chad Kraus, in collaboration with Professors Lance Rake, Kent Spreckelmeyer, and Frank Zilm.
The first phase of the project was focused on a technology transfer – teaching our Haitian partners how to build using rammed earth techniques refined over a number of years at KU. This method of construction replaces cast concrete, cinder blocks and mortar with rammed earth, an ancient method of compacting a precisely measured earthen mixture of clay, sand, gravel and silt, with small quantities of water and cement mix as needed. The resulting structures are strong and durable, and less expensive than more conventional counterparts. Several such structures are scattered across the KU campus in Lawrence, KS, but this is the first time such a project has been undertaken by KU outside of the USA, and the first time for all but one of the KU team to visit Haiti.
The project started with the KU team building a reusable form in which a single wall section would be built, as the design calls for the building’s walls to be assembled in eight foot wide sections. The next phase was the technology transfer, with our Haitian partners working side by side with the KU team, digging up soil, painstakingly chopping it into a fine texture to mix in a small percentage of cement, and then packing it in four-to-six inch layers into the form. Small amounts of pigment were added to different layers to enhance the visual character of the finished wall section. This is a very labor intensive operation, sometimes hampered by the difficulties encountered while trying to obtain very specific tools, and more often by the weather, as heavy rains fell on several occasions. Eventually, all of the obstacles were overcome, and the team’s efforts were successful, both in sharing the building technique, and completing the demonstration wall segment, which remains at Maison de Naissance as a testimony to cooperation, dedication, and engineering ingenuity.
Full scale construction of the community center is expected to commence in late spring, hopefully in conjunction with a return trip from the KU School of Architecture and Design to continue this cooperative effort with Maison de Naissance and our partners in Haiti. The team is also exploring the use of bamboo as a viable alternative to timber.
The long term goal of this project is to serve as a proof of concept for the rammed earth building technique, which can then be disseminated across the region as an affordable method of sturdy, hurricane and earthquake resilient housing construction. It is our hope that this will enable many Haitians who lost their homes in Hurricane Mathew to finally be able to afford to rebuild, using the very earth where they live as the primary building material.