Sean Fish

The architect and general contractor of Project Haiti share how it will serve as an example of sustainable and resilient construction.

Last month, Hurricane Matthew swept through the Caribbean and the southeastern United States. Many communities affected by Matthew will be rebuilding for months and years to come. Although disasters like Matthew remind us of the tremendous power of nature, they also remind us of the potential for humans to design and build more resilient structures in regions prone to natural disasters.

One such structure, currently under construction, is the William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center, also known as Project Haiti. USGBC committed to building Project Haiti after a 2010 earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, killing thousands and displacing many more. Project Haiti is designed to be a showcase of sustainable and resilient construction for Haiti and the developing world. The building includes features that will enable it to serve as a community resource should disaster strike again.

To gain further perspective on the importance of building resiliently, we spoke to Thomas Knittel, principal architect, and Jean Marc de Matteis, general contractor of Project Haiti, about how this project strives to change the way we think of buildings in disaster-prone areas.

Why is resilient design so critical in Haiti?

TK: Haiti sits in a high seismic zone and in the middle of the hurricane belt. It is subject to severe storms from June to October, including flooding and periodic droughts. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The more fragile a place is, the more social, environmental and economic factors are intertwined.

However, the spirit of the Haitian people is strong and resilient, and that is where we started. By producing more resilient buildings, we can help keep the focus where it belongs—on people. LEED buildings are inherently more resilient through reduced consumption of energy and water. Haiti may not be the most likely place for a LEED Platinum, WELL-certified building that is designed for net-positive energy and water, but arguably, it needs it the most. Resilient design can help provide stability and continuity. 

JM: Resilient design seeks to address a future in which the infrastructure that we currently take for granted will either cease to exist or will become cost-prohibitive. These conditions already exist in many developing countries, and they are very much a reality in Haiti. When you are designing a project that will be located in the heart of Port-au-Prince, the challenges are tremendous. This is a city of 4 million people that has an average of 10 hours or less of electricity a day. The cost of that electricity is prohibitively expensive.

This is a city that has no access to any sewer system or any reliably clean water. When a lack of access to clean water kills thousands of people a year (and in the case of cholera, continues to do so), these conditions cease to be abstract. 

What are the critical resilient elements in this project?

TK: [The project] needed to be a place of refuge, not only for those in the building, but also as a point of operations for the owner, Fondation Enfant Jesus (FEJ), which has three locations, during crises. We put resiliency and daily operations together: the building is designed to operate on a net-zero energy and water basis.

The ground floor can be shuttered, and the battery storage provides energy needs for 50 people for three days. Water comes from a deep well, is mixed with collected rainwater and then treated for potable use. There is also a "disaster mode," where greater quantities of water could be supplied to the community.

With the increase in efficiency of PV from design to execution, there will even be the potential to provide energy to neighbors for cooking, in return improving the local air quality. A simple three-story concrete moment frame resists seismic events, and defines a simple module for rooms, with nonbearing subdivisions that allow change over time. A small clinic serves medical needs. The recirculating vertical flow constructed wetland waste treatment system is also on-site,which allows an odor-free environment and rich nutrient base for landscaping.

Has designing this project changed your outlook on what a resilient building is?

TK: Working on this for the last five years has defined my ideas about what a resilient building is. In my view, a resilient building should be simple, rugged and tough. In Haiti, this is especially important due to the difficulty of getting materials and servicing the systems. Our goal was always to make things as simple as possible. Everything we did, such as stacking wet areas without horizontal concealed spaces for plumbing, was not only a best practice, but also matched up to the WELL building standards.

A resilient building can also be one that is easy to maintain, with fewer opportunities for molds and pathogens to spread. Le Corbusier celebrated the simplicity of exposed services in the "machine for living in," and architects have been exploring ways of doing this for some time. A resiliency mindset needs to be matched with a design philosophy.

What sort of impact will this project have on your subcontractors, who may not have experience with resilient design?

JM: I predict that Project Haiti will have a very large impact, not just on subcontractors, but on the overall construction environment. USGBC is showing that a large LEED Platinum project can be executed in Haiti, and that it can be executed by a local construction firm. Any company or NGO that has an upcoming project will now want to see if they can achieve LEED certification and apply concepts of resilient design into their projects. 

Many projects here in Haiti will be ideal candidates—schools, hospitals or industrial buildings. Many of these projects are funded by socially responsible organizations that are already on board with many of these concepts. They will now realize that they can actually be executed in Haiti. 

How can this project act as a model for resilient design and construction in Haiti?

JM: I can tell you that this project has already had a significant impact. My firm has already begun to register two new projects (a hospital building and a commercial office building) for LEED certification, and two more are in the pipeline. The overlap between LEED and resilient design is already significant, so many of these will be integrated into the design of these projects. 

TK: We hope the project will help foster resiliency discussions, both big and small. When we started the project, we were struck with the fact that only 3.5 percent of the native forest remains on Haiti. At one time, it was the wealthiest country in the Caribbean. Under French rule, forestry meant extraction and was not sustainable. We thought, with the modest use of wood used in a celebratory way, could wood return to Haiti? The second skin we developed was originally bamboo. We found out there is stigma associated with bamboo, as a material for poor people. How can we change that?

Throughout the design process, we were keenly interested in replicability and upskilling. Some of our sustainable design elements are more expensive up-front, but if you think about it, it is not sustainable or healthy to deliver diesel fuel for generators and drinking water by truck. Burning of trash in backyards further impacts air quality and is especially harmful to infants, young children and the elderly. Money is scarce, but we hope the building, when completed, can begin to spur resiliency conversations at multiple levels, from building to block to district scale.

JM: The challenges of the Haiti Project were immense. I would’ve loved to be on the conference call where Rick and his team first proposed this project to design professionals. First, you will be housing a very vulnerable population of children, some of whom have special needs. You will be doing so in an active seismic zone in the middle of a densely populated city where hundreds of thousands of people were recently killed by an earthquake and where over half of all buildings collapsed or were severely damaged. This will also be in the middle of the Caribbean on an island that is vulnerable to getting hit by hurricanes every single year. And there’s no real electrical grid, no clean water, no sewage system and no history of any new building construction that has ever been certified LEED. How USGBC kept everyone from hanging up right then and there I’ll never know.

However, USGBC has persevered and was able to meet all of these challenges. Of course, if this type of project can be designed and executed in Haiti, why can’t LEED and resilient design concepts be implemented on a far larger scale in far less challenging places?

Learn more about Project Haiti