Haiti's future bumper crop: houses?

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Gingerbread it’s not, but the answer to the permanent housing crisis in Port-au-Prince and Léogâne may lie in sugarcane. Or sorghum. Or a blend of Haitian crop fibers. Whatever the resource, a team of Notre Dame civil engineering professors and students think the future of Haitian housing might come down to a choice between masonry that can explode and crumble during earthquakes, or lightweight panels that would merely pop out under pressure.

Eighteen months after the earthquake that destroyed more than 80 percent of Léogâne’s buildings, residents have little choice but to live outdoors or risk the “explosion.” They can only build with brittle concrete block, heavy slab and cheapjack steel because — poor and deadly as these materials are for construction — that’s what’s available. Deforestation, mainly for fuel, has depleted the trees families once used for traditional timber frame houses.

Were it only as simple as finding better materials: Housing may be post-earthquake Haiti’s most intractable problem. Right now, no one’s building. Much of the rubble has been cleared, but for most families it represented their uninsured life’s savings. Mortgage financing is a new experiment. Laws and customs governing land ownership are murky at best, discouraging foreign aid and investment. And simpleminded solutions like multistory tenements that ignore cultural precedent will fail the market test. As Dustin Mix puts it, “If they want it, the market’s going to drive it. If they don’t want it, the market’s going to kill it.”

Mix is a graduate student working with Professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa ’97, ’03Ph.D on lightweight drywall panels that could be made from crop fibers and hung on sturdy bamboo frames, all of it locally grown, processed and manufactured. Working with Professor Alexandros Taflanidis and a team of undergraduate researchers, they say the true test of their research into viable permanent housing in Haiti will come when they set up a testing frame of Mix’s design and a manual winch in Léogâne’s town square, applying identical forces to the concrete and the agricultural panel.

“The anticipated outcome is that the masonry unit will fall apart in a dramatic, brutal explosion and crumble to the ground,” Kijewski-Correa explains, “very much like what they saw with their own eyes on the day of the quake. Whereas our system will withstand a greater load, and when it does fail [there] will be a lightweight panel that just pops out.”

That day will come after months of tests to establish the panels’ durability in Haiti’s hot, humid climate and computer modeling to figure out how to build with them so houses can withstand both earthquakes and hurricanes. The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, on the lookout for new ventures that serve the developing world, is funding the work. The grant requires a business plan for the panels, so the engineers have turned to Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and Executive MBA students to develop one. This fall, mechanical engineering and industrial design students will develop ideas for the manufacturing process.

The goal, Kijewski-Correa says, is to present two years hence an affordable, market-driven solution to the problem of permanent housing with which Haitian entrepreneurs could create manufacturing jobs, expand agricultural markets and potentially reduce construction labor costs.

Oh, and save lives when the next quake hits.