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It’s obvious that many of the buildings that collapsed during the Haitian earthquake were poorly designed or constructed. In Haiti, because there is virtually no lumber for building, structures have been made of concrete blocks, often with inadequately reinforced concrete frames. But to suggest that the country simply be rebuilt to a technically higher standard is to take a shortsighted approach.
Op-Ed Contributors: Eight Ways to Rebuild Haiti (January 17, 2010) An internationally financed rebuilding effort, involving scores of architects and engineers drafted to work with the Haitian authorities, should take a longer view of Haiti’s future, supporting a gradual, profoundly well-thought-out physical transformation. Their work will demand determined physical reinvention and, where appropriate, architectural innovation.
Haiti’s government had already begun considering new planning and building codes. It’s still crucial to finish that job, to establish standards that not only reduce the risk that structures will collapse in hurricanes and earthquakes but also help Haiti build for the future. But this isn’t just a question of better-quality steel and concrete; it’s also about choosing where not to build. Far too many buildings in Haiti have stood on deforested, unstable hillsides, and new building strategies must dovetail with environmental repair schemes.
Furthermore, the urge to rebuild rapidly should be tempered by a thorough examination of new designs for safer, more energy-efficient and less expensive structures. (Keep in mind that the cost of construction relative to income in Haiti is at least five times greater than it is in the United States.) For architects and engineers from Haiti and overseas, that’s a huge responsibility.
In few places can the usually glib phrase “design for life” have greater meaning. Now, for the most awful and imperative reason imaginable, Haiti’s government and its international supporters have the opportunity to turn stark devastation into the beginning of a new standard of living.
John McAslan is an architect.