Groundbreaking for Award-Winning reCOVER 'Breathe House' Contributes to Recovery in Haiti

June 27, 2011

A three-person team from the University of Virginia School of Architecture visited Haiti this month to start bringing their design for disaster-recovery housing to reality.

"The views of the ocean and verdant valley were beautiful," said architecture professor Anselmo Canfora, director of the Architecture School's Initiative reCOVER, after visiting the future site of the award-winning project's "Breathe House."

He and two May graduates who worked on the project visited for the house's June 17 groundbreaking in Bois L'Etat, a community outside the coastal town of St. Marc, about a two-hour drive northwest of Port-au-Prince. The town has been swamped by refugees from the January 2010 earthquake.

Enjoying the prevailing winds on the site, they were reassured the team's passive environmental design for the "Breathe House" would work well.

In January, Initiative reCOVER, a program to design and build disaster recovery structures, won the ARCHIVE – Architecture for Health in Vulnerable Environments – international competition to design housing to reduce disease transmission in Haiti, where tuberculosis is the second-leading infectious disease killer after HIV/AIDS. ARCHIVE is building the houses for Foundation Esther Boucicault Stanislas, a community organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in the region who have HIV/AIDS. This month's groundbreaking signaled the start of construction of the five houses that placed in the competition.

The visit to Haiti provided the "Breathe House" team an opportunity to meet with stakeholders and to source materials to be used in finishing the construction of the pre-fab design. Canfora and alumnae Aja Bulla-Richards and Sara Harper, who worked on the original design of the house as students and now are helping complete the working drawings for the modular construction and the on-site assembly, knew finding materials locally would be a challenge, as there is a scarcity of materials and building products in general in Haiti.

The team is exploring construction techniques in a hangar at the University's Milton Airport and working with panelized and modular home component manufacturers in Southside Virginia to create three reCOVER housing prototypes. One of the structures will be shipped to Haiti and assembled on site; finishing details, including siding, will be completed in Haiti.

For example, Canfora said that windows are too expensive to ship and prone to breakage en route, and the cladding will be sourced in Haiti.

The team was successful in finding a source for jalousie, or louvered windows with security bars built in. Harper said security is an issue in Haiti and they saw houses everywhere that had imposing bars over the windows. In terms of design, it was nice "to find a window where you do not see the bars," she said.

They also found a tile manufacturer who initially showed them imported products. When they asked him if he had any products made in Haiti, he showed them sun-dried concrete tiles he had in the back, which they are considering using in the house. "We are very interested in working with him," Harper said.

Part of the design concept of the "Breathe House" is to help revitalize the Haitian economy, Canfora said.

The team will make two more visits to Haiti: in October to supervise site and foundation work and in November to assemble the house's envelope, which is expected to take two days. reCOVER is partnering with Building Goodness Foundation and Arup Engineers on the project. Building Goodness is a Charlottesville-Albemarle organization that brings together volunteers from every part of the construction industry to build structures for communities in need. Building Goodness previously constructed a rural community center in Haiti.

Canfora said Building Goodness' experience in Haiti and its dedication to involve local community members will be invaluable in the construction phase. "Sweat equity is important. We will be teaching people on the ground," he said.

The "Breathe House" is expected to be completed by the end of 2011. Phase two of the larger ARCHIVE project will include a clinic and community center and in phase three they will build multiples of the five award-winning designs. In all, they plan to provide housing for 80 to 100  residents.

Wherever the team went, they "saw thousands, if not tens of thousands, of tents still being used by the victims of the earthquake," Canfora said. "It was an intense experience and incredible to see the dire conditions."

Officials in St. Marc don't even know what the current population is. It is estimated that almost 100,000 people evacuating Port-au-Prince after the earthquake moved to St. Marc, almost doubling the number of people living there. Even before the earthquake, 80 percent of Haitians lived in poverty, with 54 percent living in abject poverty, according to information published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The team hopes this project will help generate more construction in Haiti.

Despite the conditions, the team found warmth and dignity among the people they met.

A visit to the house of the village elder, Solvaire, who lives next door to the site, gave the team insight into the way most people live. About 15 people gathered on the simple porch to greet and talk with them.

"We saw how his family lives with 10 to 12 people in four rooms," Harper said. There were no windows or doors, just shuttered openings in the concrete block walls, she said.

Canfora said the ceilings were low and there was no cross-ventilation. "Heat was trapped in the house and I could even feel the heat in the ceiling coming through the roof."

The house did have a very simple water collection system.

As the team traveled around, they saw that the landscape was scattered with shacks made of found materials with dirt floors and tin roofs.

"The 'Breathe House' challenges that concept and is a demonstration of how you would use those materials very differently," Bulla-Richards said.

The "Breathe House" design builds on the local building traditions, incorporating some of the same materials, and is designed to reflect the Haitian customs and culture. The open design utilizes passive environmental solutions to bring light and air through the house and promotes indoor and outdoor living and community and socialization. Water is collected and filtered. A photovoltaic system mounted on the roof will provide electricity to power low-volume fans, ultra-violet sanitizers and a refrigerator unit for vaccines and sensitive prescription medicine.

The visit "brought to light the importance and urgency of the work we are doing." Bulla-Richards said. "Meeting with the people who will benefit brought another dimension that was heartfelt."

— By Jane Ford


Media Contact

Jane Ford

Senior News Officer U.Va. Media Relations