An Architect's Journey into Haiti

Andres Duany's housing plan for HaitiShortly after the devastating earthquake struck Port-Au-Prince, noted architect pioneer Andres Duany flew to Haiti with plans for building durable, affordable housing in the shattered country.

Duany, a celebrated archtitect who has masterplanned whole towns and claims to have written the definitive book on "smart growth" had big plans. He was going to put in gorgeous cross-ventilated windows and porches. He was going to give the privacy of master bedrooms to families that had only known poverty. And once he arrived in Haiti, he saw his plans were nearly entirely wrong.

"I came with a confidence I should not have had," he told us.

He needed to put in fewer windows, even in the hot Haitian climate, because some folk traditions make windows the object of mistrust. He needed to rethink porches, because some families consider it unkind to eat in front of their houses when starving neighbors walk by on the street. And he needed to think less about rooms and more about beds--cramming in as many as would fit.

Yesterday, Duany debuted his design for prefab housing to go up in Haiti's cities and countryside after the immediate crisis fades. It is, by his count, the fourth or fifth pass he took at the designs.
Duany said he had worked in post-Katrina New Orleans and destitute Jamaica but been unprepared for how firmly Haitians cling to tradition after the Port-Au-Prince earthquake. "There's a 30,000 bed deficiency," he said. "You think you can impose rational housing." But what we'd call rational, he said, some Haitians would call bizarre. Even in hot rural areas, some very poor people resisted cross-ventilating windows "because they believed spirits entered through open windows."

"Imagine the frustration," said the architect and co-founder of Duany Plater-Zyberg & Company, whose master-plan for the Florida town of Seaside inspired thousands of neoclassical subdivisions (and the set for "The Truman Show"). "You want to say: you have to have cross-ventilation or you'll boil your ass!"

But Duany's penchant for "New Urbanism"- a layout that favors curbs, traditional houses and porches - meant little to the victims of the quake. He said that input from Haitians on his January visit changed the interiors: master bedrooms are small so that there's more room along walls and floors for beds. At 590 beds per acre and 155-300 square feet per house, Duany said, he tried to create as many beds as he could without compromising structural soundness.

Andres Duany's housing plan for HaitiSo he hooked up with Miami building manufacturer InnoVida Holdings. The company is donating 1,000 homes in Haiti and planning to build a factory in the earthquake-ravaged nation that will open by the end of the year. Working with InnoVida's prototype, Duany created a hinged window opening that's "co-planar" with the InnoVida panel so it doesn't jut out. He learned which Haitians prefer to eat in the rear of their houses to avoid embarrassing passersby who have no food. He found a Swedish start-up, infelicitously called Peepoo that makes a bag that composts human waste for Haitians who prefer houses with latrines. ("At 590 beds per acre, the latrine doesn't work," Duany said crisply.)

These conditions in Haiti and their implications for housing design caught Duany by surprise, "I came in with a confidence I should not have had. That's why I had to do the design three or four times."

Duany briefly acknowledged that NGOs and others have ended Haiti's medical emergency, but he was hardly triumphal about the post-earthquake country. "What"s coming next is the housing emergency," he said.

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