Could Haiti go LEED?

Karl Johnson's picture
Posted by Karl Johnson on
Thu, 09/02/2010
When it comes to sustainable living, how do Haitian households measure up to your average Dwell eco-house?

Last Friday, at the Rebuilding Center's second ever Meet n Greet (official name still pending), our LEED Design Fellow Stacey McMahan hosted a conversation among Haitian professionals about the applicability of sustainable building techniques to Haitian construction and culture.

The concensus was: Haitians are effortlessly energy efficient.

(By virtue of the oftentimes inaccessible or unreliable infrastructure for things like water, sewage and electricity many places in the country, Haitian architecture is designed and built to do without. You don't see glass windows many places in fact - because little need is there for solid windows to BLOCK things, such as escaping heat or inclement weather. Instead many schools, like Dignite School, use block windows that bring in natural daylight and keep air flowing to cool classrooms.) 

But does that make Haiti right for the LEED sustainability rating system? While quickly becoming an industry standard for sustainable building design in the United States, how could it find application in the "developing" world? 

The system outlines steps to make buildings use fewer resources and rates projects on their efficiency and sensitivity to local climate by awarding them medals, essentially. Bronze, Silver, Gold and, for the extremely green projects, PLatiNUm. LEED emphasizes the science of the architecture/engineering/construction world, suggesting techniques that most buildings could adopt to be more environmentally responsible.

LEED's rating checklist is broken up into several categories, for some of which Haitian buildings may have a natural advantage...or an extreme disadvantage.

Here are some areas where Haitian construction comes out on top:

  • + WATER EFFICIENCY (minimizing potable water use)
    Haitians don't rely on municipal plumbing for all their water needs. In most cases they use non-potable water for bathing and toilets which they collect from rainfall and pump up to water barrels on the roof. Also, landscapes demand less water as they're almost always planted with native species. Only banks keep irrigated lawns.
  • + ENERGY (optimizing energy use & renewable energy) 
    Mechanical and electrical systems are simple. Spaces are usually conditioned with fans and lit by the sun, though air conditioning and lights are common. Heat is not needed.
  • + MATERIALS & RESOURCES (using recycled and rapidly-renewable building materials)
    Recycling is an inherent cultural practice–Haitians are very resourceful and reuse almost everything.

...However there are other severe limitations to Haitian buildings:

  • - SUSTAINABLE SITES (picking a site that minimized environmental impact and is accessible to public transportation)
    Public transit in Haiti is an elusive concept. There are the tap-taps, but those are run and owned by private drivers, so they're more like mass-taxis than city buses. Bicycles are nonexistent in Port-au-Prince as the road conditions and traffic make the unusable.
  • - ENERGY
    Because the electrical grid in Haiti is so unreliable, people often depend on diesel generators as backup or primary power sources. Solar panels are hard to come by, though there are several photovoltaic companies based in the Dominican Republic next door.
    Very few materials can be found locally. Waste management system is very weak and precludes proper disposal. Most garbage in Haiti is discarded randomly or burned.
  • - INDOOR ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY (clean, comfortable air in indoor spaces through filtration, low-toxicity and natural comfort)
    Available finish materials (ie paints, glues and varnishes that coat indoor surfaces) are old school. There are few low-VOC materials options that release fewer toxins in the air.

It's true that LEED was developed for United States quality of life–the highest expectations in the world that bring with them a more expensive way of life in regards to resource consumption. So LEED is very country-specific. Even Canada had modifications to their LEED system to better suit their particular needs. 

On top of that, many LEED credits are based on cost, which is still an unknown variable in Haitian reconstruction.

There are some insurmountable challenges, at least in the immediate future. Haiti's weak infrastructural system means few points could be counted for public transit (tap taps are a private venture), and systems like waste management and electricity would need a lot of attention before LEED could even be able to talk about them.

It would seem then that a modified LEED rating system would have to be developed for Haiti. And that's no small undertaking.