Students Rebuild Haiti: Five Years Later

Architecture for Humanity

January 22, 2015

You may have heard that January 12, 2015, was the five-year anniversary of a devastating earthquake in Haiti that took thousands of lives and brought down countless buildings across the island nation. But the disaster also inspired the launch of Students Rebuild, an initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation that expressed a belief that young people can make big difference strengthening communities around the globe.

I'm happy to see Students Rebuild is thriving, connecting youth and enabling change with each new Challenge, and happy to say that the first Challenge, the Haiti Schools Initiative, was no exception.

Starting way back in 2010, I sent field reports to Students Rebuild on behalf of Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a nonprofit organization of designers dedicated not just to building back better, but building for the long term, and empowering communities to adopt the best practices and revolutionize their construction industry.

AFH's partnership with Students Rebuild resulted in the completion of four schools, nicknamed Dignité ("deeg-nee-tay"), Montrouis ("mon-wee"), Pele ("pay-lay"), and Elie Dubois ("elee du-bwa"). The schools ranged in size from 230 - 2500 students, were located in dense, urban neighborhoods and remote, rural communities alike, sitting at sea level and perched amid the country's countless mountains.

That first year, participating classes digitally met the Haitian students whose schools they were helping rebuild - a series of webcasts organized by Global Nomads Group shared cultures, humanitarian efforts, and deeply personal stories. In the following two years, the first phases of each school were completed - but that hardly means the impact of the Haiti Schools Initiative has ended. In fact, you could say it's just begun.

Here, we look back at the Students Rebuild Haiti schools - and what's been happening on campus in 2014.

SR-Haiti 2011-11-04 Dignite-1392 Gerry-Reilly 900

November 2011: École La Dignité, on Haiti's southern coast, was the first Students Rebuild project to celebrate its opening. Two classrooms now augment the school's services, incorporating local stone and bamboo screening and the best passive cooling design techniques. Construction was executed by Haitian builders, as overseen by Architecture for Humanity's construction outreach liaisons - Haitians training to one day open their own construction businesses and reform the nuances of Haitian construction. Dignité went on to receive international design recognition from the likes of Architectural Record, Architizer, and the Phiadon Atlas.

SR-Haiti 2012-02-29 Montrouis-2799 Gerry-Reilly 900

February 2012: In Montrouis, a fishing town on the Bay of Port-au-Prince, Collège Mixte Le Bon Berger opened its first phase to great fanfare. In many ways, the Montrouis school became the flagship for Architecture for Humanity's reconstruction values: construction training and oversight of local builders guaranteed the best quality of building, and innovation - from local metalsmiths' doors and windows, to a spectrum celebration of sun shading - showcased just what could be done in Haiti by Haitians, with the support of seasoned international designers.

SR-Haiti 2012-07-14 Elie-Dubois Kate-Evarts

July 2012: Graduation Day for many of the girls from École Elie Dubois ("du-bwa") who participated in the first Students Rebuild videoconference sessions! The girls helped Architecture for Humanity identify the needs and opportunities for the new school, which led to the design and construction of this dynamic cafeteria space to replace the beloved cafeteria brought down by the 2010 earthquake. With walls that open, this space is more than a dining hall - it can host events, ceremonies, and large lectures.

SR-Haiti 2013-10-15 Elie-Dubois-cafe-porch Karl-Johnson 900

October 2013: Haiti office director Kate Evarts brought Stacey and me to check out the new Elie Dubois campus. The new cafeteria building looked regal and was (temperature-wise) very cool.

SR-Haiti 2013-10-15 Elie-Dubois-cafe-room Karl-Johnson 900

...Part of the space was blocked into classrooms until Elie's Phase 2 - historic preservation of its 100-year-old earthquake-damaged building - is completed. More on that below.

SR-Haiti 2012-11-22 Pele Natalie-Desrosiers 900

November 2012: The first new, permanent classroom block is completed at École Baptiste Bon Berger in Pele, Port-au-Prince. The construction team navigated harrowing difficulties of a compact site, high water tables, and bandits. Pele is one of the densest and most notorious slums in Haiti; it took tremendous coordination between the designers, the builders, and school headmaster Chedrick to ensure a safe environment during construction.

SR-Haiti 2014-03-11 Pele-1606 Stanley-Joseph 900 1

March 2014: Difficulties didn't let up for the Pele school's Phase 2 bathroom block. Increased gang activity threatened project completion - until the contractor volunteered to do the work during the night! Here the bathroom bloc has just been completed - it uses a "bagasse" composting system and collects, filters and stores rainwater for handwashing. Sanitation nonprofit GiveLove has trained school staff on the compost system that will sterilize waste produced by the school and turn it into a marketable plant fertilizer. In the foreground, a piece from AFH's Civic Arts program has found a home among the other plants surrounding the bloc.

SR-Haiti 2014-01-24 Pele-1417 Stanley-Joseph 900

...The Pele school has also begun to execute a new classroom bloc! Construction will continue past the closure of AFH's office, but AFH left advice and recommendations with the school to ensure the new construction matches the quality of the first new classroom block facing it.

SR-Haiti 2013-09-24 Montrouis-0189 Natalie-Desrosiers 900

September 2013: Montrouis school's Phase 2 included additional classrooms, an administrative building, and rebuilt bathrooms. AFH architects again got playful with the classroom design - because why should classrooms be boring?? - and window shading to keep the hot Caribbean sun at bay while letting the cool breezes in.

SR-Haiti 2013-10-01 Montrouis-1056 Jacques-Nixon 900

...the new bathrooms at Montrouis showcase the achievable potential for every school bathroom in Haiti: secure construction, rainwater harvesting for hand washing and space to create compost. The result looks modest but is a revolutionary approach to waste in Haiti, where pit latrines and flying toilets are the norms. Montrouis school's compost system is bagasse, like Pele's and GiveLove is on the scene again to train school staff on the straightforward but specific composting procedure.

SR-Haiti 2013-11-07 Montrouis-2874 Wilson-DOr 900

Montrouis school headmaster Wilson D'Or poses with students to recognize completion of the Phase 2 classrooms.

SR-Haiti 2013-05-06 Montrouis-1906-old-bldg Fleur-Messer 900

And a reminder of what the Montrouis school looked like before Students Rebuild. Not only will the new school stand up to future earthquakes, but it provides a new standard for education spaces. We hope this standard can make its way to every corner of the country - but it will still take many years and jump high hurdles to do so.

SR-Haiti 2013-12-03 Elie-Dubois-097 Kate-Evarts 900 (1)

In December 2013, the Elie Dubois girl's vocational school in downtown Port-au-Prince turned 100 years old. The event was covered in Haiti's largest newspaper, Le Nouveliste. Students, alumni, and parents gathered here before the original school building to honor its history. Yet this historic building is about to open a new chapter and spring back to life.

SR-Haiti 2014-08-12 Elie-Dubois-0845 Jacques-Nixon 900

In 2014, construction went underway to preserve Elie Dubois' surviving historic building. Work includes renovating the iconic mansard roof (shown here through the trees) and applying a structural fiberglass layer to existing walls. This wall thickening procedure has never been done before in Haiti at this scale, but such a historic school like Elie Dubois warrants some special treatment.

Thanks for taking a walk with us through Students Rebuild's first Challenge! The impact of the reconstruction of these four schools didn't end at their opening and won't end at their Phase 2 completion, either. Instead, the efforts made by students across the globe in 2010 has set the stage for an architectural renaissance in Haiti, where Haitian builders continue to learn and employ the best construction practices - at first with help from foreign NGO's like Architecture for Humanity. But we're beginning to see these builders graduate and go into business for themselves.