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Rebuild social institutions as well as buildings

Mary Comerio, emeritus professor of architecture | January 21, 2010

The catastrophic earthquake damage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and its surrounding communities is a poignant reminder of the difficulties that many countries and regions have faced in planning for disaster recovery. Losses in the Indonesian tsunami, or earthquakes in China, India or Turkey were equally devastating for the millions of people who were affected.

The media has focused on the devastation as well as the poverty and the seeming lack of local government, as if every building and every institution has suddenly disappeared and “outside” agencies and/or governments will need to “take charge” of the Haitian recovery.

Certainly, in the emergency-period, which could last for several months, the heavy lifting by American troops and  international aid organizations is critical.  Food, water and medical care are desperately needed and the logistics of moving and distributing that aid requires the management and resources of international bodies.

Planning for recovery, however, is a more complex and subtle task.  Recovery is more than rebuilding infrastructure, businesses and housing. While the physical reconstruction efforts are often daunting in themselves (witness the conditions in New Orleans four years after Hurricane Katrina), meaningful community recovery is about people and social institutions.

The planning for recovery needs to start now. Yes, even before the emergency situation is under control. At the same time that international aid organizations are stabilizing the situation, teams from these agencies should be identifying the functioning local government agencies,  NGOs, faith-based organizations and other social and community institutions that exist and know how to work in Haiti, and help them to plan for recovery.

Clearly there are some major tasks that need to be planned:

1) Debris removal will require lots of heavy equipment, but it can also be a source of local jobs.

2) Inspection of damaged and undamaged buildings will require some outside experts to map and inventory conditions,  but local teams of architects, engineers and university students  can also be mobilized.

3) Quick repairs of lightly damaged buildings will allow some people to be re-housed and some organizations to establish a base of operations.

4) Rebuilding infrastructure can involve alternative systems for power and water supplies which again employ local workers.

5) Establishing multiple distribution centers for the sale of construction materials will allow individuals and families to build for themselves, especially if technical assistance is available.

These and many other tasks need coordination, and the will to help Haitians help themselves. Instead of assuming that the “victims” are helpless, it is important to recognize that while many thousands need help, others  can be tapped to work on rebuilding their communities.

The World Bank, the UN, the US government and many others will help to fund Haiti’s recovery, but the most important aid will be the planning and coordination that takes advantage of local organizations and institutions — universities, NGOs, churches, etc. — to develop distributed networks of health and social service providers as well as construction materials and assistance. Rebuilding after disasters is a long-term undertaking, but if local people are engaged and involved, the capacity building will provide the basis for rebuilding a better future for Haiti.

Comments to “Rebuild social institutions as well as buildings

  1. Earthquakes make heavy damages to the city and human, but some cities do not damaged so much in Earthquakes because of their good building conditions. For example, Japan is the country where have many Earthquakes every year, their main building in big city was built mostly by concrete with relatively concrete formwork, the buildings are strong enough to resist high level Earthquakes. So if the government hope to avoid the same damages by Earthquakes, the important point is to improve the quality of buildings.

    P.S. Regarding concrete and concrete formwork, refer to

  2. Earthquake damages so many lives and it does mess everything. I think the Earthquake in Haiti was absolutely horrible and hoping for good the government has taking steps to re-build again. As a human we also must need to help in any which way for that country.

  3. Agree with the author, rebuilding of a place of catastrophe should be complex, well planned and organized, unfortunately what happens nowadays is a ratrace of corporation, organizations, event countries which the only interest for them is to expose logo and go in line with their mission as a social responsible company…

  4. In reference to what Ed Brophy was implying about the need for a very quick housing and sheltering solution:

    A couple of years ago some inventors came up with ‘Instant’ Concrete Huts. These can be be made with your bog standard wholesale cement (Ordinary Portland Cement – see specs table at bottom).

    So surely this sort of instant housing solution should be relatively cheap, but if that’s the case why are these not being seen on a mass scale?

  5. I’m so glad to get the perspective of the need to rebuild social institutions from an architect. As a political scientist and urban scholar, I have long been concerned about the legacies of the “bricks and mortar” approach to urban redevelopment in the fifties and sixties. There is a need not only to build new buildings and refurbish old ones. True “urban development” requires reinventing and reinvigorating social networks and institutions.

    That was one of my concerns about disaster relief in Haiti. With the exception of Gen. Honore (whose service was so exceptional in New Orleans after Katrina) and yourself, few commentators focused on this social aspect of disaster relief.

    As someone who is interested in social reconstruction in the aftermath of disasters, what organizations do you know of that specialize or have programs in this area?

  6. Coming out of a catastrophic event like this it is often the community spirit that sees everyone through. I agree that it is important to rebuild the social institutions as part of this rebuild process too.

  7. Earthquakes have taken many lives since this planet came to existence. It’s good that there are such institutions coming forward and helping these poor countries to get their lives back on track somehow. Large amount of heavy construction equipment is needed to clear off the rubble and dig out people if they are alive….

  8. are there any foam/SIPC shelters like herb yates ‘accordion’ shelter
    which would be suitable for haiti?
    thank you

  9. HAITI needs Quonset huts (arch shaped metal buildings) like they used in the Pacific theatre during World War II. Tents are humiliating and imprudent for the weather of Haiti!

    Paste these links in for Pacific Island Quonset huts:

    Soldier Barracks.

    Inside View.

    People Inside.

    —As far as skill is concerned—if you have enough reasons why— you can find the how-to. Your I will is needed now more than your IQ. Your I will in the face of defeat—inspires hope and the intestinal fortitude to rise above the challenge.

  10. Good morning, I live in Paraíso, Dominican Republic and am tasked to go back and forth to Port au Prince and visit two faith based Catholic communities. We have two severely damaged seminary buildings, a collapsed school, major damages to a large church and a large rectory. Can you expand about debris removal as a source of local jobs? Can crumbled cement blocks and lightly damaged blocks be useful in some kind of new structure? Can the debris be incorporated into thicker walls? Your approach to rebuilding and planning seems right on target from my experience living in the Dominican Republic. Also: can you suggest community participation ideas that have been effective in the development of earthquake damage prevention? Santiago and other Cibao communities are near a fault line that has had no major quakes for 800 years and scientists theorize that a major quake is overdue.

    • Hello Brian Kennedy –

      I’m trying to find specific information on your questions, as they are relevant for many; I’m only a recent UCB M.Arch / M.C.P. grad (2009), but talking to others from UCBerkeley and beyond, including in Haiti right now, and working on compiling information and re-distributing it. So before following my advice you should of course check with others with more experience. What’s your background, by the way? My suggestions may be too basic for someone with design/construction experience, and I don’t know if you’ve gotten other replies (they don’t show) but here goes…

      Manual debris removal: While heavy equipment can be used / may be necessary to deal with large pieces of buildings, there is a lot of smaller rubble, or large pieces that can be broken up into smaller sizes before being taken away. You could hire a lot of Haitians at a living wage for the cost of a large front-end loader + diesel + skilled operator, and all three are in short supply right now, and smaller debris will more efficiently fill dump trucks, reducing the costs of removal. In addition, hand-removal of debris may be considered more humane / respectful of any bodies still buried in the rubble. Finally, manual labor can do demolition, removals, but especially salvage – pulling usable pieces out and separating the various kinds of debris, such as electrical wiring, reinforcing steel, wood, clothing, books, and other materials. Bodies may require specialized workers for proper removal after such a long time, and with other hazards such as broken glass and protruding rebar, workers must be trained to be extremely cautious, and sites may need to be stabilized / vertically reduced by mechanical demolition prior to allowing access. Access may need to be restricted, to reduce uncoordinated and dangerous ‘looting’ of materials.

      Building with rubble: Short answer is you should be very careful about building with rubble or salvaged materials. Ideally, all concrete would be crushed and used as a percentage of the aggregate of new mixes, with some testing done or conservative values used to calculate its strength. Otherwise, it should only be used as gravel for drainage, either in french drains or compacted for under-slab drainage. Much of the concrete in Haiti is made with inadequate cement in the mix, excessive water, or when applied dried too quickly for complete hydration; without testing it’s difficult to know. Non-structural applications may be appropriate, but even ‘infill’ walls in concrete frames take seismic forces.

      In addition to concrete debris, there will be steel rebar from collapsed buildings. Here again caution is warranted; in addition to hidden stresses or weaknesses from bending and re-straightening, much rebar in some countries is made with scrap metal of unknown composition. If less-ductile metals were used in the manufacture of the rebar, or the manufacturing process was not controlled well, the steel could be inadequately ductile. I have read of rebar that snapped at a 90deg. bend! Also, much ‘rebar’ from these sites is smooth, not ribbed, so has little holding power. While smooth rebar can be used by adding ‘heads’, either welded or threaded, its actual strength in this configuration would need to be calculated by an engineer.

      I hope that isn’t discouraging. I love the idea of being able to re-use materials on-site; and perhaps others will be less conservative in their assessment. But I would hate to advise you to ‘go for it’ and then see structural failures. Unless the rubble is used to build low-occupancy / non-critical buildings or building components with short expected life spans (temporary, to be replaced in a few years when better materials are available), I would urge caution. I will say that hollow concrete blocks may be adequate as ‘formwork’ for new walls; that is, laying them up as a cavity wall which is both reinforced horizontally with rebar in the mortar courses as it is built, and vertically with rebar and ‘grouting’ to fill the cavity. This at least saves the difficulty of building separate formwork, only to remove or destroy it after the pouring of a ‘Cast-In-Place’ concrete wall.

      I wish you success in your efforts. I know that it is an extremely difficult situation there; I lost acquaintances in the event and wish I could be there now, may be in the future. There are many who are eager to help with advice, if they can’t be there in person; so continue to reach out and ask questions…we will do what we can to help.


      David D. Gregory
      UCBerkeley M.Arch/M.C.P. 2009
      Rutgers U. BSLA 2000

  11. I agree that social institutions play a crucial role in the incorporation of the population in rebuilding its own society. I would add that the involvement of the people ought to begin at the planning stage.
    Rather than having outsiders establish lists of priorities, existing groups ought to set up the ‘to do’ lists and sequence the priorities. The difference is that between conquering armies and participatory development.

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