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April 26, 2011

Haitian Children to Benefit from New, Sustainable Community School

San Francisco, CA - Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, a unique collaboration developed between BAR Architects and Architecture for Humanity in response to the disaster.

Lisa Victor, a senior associate at BAR Architects in San Francisco, felt compelled to do something to help. “The suffering was so great and the conditions so awful, I wanted to do something substantive,” she said. Victor prepared a memo to the principals of BAR proposing that interested staff donate personal vacation time in exchange for providing professional services to design a new school outside Port au Prince. The response from within the firm was both positive and impressive: ultimately, fully three-quarters of the 75-person office volunteered in some capacity, relinquishing vacation time as well as donating unpaid work hours for the cause.

Small teams from BAR Architects, totaling nine architects and designers are now spending six months of non-billable time working in rotating teams on-site in Haiti. Enough time was generated to provide professional design services for six months. “We will see this project through conceptual design and construction documents,” commented Chris Haegglund, AIA, principal at BAR.

Simultaneously, John Engel, co-founder and president of Haiti Partners, a Florida-based, non-profit foundation, had approached Architecture for Humanity after the quake to secure design assistance for the impoverished region. Now BAR, Architecture for Humanity and Haiti Partners are collaborating to design and build a 450-student K-12 school on a three-acre site near Mariaman in the hills outside Port-au-Prince. Plans call for a groundbreaking in Fall 2011 for the first phase, serving K-6 to open in the fall. Approximately 25-30 students will be in each grade.

The rough-terrain site occupies an undeveloped part of Haiti, 2,500 feet above sea level; there is no existing infrastructure for water, electricity, sewage or transportation in the area. As a result, the new school will be entirely off the grid and self-sustaining. Plans call for solar power, rainwater collection for irrigation, a local well for potable water, and composting toilets for waste. The 38,000 square-foot structure will be built of local limestone and reinforced cinder block; a Haitian contractor will do all work with supervision from Architecture for Humanity and Haiti Partners. The steep site lends itself to a natural amphitheater to be fashioned from the bowl-shaped terrain. “We’re utilizing simple but highly effective building systems,” commented Victor.

In addition to the sustainable design aspects, the new building will also serve as a model school for other communities. The majority of schools in Haiti are built and run privately, as the government does not adequately provide public education. Plans also call for an onsite garden to be tended and operated by the students to sell fruits and vegetables. “It’s a terrific model for education,” said Haegglund; “we’re excited about seeing this project through,” he added.

Architecture for Humanity is working with approximately 10 schools in Haiti. “The Mariaman facility is to be a model school, built to international standards, and thus will allow us to add elements that most likely would not have been part of a locally-conceived project,” said Stacey McMahan, AIA/USGBC Design Fellow. The finished building will include a computer lab, to be completely powered by the photovoltaic roof panels. "The quality of design will likely affect the quality of learning," she added. "This is very much a case of better learning, better operations, and better materials." McMahan went on to say, “The challenge is to build to quality standards, so oversight and training is essential to the success of the project.” The collaboration is also enabling local Haitian communities to understand what is entailed in better-quality building design and construction.

Following the six months of services provided by BAR, Architecture for Humanity will then oversee the project through to its completion. Depending upon funding, plans call for the school to be completed for all 450 students by 2014, according to McMahan.

“It’s something of a dream-come-true,” said Victor. “I am genuinely happy that we – as a community and group of designers, co-workers and concerned individuals – could contribute in a meaningful way. Mostly, I’m eager to see the students starting school in the new building as soon as possible.”