Architecture Students Design and Build Shelter for Haiti’s Homeless

When an earthquake struck just west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, the devastation displaced somewhere between 1.5 to 2 million people and killed thousands of Haitians. Charity organizations around the country dedicated their efforts to providing emergency food and medical supplies and shelters for the area’s many homeless.

This semester, 15 fifth-year architecture students working on their capstone project at Philadelphia University banded together to design a transitional shelter that could be quickly and cheaply constructed to meet the needs of the affected people in Haiti. A full-scale model of the shelter was built by the students and currently stands on the Ravenhill Campus.

Architecture faculty members Bob Busser and Ivano D’Angella co-taught the course, which was designed to give students a real-world problem to tackle together.

Busser conceived of the idea of building a shelter for Haiti after a trip to the country following the earthquake. He worked in Haiti for 10 weeks with Habitat for Humanity, helping to construct temporary dwelling places for those who lost their homes in the earthquake. Those working in the country were limited by time and resources, as well as the need to be able to build many structures in a small space.

Busser and D’Angella presented their students with the same challenges and limitations, and organized a charette —an intensive, collaborative design process over a short period of time — for the students to create potential shelter designs. Students then selected the best model to construct as a demonstration on campus.

The winning design — created by Kaitlyn Korber — was constructed over the spring semester using limited materials, mostly woven bamboo, mesh, concrete and sand foundations poured into 5-gallon buckets and some metal studs.

Even the materials themselves tell the story of the earthquake. “When humanitarian aid organizations came to Haiti after the quake, they brought supplies in literally over 22,000 5-gallon buckets,” Busser said. “The people didn’t know what to do with all of the leftover buckets, so we were able to fill them with concrete to use as foundations for shelters.”

Korber’s design, which Busser said he thought was better than the structures actually built in Haiti, includes a wall slanted outward at 15 degrees to create more space despite a small square footage requirement — about 175 square feet for a family of five. The outwardly slanted wall allows for easier access to bunk beds within as well as improves access to natural lights and ventilation.

The students also spent the first six weeks of the course learning about how people live in Haiti, and used that knowledge to inform their designs. In Haiti, for example, sleeping areas tend to be public rooms while kitchen areas are viewed as private — the opposite of how those rooms are typically viewed in America. The shelter was built with those norms in mind.

“It was really exciting to see the project come to life,” Korber said.

“You go to school for five years and you do a lot of work on paper,” she said. “It was great to see all of the details of the design play out in construction. You got to see what kinds of things might look good on paper, but need adjusted when it comes time to build. It was a good learning process.”

“Bringing together these 15 young adults, seeing them come together and really pull this project off was a wonderful experience,” D’Angella said. “It was great to see their ‘ah ha!’ moments and to see them bond throughout the project. This is the kind of experience that stays with you.”

While the structure will soon be taken down and the materials recycled — many of which were donated by Home Depot and Fairmount Park — at least for its short life, the shelter proved to stay with the University community through all kinds of pressure.

“After a recent thunderstorm, I heard the wind and rain and wondered about the shelter,” Busser said. Early the next morning he went out to find downed trees and other debris. The shelter, however, was fine.

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