Monday, October 04, 2010

Innovative Help for Haiti

When the worst earthquake in many decades struck Haiti last Jan. 12, it killed over 200,000 people and wrecked hundreds of thousands of buildings. In the months after the quake, Haiti gradually faded from the news, but for Haitians, the quake continues to be a life-changing event that they will never forget. I’d like to look at some rare good news that has come about in relation to the devastating tragedy of that earthquake.

The sheer size of the housing and construction problem in Haiti has created an opportunity for innovative architectural designs that address the specific complex of needs that Haitian reconstruction embodies. These needs include low cost, earthquake resistance, and simplicity of construction. I recently received an email from a Canadian firm called CBD Building Systems. “CBD” stands for “curved by design.” Their basic notion is simple: use short pieces of lumber (they can even start from mill tailings, pieces that are normally thrown away) to make curved sections of a dome-like building shaped like a large igloo. The vertical members are just straight pieces of wood, while the curvature is established by the horizontal members. (See their website referenced in the “Sources” section for pictures.)

Normally I don’t pay attention to companies that just ask me to mention them on my site, and all I have to go on for this one is what their website says. But as the co-founder said in an email, they claim to be applying engineering ethics “beyond the influence of any building codes” and supplying earthquake-resistant structures at a cost they say is below that of some tent-type temporary housing.

If all this is true (and I have no evidence to the contrary), then I say good for CBD Building Systems. They saw a need in a place where the need exceeds the potential profit, and for reasons that are at least partly altruistic, they have made an extra effort to put their product in Haiti and adapt it to the particular circumstances that prevail in that woebegone country. I do not know if they have made a profit from their Haitian venture so far—it seems doubtful. But there is a long tradition, not so much honored today, of engineering firms that take some of their profits and put them into charitable engineering activities that don’t make money, but do somebody good.

I don’t recall the details, but years ago a profitable, privately held firm called General Radio based in Massachusetts sold a small line of aids for blind people, priced well below cost. CBD Building Systems seems to want to make money as well as benefit the people of Haiti, and other parts of the world where their products can be used. I see nothing wrong with that, especially if non-governmental organizations (NGOs) get involved in funding the effort.

Of course, one must be careful to study the details of the situation on the ground. History is full of stories of development projects that benefited everybody except the people they were designed to benefit. In a presentation by members of Engineers Without Borders, an organization that recruits student volunteers to do engineering projects in developing countries, I learned that up to half the effort expended on a typical project is devoted to researching the specific target clients and location, and tailoring educational and training efforts as well as the technical aspects of the project to ensure that a truly lasting benefit accrues to the people on the receiving end. I hope that the same kind of attention is paid by CBD Building Systems and other similar firms which are developing housing adapted to the Haitian situation.

Of course, engineering is always done in an economic context, and we can’t expect a few clever architectural ideas to solve the problem of poverty in Haiti, or anywhere else. If companies can’t make money with their products, they can’t keep making them, and so housing for impoverished devastated places like Haiti may always be just a sideline to most firms. What would really be innovative is if some of these companies set up manufacturing in Haiti itself, and provide much-needed employment for a country that is chronically near the top of the list of poor Western Hemisphere nations. That isn’t engineering, strictly speaking, but it would represent a different kind of extension of the idea that those of us blessed with the ability to do engineering owe something that we should give back to the world.

I thank Peter Black,CBD Building Systems co-founder, for bringing my attention to their work. While they are not the only firm working in the area of relief housing, their efforts are to be commended, and held up as an example of how engineering can be both profitable and beneficial to those in special need.

Sources: The website of CBD Building Systems is, where you can see earthquake tests of their domed structures and samples of their products. An article on the U. S. Coast Guard Forum briefly describes several other types of relief housing being used in Haiti and other regions at

P. S. After posting this article, I received the following comment from Peter Black:

We use a dome wood technology to create a linear curved structure 65 ft long and 24 feet wide which houses 12 families and is earthquake and hurricane proof, fire and termite proof with shuttered screen windows, doors, solar powered lights and fans. We considered manufacturing there but the infrastructure is just not there so we designed so 85% of the product's labour will be done by low skilled Haitian workers who work for $6 - $12 per day thus injecting some much needed economic development and Haitian pride. The local workers take the flat-packed wood parts, assemble the frames and erect the structure which is designed to work as a ladder so you erect the shell bottom to top then add the exterior cladding from top to bottom. It takes 3-6 days to install the structure ready to move in. The cost ready to move in is Cdn$15/ sq ft where total living area is 5,376 sq ft or 448 sq ft per apartment. Temporary structures are costing as much as $19/sq ft there.

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