Haiti:Tent Cities andPost Earthquake Reconstruction

Haiti’s Tent Cities and Reconstruction

Haiti Reconstruction and Traditional Architecture from Maximilian Kronauer on Vimeo.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Maximilian Kronauer

The Visioning of Vernacular Architecture in Post-Earthquake Haiti

On January 12, 2010 a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the country of Haiti, a third world nation that shares the island of Espanola with the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Sea. The earthquake devastated the developing nation, killing over 200,000 people and internally displacing over a million citizens (Britannica, “Haiti earthquake of 2010″). Many of the deaths were caused by inadequately built structures, which collapsed on residents when the earthquake struck and during the subsequent aftershocks. The aftermath of the disaster resulted in a flood of international aid from countries all over the globe as well as from many independently run non-profit organizations. These groups provided medical aid, supplies, search and rescue aid, and later reconstruction assistance(Audefroy, “Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction”). 2447136However, while this support was intended to cover the basic needs of the people, those who were internally displaced resorted to living in mass tent cities within the destruction zone. In these tent cities residents fended for themselves because they lacked electricity, water, waste management, and security. As an initial emergency shelter, the tent cities provided enough stability for the displaced. However, for many residents, living in a tent camps has become indefinite since they lack the personal resources to secure permanent housing (VOAvideo, Life in Haiti’s Tent Cities Differs by Location). Additionally, there are multiple factors holding Haiti back from making a full recovery—the country is marred with social and economical issues, and the government does not have the political sway nor the financial resources to fully implement a large-scale reconstruction plan. Poor planning, lack of funds, corruption, and a population dependent on external aid has prolonged the existence of tent cities. 100120-N-3165S-275Two years after the earthquake struck more than 500,000 still reside in the camps. While living conditions there have improved, especially with support from non-profits, many of them remain without the essential needs of contemporary society (CTNow, Hope for “Haiti: Inside a Haitian Tent City).

The nexus between Haiti’s tent cities and architecture is an obvious focal point since shelter is the most fundamental element of architecture. The need for new architecture in Haiti is clear yet the execution of this challenge is much less apparent. The Haitian government has established a series of programs meant to rebuild lost communities and repair damaged buildings. Outside organizations have also offered their expertise in architectural and urban design, providing competitions for new structures and master plans in order to jump-start restoration.

RED CROSS HAITI OPERATIONBoth groups have been met with applause and criticism. One area that initially encountered praise was the construction of T-shelters. These simple huts were built as temporary housing for tent city residences.While T-shelters provided a welcomed alternative to the slum-like conditions, the buildings were not designed for long-term inhabitance or to withstand the force from hurricanes. Ultimately the T-shelters, where one estimate placed the cost of the program at $500 million, must be recycled and replaced with permanent residence at an unknown price tag (Davis, “What is the Vision for Sheltering and Housing in Haiti?”).


With the establishment of modernized building techniques in Haiti beginning in the 1900’s the traditional knowledge of building began to fade and along with it the historical methods for handling earthquakes and hurricanes. Haiti’s contemporary architecture has been strongly influenced by modern construction. The majority of new buildings are constructed with poured concrete or concrete masonry units (CMU) and not materials that are locally found or traditionally used by Caribbean cultures (“Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction”). Concrete has been accepted as a structurally superior material in comparison to traditional wood or wattle and daub construction. Unfortunately in many cases, concrete has not been implemented correctly and has not complied with basic engineering standards. Haiti_Earthquake_DamageUpon examination of rubble and destroyed buildings following the earthquake it is clear that concrete floor slabs were built spanning distances greater than structurally capable. Concrete walls were too thin to support the load from floor slabs, and the joints of column and beams were not suitable for the lateral forces of an earthquake or hurricane winds. Additionally, concrete structures lacked or did not have adequate reinforcing thus nullifying the material’s potential structural capacity and leaving the building primed to fail when enduring traumatic force (“Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction.”).

Furthermore, another explanation for the widespread use of concrete in Haitian buildings, beyond its perceived structural integrality, is the nation’s depletion of natural recourses. Wood was the main material historically used in Haiti but it is almost completely exhausted in this half of the island. Extreme deforestation began in the 1800’s after the nation gained its independence from France and country is now left with 1.5% of its initial forest population, most of which has gone to energy production (Britannica, “Haiti: History”). Deforestation has created safety concerns for populated areas, which are often built into hillsides and are now susceptible to landslides and mudslides as a consequence of unstable soil. Inflation has also caused serious strain on traditional building because lumber is now imported and poor communities cannot afford to use it. Beyond the concern over cost, wood is essential in traditional construction, which has evolved to withstand the destruction of hurricanes and earthquakes. As stated by Joel Audefry in his article “Haiti: Post-Earthquake Lessons Learned From Traditional Construction,” the tradition of, “so-called vernacular structures have demonstrated highly acceptable behaviors during earthquakes as a result of traditional construction systems developed over the course of long periods of time (“Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction”448).” Without a sustainable supply of wood, builders have turned to concrete, which takes no consideration into context, culture, or the environmental factors such as climate, soil, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The state of vernacular architecture has thus transformed as modern materials have taken control; builders lack a thorough understanding of the material’s principles and therefore fail to construct structurally sound buildings.

Understanding Haiti’s past is as important as developing its future architecture and communities. There are three main building typologies that encompass traditional Haitian architecture. These are the Kay, the Creole, and Gingerbread building types. kay and creole
With the rise of concrete usage these styles have become less significant because they are viewed as inferior to the advancements of modern building technology. However, the design methods and modes of construction found in these buildings are the key to better buildings in Haiti. To begin, the Kay or “house,” in Haitian Creole is the precursor to the American Shotgun house and was brought to the Caribbean by slaves from West Africa. The plan of the Kay is a narrow rectangle that is one room wide and several rooms deep with one room leading to the next without a corridor. A gallery entrance is located on the short elevation, which faces the street. This porch area is essential to Haitian social life because the majority of daily activities such as cooking and cleaning take place outside and interior spaces are considered highly private  (Stouter, “Haitian Wisdom for Aid Buildings”). The porch also provides protection from the sun and rain while an attic story of the pediment adds additional storage space. Kay houses are made from timber frames and the walls are usually made from thatched wood, wattle and daub, or masonry infill. While the majority of these houses are single story buildings, two story houses emerge in urban settings but have additional structure and a second floor gallery.

The Creole style was influenced by West African architecture but also by Spanish colonial design. However, unlike the shotgun layout of the Kay house, the Creole’s façade is the long elevation with one or two layers of rooms behind its front porch. Similar to the Kay, Creoles may be two stories tall with a second level balcony, or often times the building is elevated and the ground level is used for storage. 21-b010dde152Both the Kay and Creole have been tailored to the hot and humid Caribbean climate; the shallowness of the building and directly connected rooms help cross ventilation through doors and tall windows (“Haitian Wisdom for Aid Buildings”). Its fabrication is identical to the key house and both structures absorb lateral loads better than concrete structures because the timber frames are flexible and lightweight.

Finally, Gingerbread houses were built in the Victorian style of the 1800’s but draw on construction techniques from the Creole design. The gingerbread style got its name from American tourists in the 1950’s and has stood as a status symbol and historical icon for Haiti since their erection (“Haitian Wisdom for Aid Buildings”). gingerbread_haitiThese multi-story wooden structures have stood against multiple earthquakes and during the 2010 disaster only 5% of gingerbread houses suffered complete or severe damage, thus proving their efficiently during extreme lateral loading.

Rebuilding Haiti and re-housing its internally displaced population will involve more than simply constructing a set of edifices but rather in depth reconfiguration of its construction methods. It is necessary to transition away from substandard construction with modern materials, which in part contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. In response, the traditional system needs to be joined with modern methodologies of design and construction. For example, innovative and sustainable alternatives such as straw bales or earthbags must be experimented with and tested in future designs (Ti Kay Pay: A Straw Bale Rebuilding Solution for Haiti) Additionally, the reconstruction processes must look beyond Haiti’s boarders and investigate external sources of vernacular design that engage with issues of natural disaster and climate. The culmination of this operation must be dealt with in conjunction with the people of Haiti, not by outside forces that dictate their will. Community involvement is crucial for a healthy social fabric as well as economy, which means the people of Haiti must be engaged in the design processes as well as construction. Eliminating the need for tent cities extends beyond the realm of simplistic architecture but incorporates much broader social and cultural implications and an understanding of Haiti’s historical background. Lastly, if orchestrated correctly, how may the symbiotic relationship between modern and vernacular architecture in Haiti’s reconstruction serve as a blueprint to prevent such catastrophic destruction during future natural disasters around the globe?





Torgan, Allie. “Haitians living in fear ‘under the tent’ – CNN.com.” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/18/world/americas/cnnheroes-haiti-rape/index.html (accessed September 9, 2013).

CNN’s “Hatitian’s Living in Fear ‘Under the Tent’” brings together the main concerns surrounding the living conditions in Haitian tent cities. The article establishes why things should change by illustrating the presence of rape and violence in the camps as well as the overall lack of safety, all basic services a community and a home should have. It is evident from this article that changes to these living conditions must be made in order to increase the standard of living of Haitians.

“Haiti’s tent cities: Nowhere to go | The Economist.” The Economist. http://www.economist.com/node/21528627 (accessed September 9, 2013).

The Economist’s article “Haiti’s Tent Cities: Nowhere to go,” describes the actions being taken by the government and other organizations to relocate the displaced population into temporary and permanent housing. Projects such as “Six-Sized” which is sponsored by the government and meant to re-establish destroyed neighborhoods and reduce the tent city populations. The article also touches on the challenges these organizations face in reconstruction, mainly lack of funds and corruption.

Walker, Seb. “Haiti’s Heritage Key to its Future.” Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/focus/2010/08/2010823746741174.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

Aljazeere’s article Haiti’s heritage Key to its Future by Seb Walker discusses Haiti’s historical architecture called “gingerbread” houses. These buildings are a mix of European and Haitian architecture and were built in through the 1800 and 1900’s. The article notes that these houses are constructed out of wood and sustained little damage during the earthquake compared to concrete structures. This work is useful because it ties together how historical buildings provide answers to day’s housing problems in Haiti.

Encyclopedia Entries

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Haiti: Haiti in the 21st Century,” accessed September 08, 2013,http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/251961/Haiti.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry “Haiti in the 21st Century,” gives a brief overview of the major events in Haiti over the last decade. The encyclopedia describes the political and social troubles that the nation has faced, including a contested election and violent riots. This information gives insight into the turmoil that the country continues to face and why Haiti has not been able to rebound after the earthquake.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Haiti earthquake of 2010,” accessed September 08, 2013,http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1659695/Haiti-earthquake-of-2010.

“Haiti Earthquake of 2010,” posted by Encyclopedia Britannica outlines the events of January 12, 2010, the day the earthquake struck and the subsequent aftermath. Details of the international community and non-profit support for Haiti are also given in the entry, along with accounts of the statistical devastation inflicted on the country. Overall Encyclopedia Britannica puts into perspective how and why tent cities came about following the quake.

Scholarly Articles

Joel, Audefroy. “Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction.” Last modified 10 10, 2011. Accessed September 8, 2013. http://eau.sagepub.com/content/23/2/447.abstract.

“Haiti: Post Earthquake Lessons Learned from Traditional Construction,” by John Audefroy is an in-depth analysis of the Haitian building construction prior to the 2010 Earthquake. In his paper Audefroy studies the methods and materials used in Haiti to construct homes in order to better understand why so many failed during the earthquake. From this analysis the author provides alternative building methods for future construction that use local material and culturally traditional design. These substitutes also provide better structural integrity and more adequately resist the devastating effects of hurricanes and earthquakes. Audefroy’s work provides a holistic understanding to why over 400,000 homes were destroyed due to their frailty and improper construction.

Davis, Ian. “What is the Vision for Sheltering and Housing in Haiti?” Last modified 2011. Accessed September 8, 2013. http://sheltercentre.org/library/what-vision-sheltering-and-housing-haiti.

“What is the Vision for Sheltering and Housing in Haiti? Summary Observations of Reconstruction Progress following the Haiti Earthquake of January 12th 2010,” is a report by Ian Davis in which he illustrates the reconstruction progress in Haiti after a three-week visit to the country in 2011. In his report Davis notes that there has been some success in bring back communities but that there has been a lot of superficial support that has had no positive effect on the country. The author goes on to state that much of the negative outcomes has been government waste, lack of resources, and disaster tourism industry all of which have not provided any long term support for the Haitian people. From this article it is evident that a more communal approach must be taken to rebuild Haiti, the people of the country must take it upon themselves to better their country in order to create a sustainable future.

Builders Without Borders. “Ti Kay Pay.” builderswithoutborders.com. www.builderswithoutborders.org/HAITI/Haiti_Proposal.pdf (accessed September 20, 2013).

Ti Kay Pay: A Straw Bale Rebuilding Solution for Haiti published by Builders Without Borders analysis the use of straw construction reconstruction in Haiti. This paper focuses on the benefits of straw bales and its effectiveness as a new building material because it is cheaper and more sustainable then concrete. Additionally, the authors note that these buildings can uses traditional Haitian typologies such as the Kay or shotgun house, which has been used in the Caribbean region for many generations.

Stouter, Patti. “Haitian Wisdom.” Scribd. http://www.scribd.com/doc/28552969/Haitian-Wisdom (accessed September 23, 2013).

“Haitian Wisdom for Aid Buildings,” by landscape Architect Patti Stouter is an in depth review of Haitian planning and construction culture. The article discusses the social importance of traditional Haitian typologies, which include the Kay, Spanish Creole, and Gingerbread houses, in conjunction with the history of each design. Furthermore, the paper analysis’s the plan of a basic development that is fully integrated into the Haitian way of life. Overall this essay provides a comprehensive background to Haitian vernacular architecture through the lens of it region’s culture.

Stouter, Patti. “Kay Haitian Housing.” Scribd. http://www.scribd.com/doc/28640388/Kay-Haitian-Housing (accessed September 23, 2013).

“The Kay: A Haitian Transitional Housing Plan,” by Patti Stouter proposes the use of earthbags in Haiti as an alternative to concrete construction. The author emphasizes the simplicity of earthbag houses and their low cost production. Stouter also analysis the Kay typology and suggests that earthbags promote this form because they are a highly fixable building material and perform well in earthquakes.

Orthographic Documentation

Trans City Architecture and Urbanism, “Jacmel Master plan.” Rendering. 2011. Archdaily, http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/1316192616-03-110907-tc-zt-jacmel-masterplan.jpg (accessed September 8, 2013).

Trans City Architecture and Urbanism’s master plan for reconstructing Jacmel, Haiti provides a unique approach to relocating the thousands of displaced people who live in tent cities. The plan engages the landscape and is meant to rebuild not only the community but also the environment through agriculture and forestry. The plan’s vision is clear but lacks urbanism, which developed through organic growth, this presents the concern as to if it can actually be functional for Haitians or is it more idealistic.

Kaitlyn Korber, “Haiti House.” Photograph. 2010. PhilaU.com, http://wordpress.philau.edu/today/2011/04/29/architecture-students-design-and-build-shelter-for-haitis-homeless/ (accessed September 8, 2013).

Developed by Kaitlyn Korber, an architecture student at Philadelphia University, the Haiti House is a good example of a simplistic shelter that can be easily constructed as a temporary alternative to tent cities. The house is made from local material as well as recycled material left behind by aid organizations after the earthquake. What is quite significant about the house is how the designer researched the Haitian culture and used that knowledge to make a simple design that best fits their cultural needs.

Video and Audio

“Hope for Haiti: Inside a Haitian Tent City,” YouTube video, 3:47, posted by “CTNow,” August 24, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgsit6-pFyQ.

CTNow’s video Hope for “Haiti: Inside a Haitian Tent City, goes in depth with the living conditions in tent cities, it also provides visuals to better understand the damage caused by the earthquake. The video also brings a personal attribute to the crisis through an interview about a woman’s house that was burned down by thieves and she was forced to live in a camp. This video is significant because it ties together the surrealness of the tent cities with an individual who has lived through it and is there to tell her story.

“Life in Haiti’s Tent Cities Differs by Location,” YouTube video, 2:58, posted by “VOAvideo,” November 12, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBKKi1HEmw0.

Life in Haiti’s Tent Cities Differs by Location, presented by VOAvideo does a comparison of two radically different tent cities in Port-au-Prince Haiti. The video illustrates a camp that lacks all basic necessities for civilized life; this camp does not have basic sanitation, security, or education for its residents. In contrast the other tent city is run by a non-profit organization, which has supplied electricity, security, education, and a communal environment. This second camp invokes a sense of community and a model for the other tent cities, it also is an example of how the reconstruction can be organized and facilitated.


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“Gingerbread House.” Photography. Timeinc.net, http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2009/top10_monuments/gingerbread_haiti.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

Dormino, Marco. “Peacekeeping.” Photography. TheVineHaiti.Wordpress.com, http://thevinehaiti.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/haiti-tent-city1.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

“Wattle and Daub.” Photography. Blogspot.com,  http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_9K7WTFqcvx0/TH4l-Nm3-cI/AAAAAAAADH4/1rqujNwk3ug/s400/winkhurst%2520move%2520020417%25200009%2520wattle%2520and%2520daub.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

“Haiti Earthquake Damage.” Photography. Examiner.com, http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/EXID10331/images/Haiti_Earthquake_Damage.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

“UN Aid in Haiti.” Photography. NationalPost.com, http://www.nationalpost.com/news/world/cms/binary/2447136.jpg?size=620×465 (accessed September 20, 2013).

“Haiti Earthquake.” Photography. RNWL.nl, http://www.rnw.nl/data/files/images/lead/160110%20Port-au-Prince%20ANP-11758467_0.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

Stienhour, Ryan. “Haiti Tent City.” Photography. HaitiearthQuakePhotos.com, http://haitiearthquakephotos.com/earthquake.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

Stouter, Patti. “Creole House.” Photography. Scribd.com, http://htmlimg2.scribdassets.com/1ag80wytxcifqnb/images/21-b010dde152.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).

Stouter, Patti. “Kay and Creole House.” Photography. Scribd.com, http://htmlimg2.scribdassets.com/1ag80wytxcifqnb/images/21-b010dde152.jpg (accessed September 20, 2013).



“Architecture for Humanity in Haiti,” YouTube video, 2:35, posted by ” GlobalNomadsGroup,” July 19, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFmn7MXJ2wY.

“Haiti concrete video 2,” YouTube video, 2:49, posted by ” gbwatson1974,” September 21, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljTK3aKv6l0.

“Haiti Earthquake Aftermath,” YouTube video, 1:34, posted by ” CBSNewsOnline,” January 12, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IySBl2aq-A.

“Haiti Tent City Missions Intl of America,” YouTube video, 3:12, posted by “cwalser1,” April 19, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8nVY5pYiKI.

“Surviving the Haiti Earthquake,” YouTube video, 9:58, posted by “TheNewYorkTimes,” January 11, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l9B1dvfT-o.


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