written by:
January 25, 2010

There are thousands of architects and designers in the Dwell audience and beyond who are contemplating how they can help with the massive rebuilding effort that will soon get underway in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the immediate needs in the city demand more of the medical field than the architectural community, planning and rebuilding are tied to the recovery of the people, and it won't be long before reconstruction begins. In order to get a better sense of how the recovery process may go (and how it has gone so far) from an architectural standpoint, we spoke with Mary Comerio, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. 

Aerial view of Haiti
Haitians set up impromtu tent cities thorough the capital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince, Haiti, just before 5 pm on January 12, 2009.
Courtesy of 
Logan Abassi
Aerial view of Haiti
Haitians set up impromtu tent cities thorough the capital after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince, Haiti, just before 5 pm on January 12, 2009.

Professor Comerio is an expert on post-disaster recovery and reconstruction, and has spent time onsite in numerous locations studying the aftermath of severe hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. She has also worked on research for the federal government and the university related to engineering for earthquake preparedness. Her 1998 book, Disaster Hits Home: New Policy for Urban Housing Recovery, explores structural, economic, and political issues that hinder successful recovery in cities and proposes new ways to improve the process.

More than a decade after writing her book, some of the issues Comerio brought up have been addressed, but disasters hit with no less frequency (and possibly with more severity in some cases due to climate change). Comerio wrote a blog post last week on the Berkeley blog about the need for aid workers to attend to social and community issues—not just infrastructural ones—and the connections between those challenges. She advocates for finding opportunity within the chaos for job creation and the adoption of efficient technologies in reconstruction.

We asked Professor Comerio for her opinion and insights about the response to the Haitian earthquake so far, and what architects and designers in the Dwell audience can do for a city that must rebuild from the ground up.

You have a long history looking at post-disaster reconstruction. Your 1998 book, Disaster Hits Home, predated organizations like Architecture for Humanity, which have helped to raise awareness of the long-term needs of local communities after a catastrophe. From what you know of the response thus far to the Haiti quake, would you say emergency teams and international organizations have made improvements in their approach compared to how they might have responded to this same event 12 years ago? What have we learned?
I have been very encouraged by the early response to this earthquake. First, there are many NGOs already working in Haiti and they have deep connections in their communities. They are an important channel for direct local community assistance. In addition, there are many more non-profit organizations that provide small-scale medical clinics, low-tech infrastructure for water purification and sanitation, as well as self-help housing assistance. These organizations typically share the idea that local people can build better and more sustainable buildings and services for themselves. That said, these small service NGOs can't take on the full job of recovery in a disaster of the scale that currently exists in Haiti. Removing debris, restoring the functionality of airports and ports, rebuilding roads and power transmission lines is also needed. When it comes to housing recovery however, it is important to note that the international aid organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Bank have begun to think strategically about what works in development. A new World Bank publication, "Safer Homes, Stronger Communities" articulates the many of the same local-involvement principals espoused by the NGOs. I hope that Haiti's recovery will include a blend of large scale assistance on the basic infrastructure and a plethora of smaller scaled community built housing.
I have heard some predictions from scientists in recent days that a portion of the fault line in Port-au-Prince may not have given way during the initial quake, and that it may be reasonable to expect another massive temblor in the very near future (potentially just a few months). How should that type of information influence planning and reconstruction? Is there a way to rebuild quickly and efficiently while factoring in a very real possibility of another big quake?
It will be important for scientists to work with government planners to identify particularly vulnerable areas. These may need to be held for open space and landowners in those areas be given alternate places to rebuild. A model you may be familiar with is the US government buy-outs of towns that have experienced repeated flooding. The townspeople sell their lots for open space in exchange for an alternate town site on higher ground. In the Haiti situation, there may be some highly vulnerable hillside areas or places prone to liquefaction where rebuilding would not be advisable. However, scientists do not have the capacity to predict earthquakes. There is ongoing exposure in every active fault zone, so planners need to think more about rebuilding safer--with a basic building code, as well as lowering density in some areas, and restricting development in others.
In your opinion, is there an identifiable stage after the initial rescue at which point it makes sense to turn from triage to training and start preparing/empowering local people to take on some of the burden of long-term reconstruction themselves? How do those outside teams know when it's ok to redirect some of their energy to the less reactive work?
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, the major focus is on medical assistance for the injured, burying the dead, and providing food, water and shelter for those who have lost their homes. In Haiti, the emergency period could last for months, given the numbers of people who have been affected. Relief agencies have "deep-pockets" of human resources, so that while some groups are focused on the emergency services, others can help to plan for recovery. Thinking about recovery decisions needs to happen right away, because many of the decisions that are made in the emergency period affect recovery.
You mentioned in your article on the UC Berkeley blog that "rebuilding infrastructure can involve alternative systems for power and water supplies." Do you see this event as an opportunity to "leapfrog" certain technologies and adopt more efficient and sustainable systems? What would be the primary "alternatives" you would advise for Haiti?
Yes, it would be great to see low-tech solar power, water filtration systems and local sewage treatment systems that are being developed and used in other developing countries. These three--power, water, sewers--are the core services and should take top priority.
For Dwell readers who are in the design and architecture fields, what would you recommend if they are interested in contributing to Haiti's reconstruction? How can they best apply their training and skills, or should they just donate money?
For emergency aid, donating money is the the best thing they can do. For the long term, I would recommend contributing money and expertise and time to the many housing NGOs that are already working in disaster recovery. These organizations know how help local communities build and they need money and volunteers.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

45 dva 2270 persp1 cmyk 0
The prospect of retirement doesn’t just signal the end of a career; it offers the chance to recalibrate and re-prioritize in life.
July 25, 2016
You don’t have to choose between sustainable energy and curb appeal.
July 19, 2016
jakemagnus queensland 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
July 06, 2016
content delzresidence 013 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 29, 2016
abc malacari marwick stair 01 0
A simple set of stairs is a remodel’s backbone.
June 28, 2016
Design Award of Excellence winner Mellon Square.
Docomomo US announces the winners of this year's Modernism in America Awards. Each project showcases exemplary modern restoration techniques, practices, and ideas.
June 27, 2016
monogram dwell sf 039 1
After last year’s collaboration, we were excited to team up with Monogram again for the 2016 Monogram Modern Home Tour.
June 27, 2016
switch over chicago smart renovation penthouse deck smar green ball lamps quinze milan lounge furniture garapa hardwood
A strategic rewire enhances a spec house’s gut renovation.
June 26, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent coralie gourguechon treviso italy cphotos by coralie gourguechon co produced by isdat planche anatomique de haut parleur1
Coralie Gourguechon's paper objects will make you see technology in a whole new way.
June 26, 2016
green machine smart home aspen colorado facade yard bocci deck patio savant
Smart technology helps a house in Aspen, Colorado, stay on its sustainable course.
June 25, 2016
Compact Aglol 11 television plastic brionvega.
The aesthetic appeal of personal electronics has long fueled consumer interest. A new industrial design book celebrates devices that broke the mold.
June 25, 2016
modern backyard deck ipe wood
An angled deck transforms a backyard in Menlo Park, California, into a welcoming gathering spot.
June 24, 2016
dscf5485 1
Today, we kicked off this year’s annual Dwell on Design at the LA Convention Center, which will continue through Sunday, June 26th. Though we’ve been hosting this extensive event for years, this time around is particularly special.
June 24, 2016
under the radar renovation napa
Two designers restore a low-slung midcentury gem in Napa, California, by an unsung Bay Area modernist.
June 24, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
June 24, 2016
light and shadow bathroom walnut storage units corian counter vola faucet
A Toronto couple remodel their home with a special emphasis on a spacious kitchen and a material-rich bathroom.
June 24, 2016
Affordable home in Kansas City living room
In Kansas City, an architecture studio designs an adaptable house for a musician on a budget.
June 23, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment oak vertical slats office
By straightening angles, installing windows, and adding vertical accents, architect Aaron Ritenour brought light and order to an irregularly shaped apartment in the heart of Athens, Greece.
June 23, 2016
kitchen confidential tiles custom cabinetry oak veneer timber house
A modest kitchen addition to a couple’s cottage outside of Brisbane proves that one 376-square-foot room can revive an entire home.
June 23, 2016
feldman architecture 0
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
June 22, 2016
Blackened timber Dutch home
A modern dwelling replaces a fallen farmhouse.
June 22, 2016
hillcrest house interior kitchen 3
Seeking an escape from bustling city life, a Manhattan couple embarks on a renovation in the verdant Hudson Valley.
June 22, 2016
Atelier Moderno renovated an old industrial building to create a luminous, modern home.
June 21, 2016
San Francisco floating home exterior
Anchored in a small San Francisco canal, this floating home takes its cues from a classic city habitat.
June 21, 2016
modern renovation addition solar powered scotland facade steel balcony
From the bones of a neglected farmstead in rural Scotland emerges a low-impact, solar-powered home that’s all about working with what was already there.
June 21, 2016
up in the air small space new zealand facade corrugated metal cladding
An architect with a taste for unconventional living spaces creates a small house at lofty heights with a starring view.
June 21, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent marjan van aubel london cwai ming ng current window
Marjan Van Aubel makes technology a little more natural.
June 21, 2016
urban pastoral brooklyn family home facade steel cypress double
Building on the site of a former one-car garage, an architect creates his family’s home in an evolving neighborhood of Brooklyn.
June 20, 2016
Modern Brooklyn backyard studio with plexiglass skylight, green roof, and cedar cladding facade
In a Brooklyn backyard, an off-duty architect builds a structure that tests his attention to the little things.
June 20, 2016
the outer limits paris prefab home living area vertigo lamp constance guisset gijs bakker strip tablemetal panels
In the suburbs of Paris, an architect with an eco-friendly practice doesn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation.
June 20, 2016