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Tradition Carries the Day During Construction in Haiti

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The Haitian approach to construction follows the dictum that work requires banging. Haitian workers are remarkably strong, and jobsite camaraderie thrives in displays of physical prowess. The carpenter who cuts formwork with such precision that it slides into place does nothing praiseworthy. But if the plywood is too long, he can force-fit it into submission. If it's too short, he can cram shims to fill the gap. Either way, the carpenter pounds repeatedly, reverberating over the entire site of the Be Like Brit orphanage in Grand Goave, where I am supervising the work.

FALLON
Be Like Brit is a constrained concrete building, earthquake-resistant through super- rigidity rather than flexibility. It is a logical choice for post-earthquake construction in a country that has few trees and little steel and is steeped in masonry construction. Although more highly engineered than what was built before the 2010 earthquake, constrained concrete uses technology familiar to local tradesmen. From the crew's perspective, the extra reinforcing and precise tolerances afford more opportunity for banging.

Beam reinforcing is cut, bent and tied off with wire elegantly called "fille alegature." Although even the strongest Haitian cannot damage 5/8-in.-dia rod, gratuitous banging goes on all day. The reinforcing needs to stand clear of the plywood formwork to avoid exposed steel after the concrete is poured. We want at least one and a half in. of cover, but we never achieve that. Carpenters consistently install formwork tightly; the reinforcing sits too close to the plywood, and so the workers bang shims to force the forms apart.

This formwork-reinforcing conflict provides an opportunity for carpenters and ironworkers to stop work and negotiate to see who is at fault, a pastime I loathe and they love. As the American site supervisor, I identify many locations as having insufficient clearance. The workers argue with me on every one. They are in a no-lose situation: If I capitulate, they have triumphed over the "blan," or non-Haitian; if I prevail, they get to bang.

We are almost to the roof, but we have failed to complete one concrete pour with adequate cover everywhere. Our American engineers would be disgusted with my track record, but they are in the states, while I am here, surrounded by 50 strong guys with big mallets. I console myself that Haiti lacks the freeze-thaw cycles that promote spalling and that the finished concrete will be parged to provide another level of protection.

Three-Holed Masonry Units

Standard Haitian masonry blocks are three-holed units, making it impossible to install vertical reinforcing through running bond. Many people died in the earthquake when unreinforced CMU walls fell, so we custom-fabricate U.S.-standard two-hole blocks to allow horizontal reinforcing at every row and vertical rebar through alternating cores. It sounds simple, yet we never quite get it right. Although we set vertical reinforcing in the concrete foundation at 16 in. on-center to align with the holes in the block, the masons, working in pairs, start a row of block from each end and work toward the middle.

This inevitably results in a cut block in the center and vertical rebar misaligned with the CMU holes, which allows the masons to bang a crimp in the rebar to shift it into a new void. Time and again, I fail to convey the benefit of starting the wall in the middle and working toward each end, even though we have extra construction tolerance where the CMU is integrally poured into the column. My explanations only register a weary nod as the workers start a new row.

A tradition-bound country, Haiti has methods of construction that have evolved over hundreds of years. However, from an engineering perspective, the earthquake proved their techniques inadequate.

But Haitians put more faith in tradition than calculations, so explaining why a particular steel bar will protect them in the future is a challenge. I comfort myself that our walls are being reinforced, though imperfectly; that they are tied to the columns, fairly well; that the concrete covers the reinforcing, good enough; and that the quality of the work is increasing, slowly. Every day we make progress. When we hit an impasse, the workers find a way to bang it out, which makes everyone feel better. 

Architect Paul E. Fallon designed and supervised construction of two project in Grand Goave, Haiti, since the 2010 earthquake. He chronicles his experiences at theawkwardpose.com and in an upcoming book.

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