How Innovative ‘Earth Bag Architecture’ Is Helping Haiti Rebuild

Takepart.comJanuary 10, 2013

It’s been three years since an earthquake brought poverty-stricken Haiti to its knees, but still, hundreds of thousands are left without secure shelter as they continue a recovery effort the world has long since forgotten.

The New York Times reports that many of the country’s inhabitants who have shelter are generally those who have constructed it themselves; they’ve built ad-hoc, clumsy arrangements of jagged rubble, or repurposed garbage. One town’s saving grace has come in the form of Brooklyn-based street artist, Swoon, a woman at the forefront of an initiative in the country to replace junk housing with thoughtfully constructed sustainable housing.

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Swoon, whose real name is Callie Curry, and her collective of artists, architects, and engineers make up the organization known as Konbit Shelter. They’ve mobilized to erect dome-shaped structures for the inhabitants of Bigones, Haiti.

Based upon designs by Nader Khalili and continued today by Cal-Earth, Konbit’s designs are unique not only for their noticeable igloo-like shape, but for their inner fortification. Known as “earth bag architecture,” this style of building means the structure’s inner walls are stuffed with what are essentially bags of earth.

More durable than boxed housing, earth-bag architected structures can withstand earthquakes, flooding and even termite infestation that would destroy regular cement and wood structures. Its wood-free design also makes it doubly appropriate for Haiti, a country where lumber is scarce.

And this type of housing is easily replicated and can be executed without the use of special equipment. What it does require are able bodies, and so with each dome, Konbit employs local people to help in the process.

So far, Konbit Shelter has erected just two domes in the town, a family home and a community center. But its latest successful Kickstarter fund means a third will begin construction this month.

At $30,000 per structure, some may wonder about the cost-effectiveness of measures like these. But according to the organization’s website, it’s worth every penny. After having seen “plywood shacks, and many houses built of the same cinderblock that collapsed during the earthquake” Konbit wants to be at the forefront of something different, something that lasts.

So far they’re faring better than others. The initial wave of rescue housing in Haiti consisted mostly of one-room transitional shelters that wasted resources and time. Known as T-shelters, these structures were meant to serve as way-stations for people who were transitioning out of the camps and into permanent homes (most of which were never erected.) But those T-shelters took longer and cost more than anticipated. The New York Times reports they topped out at $500 million for 125,000 single rooms that weren’t even weather-proof.

No one can deny the intelligence of Konbit Shelter’s approach, but the wherewithal to design and execute it seems like the job of a disaster-relief expert, not necessarily a street artist. But Swoon told TakePart, "I have always seen working on the street as a part of a larger process of participating in the creation of a world that you want to see. The other work that I am a part of, in Haiti, Braddock Pennsylvania, and New Orleans, for example, are an extension of that participatory, hands on ethos."

And perhaps equal to her compassion is Swoon's own sense of social justice, which drives her work in Haiti."There are so many misconceptions about Haiti. The intense poverty that Haiti suffers is not a mistake, but has been structurally enforced by the United States and Europe for generations, dating back to Haiti’s Independence, and the United States continues to have an active role in perpetuating the poverty of Haiti and the Haitian people. I think many people are scared of Haiti, and think of it as a wasteland, but another thing that surprised us is how beautiful Haiti is, and how much potential exists for people once they get an empowered space to carry on their lives."

As for the rest of us, it's easy to forget about Haiti. It suits us to look at unsolvable problem, throw our hands up and walk away. But what happens when people force themselves to come up with an answer? Konbit Shelter happens. Thank goodness.

What other seemingly unsolvable disaster problem is it time for us to address? Let us know in the Comments.

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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for Email Andri | @andritweets |