How a home for Haitians was put to the (scientific) test

How a home for Haitians was put to the (scientific) test

Last year's devastating quake in Haiti created a pressing need for new, durable housing structures. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.
Last year's devastating quake in Haiti created a pressing need for new, durable housing structures. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.

Part of a Global Envision miniseries about Portland State University's effort to become the "Consumer Reports" of developing-world technology. Read the introduction.

With the specter of Haiti’s hurricane season looming, everyone involved in the 1000 Homes for Haiti project wanted to get the sustainable, earthquake-proof shelters to the island nation as soon as possible.

But there was a catch: when the houses got wet, they leaked.

The story begins with Charles Fox of Portland’s Pacific Green Innovations (PGI), who came up with the idea for the project after a trip to Haiti in 2010, when he recognized the country’s need for low-cost, sustainable and permanent housing, according to the Portland Tribune. “If you give someone a transitional house, it becomes permanent,” he told the paper. As of August, more than 600,000 Haitians were still living in makeshift housing and tent camps, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

PGI bought building panels of resin-soaked recycled paper from a German building-material manufacturer called SwissCell, which PGI's website bills as earthquake-resistant, fire resistant, weather and temperature resistant.

In June 2010, PSU students actually assembled one of PGI's model homes in a campus park. This was partially to demonstrate another of the homes’ aspects that made it seem perfect for Haiti and the developing world in general: the building panels are modular and can be assembled quickly and simply. PGI says all of the houses’ materials can be produced in Haiti by Haitians.

Things went swimmingly until a curious detail caught the eye of a PSU researcher: the home had water damage. If sitting outside in Portland made the house leak, how would it hold up amid Haitian squalls, humidity and hurricanes? To test it, they tossed some of the panels into PSU’s state-of-the-art Thermotron, a device that, according to Senior Fellow Sergio Palleroni of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, "can create any environment on earth, any weather condition." They cranked up the heat and humidity to Haitian summertime levels, and let the panels stew for a couple of weeks.

The results confirmed their initial suspicions: Palleroni says that on average, the material lost 60 percent of its structural capacity to resist breakage. In high-wind, high-humidity conditions, the houses could actually fall apart. And for a Caribbean country far more prone to hurricanes than earthquakes—there were four in 2008 alone, according to The Guardian—that’s a big problem.

PGI stands by their product despite Palleroni's criticism. PGI’s manufacturer, Magnum Building Products, wrote in an email to Global Envision that PSU's testing may not have been reliable.

"When installed properly and finished per the guidelines also found on our website, Magnum Board structures will be in use far longer than most any other building product on the market today,” wrote Daniel Armstrong. His full response can be found below, in the comments section.

PSU researchers don’t say the houses have no use, but they don’t think they are a good permanent solution for Haiti. Palleroni pointed out that while the building materials may have passed the manufacturer’s test, they were tested as separate components; the problems showed up when they were fully assembled. PGI disagrees, with its manufacturer arguing that PSU made “no distinction as to what elements of the assembly were the primary contributor(s)" to the homes' failure.” PGI has already implemented their housing program in Haiti.

While there’s no consensus over the houses’ suitability for Haiti’s climate, the fact that there’s a debate at all is unusual. Intensive testing like the kind done at PSU is not often performed on products for the developing world. All too often, potential design problems aren’t identified until after a product is in use. Sending flawed products abroad wastes money and other resources, and in some cases the products might even hurt those that they are intended to help. Improved technologies and testing procedures allow for a longer revision period and result in better products that do more for people in need. And since that’s really the goal of humanitarian design, hopefully intensive product testing will become the norm.

Margo Conner is a senior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, majoring in international affairs. Read her other contributions to Global Envision.

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