It took two installments in this series to make it all the way up to the point where the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project (CWP) for Haiti would actually begin the work of constructing 100 simple, decent homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Haiti and the homeowners. Not untypical of a CWP experience, the focus is all about building homes. But the memories one takes back from a week building with Habitat for Humanity is more about the people you meet along the way.
But we did work on 100 homes. We started on Monday with teams of seven to nine individuals assigned to work on two homes each. The experience level of the volunteers ran the gamut of highly skilled to handy to unskilled. For my part the crew consisted of a total of nine, led by one individual (me) who was less skilled in frame construction than at least three other individuals on the team. I was more than a little fortunate to have landed a team with some very talented and hard-working folks.
The site was laid out in a well-planned grid, much unlike most parts of Haiti where these homeowners have spent their lives. While the homes are close to each other they each occupy a nice plot of ground and are constructed so they may be expanded. A pair of knee walls extend from the rear of the homes, providing an anchor for an additional space. In Haiti, as in many parts of the world, homes are built and improved one block at a time as the owner can afford to buy them.
Safety was topic A from the very beginning. While these homes were small (approximately 170 sf) they were relatively tall with roofs pitched at 6/12. Not so challenging for professionals but a bit tricky for volunteers, even those of us who have done this kind of work before. There was plenty of scaffolding as the frame construction piece of the work where we started began at 4 inches above the pad and at least 6 inches above grade. Protecting from falls from height and ‘struck-by’ incidents was a routine topic of discussion as was protection from the heat.
The base of each home was in place with a masonry wall on all sides. Pre-fabricated wall sections were the first to rise, which they did on the very first day. Most of the 100 homes got their walls and trusses up on Monday. The first two days of a blitz build are always the most challenging, at least physically. This build was no exception.
With exterior construction of any kind, the weather can have a dramatic impact on how things go. The week of Nov. 6-12, 2011 was a very blessed week weather-wise. The last rain we would see was the evening before most volunteers arrived. While the site was a bit wet the day before construction began it dried out and was on the way to becoming a little dusty by week’s end (but not bad). Most days we had good cloud cover, which made a dramatic difference in the working conditions. The several days when the sun was out in full force it took its toll on the volunteers. It was not deadly, but it did slow us down.
Again, with safety as priority, we made it through the week without a major heat-related incident. For that matter, we made it through the week with only a few bumps, bruises, minor punctures, and some stitches.
The prefabricated walls were constructed of good ol’ treated Southern Yellow Pine and plywood. The masonry walls, having been constructed using local labor, were true, making the framing job easier. The design was rich with fasteners, all installed by hand of course. The frame walls were secured to the masonry with j-bolts and the trusses were secured to the frame with robust hurricane bracing.
Once the trusses were up we installed purlins to accept the metal roof panels. The purlins were treated 2x4’s and were both nailed and strapped with hurricane braces. The roof covering consisted of a thin layer of flexible foam insulation under a reflective barrier followed by a white-surfaced agricultural metal panel. The metal was fastened by 3 ½ inch hot-dipped spiral shank nails through a metal and neoprene washer.
Our roofing crew (two and sometimes three) started out tentative but was moving along like experts by the time they reached the last panels on the second home. Nailing was made easy by pre-drilling the panels and the job was completed with the installation of a galvanized ridge cap. Completion of the roof on both homes took all the way to Thursday as working up there in the heat of the day was next to impossible, especially for a roofing crew that is accustomed to working in air-conditioned offices.
In addition to the metal roof, each home received gutters on two sides. At the end of one downspout each home was to receive a large plastic barrel to collect rain water. There is no running water or electricity available to this site but there are several solar-powered security lights and hand-pump wells will be strategically placed throughout the site. Each home will receive a sanitary latrine that will be located in clusters adjacent to the homes.
The interior of these homes only took two walls making up a separate sleeping room. Each structure received a front door, back door, and one door to the interior room. The original design called for two bedrooms but the owners decided that they would prefer only one to make room in the open space for a food preparation area. The paneled doors looked good and were made of solid wood.
Each home also received window coverings; shutters made of wood, no glass here. The shutters will keep the spaces private while keeping critters at bay and allowing a cool breeze in. These homes are uniquely suited to the people who will live in them as well as the climate. For instance, they are raised two feet above grade because the area is prone to flooding. They have a foundation that extends three feet beneath the base because the area is prone to earthquakes. The roofs are well fastened and designed to withstand the frequent occurrence of tropical weather and hurricanes.
And what about that size of 170 square feet? For a family of four or five? In spite of what we may think, these homes remain more than “acceptable” in the eyes of their new owners. Haitians have long since learned how to endure challenging living conditions, including tight living quarters. They have it worked out. But, with the optimistic eye toward the future, these homes are expandable and I have no doubt some will be larger the next time we see them.
So we made it to the end of the week and 100 homes were brought to a point of completion or at least “substantial completion”. All the doors and windows were not in but the exterior walls and roofs were on. They were ‘in the dry’ and would be soon completed by Haiti’s affiliate of Habitat for Humanity and the homeowners.
During the week many of the homeowners worked side-by-side with the volunteers. This included Francis, the owner of one of the homes our team built. Francis (fron-CEES) will live in his new home with his wife and two of their grown children. He was fortunate that none of his family were lost in the earthquake, but the home they lived in was destroyed. Francis, 55, was a farmer in his younger days but sold his farm to pay for his children’s education. An education is highly valued in Haiti as only around half of the children aged 6-12 are able to attend school.
While the language barrier proved challenging it was difficult not to connect with some of the homeowners. One in particular captivated me. She was working (hard) on her home just a few doors down from where my team was building. I had to walk past her home on the way to pick up supplies (or to get help figuring out how to frame this or nail that). Her name was Rosette Louis and she always had a smile, if not a laugh and a wave for me.
At age 70, Rosette Louis was working rings around others half her age. On the final day as I was walking toward the last bus ride away from the site we shared an embrace and the universal two cheek kiss. I later learned that prior to her new home in the Santo project she shared a temporary shelter with three of her four grown children. Before the earthquake she rented a house in Leogane and made what living she could as a street vendor.
At the end of this remarkable week I remember being tired, but I will forget that. We struggled to get the framing right and the sun was really hot sometimes and the only air conditioning for the week was in the bus and the mess hall. I will forget most of that, too. But I will not forget the remarkable team of volunteers I shared the week with building homes. I will not forget Francis. I will certainly not forget Rosette Louis.
About the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Projects
The CWP in Haiti was the 28th that the former president, Jimmy Carter, and his wife, Rosalynn, have spearheaded. Carter is frequently credited as the founder of Habitat for Humanity, but he is not. He is, however, Habitat’s most famous volunteer and there should be no doubt that the housing ministry’s visibility was raised exponentially when the Carter’s joined the work of Habitat.
In addition to working with Habitat for Humanity, the Carters founded the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which works in partnership with Emory University, to advance human rights and alleviating human suffering. President Carter has been active in Haiti for years and cited this as his ninth visit to the country.
The Carter’s spent the week in Haiti working alongside the other volunteers and homeowners, which they have done on all of the previous Carter Work Project. The only time away is typically spent advocating for Habitat for Humanity and other ways of ending substandard housing in the region where the Project is being held. In Haiti the Carters welcomed Haiti’s president to the work site, visited with Haiti’s prime minister, and took a side trip to meet with government officials in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Historically the Carters plan their work projects well in advance working with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates. They have performed one project domestically followed by one internationally, every other year. President Carter announced during the build in Haiti that the tradition will be broken as he plans to return to Haiti in 2012 to continue building. Carter cited his affection for the Haitian people and the profound need for simple decent housing there, especially since the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010.
And on a Personal Note
So this is Part III, but hopefully not the end of the story. If the good Lord is willing, I will join with the CWP in Haiti again in 2012. Once again I will attempt to raise funds and awareness for the needs in a country just a few hours south of us. So this should serve as a fair warning to some of you. Be prepared for the e-mail, postcard, or phone call around the middle of the year. Like the CWP 2011 trip, I did not go alone. Many friends, family, readers, and business associates contributed time, money, and even tools to get me there. It is an easy task because it is such good work.
I look forward to returning to Haiti to help keep this important work going. But to be perfectly honest, I mainly look forward to seeing Francis and Rosette Louis again.
Learn more about the work of Habitat for Humanity – www.habitat.org
Learn more about the CWP – www.habitat.org/how/default_jcwp.aspx.
Learn more about the work of the Carter Center - www.cartercenter.org