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Haitian Rubble Homes Offer More than Just Shelter

Student volunteers from Southern Polytechnic State University
Student volunteers from Southern Polytechnic State University used simple 5 gal buckets to place rubble in a wire frame to test the design concept for seismic stability. Courtesy of Peyton Lingle 

A charitable organization is teaming with faculty and students from a Georgia university to build sturdy homes in Haiti from the rubble left behind by the 2010 earthquake. 

May 8, 2012—Jeremy Holloman fills wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow with pieces of rubble from the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, snaking his way through a mazelike path to his destination. He’s cleaning up Haiti, bit by bit, but the rubble isn’t destined to remain by the side of the road or be dumped in a landfill. His rubble is scooped into buckets, hoisted overhead, and deposited into the wire skeleton of a new home in Grand Goave, just a dozen miles from the temblor’s epicenter.

Holloman is part of a team from Conscience International, a Roswell, Georgia-based charity that is on pace to complete its 100th “Rubble Home” sometime in early June. Not only is Holloman helping those people affected by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake to get out of tents and back into a semipermanent home—he’s also part of a real life science project.

Holloman enlisted the help of a group of professors and students at Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU), in Marietta, Georgia, to determine whether his homes could survive another quake. First, students and staff members followed Holloman’s blueprints to build a test home in the middle of campus early in the 2011-2012 school year. Then they pulled the structure down. The results were both surprising and impressive.  

The rubble home—built from a welded wire cage and Kevlar clips that bind the walls to each other, wood support poles, and a kind of chicken wire to which concrete easily adheres—was inspired by gabion baskets, long used by engineers as erosion-preventing retaining walls.

Holloman has refined his building process over the last year; the first home’s 15 in. wide walls were made from multiple gabionlike baskets stacked on top of each other. But when force was applied to the structure, the top baskets took the brunt of the weight and couldn’t easily transfer the pressure to other segments of the wall.

“I quickly abandoned [the gabion style] and moved on to a home that was one wall, one basket,” says Holloman, interviewed by phone from Georgia between trips to Haiti. “It took several iterations, but I no longer have that weak spot of a joint.”  

Conscience International’s program director, Jeremy Holloman, explained the construction methods to students 

Conscience International’s program director, Jeremy Holloman,
explained the construction methods to students from all over
campus who came to assist in the project. Courtesy of Peyton

The cagelike frames are filled with the rubble and thencoated twice with plaster. Pressure-treated wood frames the roof, which is covered with corrugated metal sheets; wood also frames the windows and doors.

Holloman says in some neighborhoods just one home in an entire row of cinderblock homes might have been destroyed by the quake. As a result, he tries to build the new homes on the same spot as the old ones, so distressed residents don’t need to integrate themselves into a new community. He couldn’t do this with the bulky gabion baskets, but he can do it with the nearly modular, flexible 14 by 20 ft wire structure that he is using now. 

At SPSU, students and faculty—led by Fatih Oncul, A.M.ASCE, an assistant professor in the school’s architecture and civil engineering program—revealed during an October test that each wall was able to displace 3.5 ft before failing. “Imagine a wall moving 3.5 feet without failure—this is a big performance for me,” Oncul says. “There are no standards on this type of structure. We are the ones, hopefully, who will be making the recommendations to come up with the standards. That’s one of our important goals.”

Initially Oncul and his team planned to build an inconspicuous test wall somewhere behind a campus engineering building. But when he asked the administration for permission, he was asked to build a full-scale home in one of the most heavily trafficked areas on campus in order to pique students’ curiosity. As a result, students and faculty from more than just the civil engineering and architecture programs lent a hand in creating the structure.

Civil Engineering technology major, Jeffrey Lytle 

Student Jeffrey Lytle, a civil engineering technology major, was one
of a handful from the university who participated in every phase of
construction and testing. Courtesy of Peyton Lingle 

“Fifty-percent of the students involved in the construction process were from nonengineering majors,” Oncul says. “People worked together and built something—as the walls were rising, they really enjoyed working and making something useful in 3-D.”

One of those students was Peyton Lingle, S.M.ASCE, a student in the civil engineering program at SPSU who was involved in testing the rubble construction versus more traditional construction methods. “We were able to see what kind of a beating a cinderblock wall could take before failure and compare that with this new rubble wall construction,” he says. The test protocol also included the use of scale models on shake tables. “It’s really an exciting project and people in Haiti are really behind it,” he says. “It’s meeting a need.”

Each home can be constructed in 15 to 18 days at a cost of just $4,000 per home, including materials and labor, Oncul says. And while the walls of a typical rubble home in Haiti are now thinner than when Holloman first designed his prototype—1 ft compared to 15 in.—the homes are developing a reputation for their sturdiness and ability to fortify the communities in which they are built.

Because they look very much like typical Haitian homes, require very little maintenance, and fit within the footprints of the homes that were lost, the new homes offer a measure of comfort to a population that has endured much. “Even if you’re giving them a free home, if it’s not a home that fits in culturally, there’s a lot of mental anguish that goes with [that],” Holloman says. “Our homes look just like a Haitian home.”



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