$300 House Update!

By Julia McElhinney ‘14

Dartmouth students and faculty work through possible adaptations to the urban house design at Architecture and Design Firm, Shepley Bulfinch, in Boston. (Photo courtesy of Jack Wilson)

On May 10th, I attended a design workshop for the $300 House Project’s Urban Prototype at an Architecture and Design Firm, called Shepley Bulfinch, in Boston. 

About the $300 House Project
The $300 House Project (link to www.300house.com) is a unique, collaborative initiative that bridges the skills and resources of Dartmouth College’s Architecture Program, Thayer School of Engineering, Geisel School of Medicine, Tuck School of Business and The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science to design and develop the physical infrastructure necessary to support safe, healthy and culturally-appropriate affordable housing solutions in Haiti.

The $300 House Project grew out of a challenge to design a $300 house posed in an August 2010 Harvard Business Review blog by Tuck professor Vijay Govindarajan and marketing consultant Christian Sarkar. Over the last two years, Dartmouth students, faculty and staff have worked together to explore this difficult task. What exactly would a $300 House look like? Can we even make a house for $300? And where would we build them?

Through coursework, independent research and international conferences and design workshops, the $300 House Project has developed designs for extremely affordable (though not quite $300!) houses to serve Haitians displaced and impoverished by the 2010 earthquake.

The $300 House is exceptional in many ways, but in particular it takes a “systems thinking” approach to community improvement and empowerment. Under the guidance of Senior Lecturer Jack Wilson of Dartmouth College’s Architecture Program and the Thayer School of Engineering, the $300 House Project has grown, linking increased access to safe, affordable housing to healthier, happier and more sustainable communities around the world.

Workshop Goals
As a student in Dartmouth College’s Architecture Program and a former Presidential Scholar on the $300 House Project, I was pleased to participate in the Project’s most recent workshop that aimed to refine designs for an urban prototype for a “$300” House in Haiti. Project leader Jack Wilson, Professor Vicki May of the Thayer School of Engineering and several other undergraduate students were in attendance, as were designers and architects from the firm Shepley Bulfinch (including Shepley CEO Carole Wedge). Architect Elsa Ponce, who developed the initial $300 House Urban Prototype design, also joined us for the workshop.

The goal of the day was to adapt Miss Ponce’s design (which was initially designed to be located in a slum called the Cite de Dieu in Port–au-Prince) so that it might be more applicable to the Martissant neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.

Why Martissant Park?
The motivation for this shift in geographic focus came after a conference held at Dartmouth College in February: the Porter Symposium, “Haiti and Dartmouth at the Crossroads.” At the conference, which I was fortunate enough to attend, Haiti’s former Prime Minister, Madame Michèle Pierre-Louis, asked Dartmouth to support the work of her non-profit FOKAL in developing a park in the neighborhood of Martissant. At the meeting, we also learned from Haitian government officials that upcoming construction around the Cite de Dieu area made it less practical to build prototype houses there. As a result, the $300 House team has engaged with FOKAL about the opportunity to construct their urban prototype houses in this park and FOKAL has been very receptive.

A team of Tuck first-year students and Professor Jack Wilson visit Martissant Park in Port-au-Prince with FOKAL director Madame Michele Pierre-Louis in March 2013. (Photo courtesy of Jack Wilson)

Madame Pierre-Louis’ hope is to create a place that offers peace and dignity to the surrounding neighborhoods while also providing educational, environmental, and nutritional resources to its community members. Martissant Park is already a significant project in the works, with a cultural center set to open later this year.

The value of prototype houses in a public park
During this month’s workshop, the majority of our time was dedicated to a creative discussion around both the challenges and opportunities presented by developing the prototypes within FOKAL’s Martissant Park. For example, the setting would be less dense than most of Haiti’s other urban areas, and thus less reflective of building and community conditions in the city as a whole. However, the park would offer programming opportunities to present the prototype urban design to a large and diverse group.

Instead of building a test house in a slum and trying to select a single family to benefit from it, developing educational prototypes in Martissant that could serve as community nutrition centers or art classrooms would allow many individuals to experience and share in the benefits of the design. The workshop participants all liked the idea of having the prototype house in the park because it would provide the infrastructural and institutional support to make the project more educational and accessible to the public than it otherwise would be.

Everyone supported the idea of selecting sustainable as well as affordable building materials to construct the prototype houses. Specifically, we thought of using a set of four uniquely constructed prototype houses grouped together in the park to explain the costs and benefits (ecological and economical) of different building materials.

We also discussed ways in which we might leave room in the designs for personalization, so that eventual homeowners would feel comfortable and invested in their homes. For example, one idea I shared was to have the children currently taking drawing classes in the park through FOKAL also design a mural for one of the prototype houses to help others understand the potential for personalization if they were to build their own home.

The overarching goal here, of course, would be to build a few prototypes, gather feedback from a variety of peoples, refine the design and then work to build as many affordable homes for urban Haitians as possible.

With this in mind, we took time at the end of the workshop to determine how to refine the urban prototype design for the situation in Martissant Park. This was a very exciting process combining engineering, aesthetic, cultural and programmatic aims and ideas.  I was very impressed by how the whole team worked so well together, building off one another’s insights and innovations.

The primary objectives of the design are to provide physical safety as well as the creation of a healthy living environment. Traditionally, affordable houses in Haiti have very poor natural lighting and very little ventilation. Ms. Ponce’s original design considered this carefully, and we strove to highlight increased lighting and ventilation in our group revisions for the design.

One home the Dartmouth team visited while surveying households in Fond de Blancs, Haiti in December 2011. (Photo courtesy of Molly Bode)

Although the drawings produced during the workshop were mainly conceptual, they create a great jumping-off point. The $300 House team looks forward to continuing our relationship with Shepley Bulfinch to determine the exact details of the designs, making them actionable items to share with FOKAL in the near future. With these designs, we will be able to begin building actual prototype houses in the park and dig a little deeper into just what it might take to make sustainable, affordable housing more widespread in urban Haiti.

In the meantime, the $300 House team is excited to break ground on the development of it rural prototype houses in Fond des Blancs later this summer.

I feel very fortunate to be involved in such a creative, collaborative and conscientious initiative as an undergraduate student. It is an incredible feeling to be even a small part of such proactive and positive change in our world. Largely because of my experiences on this project, I have decided to dedicate my studies to sustainable urban design and, in particular, public placemaking for community building.

To learn more about Dartmouth’s diverse initiatives in Haiti, click here.

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