Architecture for Humanity

Jacmel, Haiti

Headmaster Vivianne Vieux is clearly thrilled with the new addition to the free private school she runs in the coastal town of Jacmel. “It’s a piece of art,” the exuberant administrator exclaims, gesturing toward the 2,100-square-foot structure shaded by palm trees. “It’s beautiful!”

Featuring natural elements such as stone and bamboo, the two-classroom building certainly stands apart from the average Haitian schoolhouse'uninspired structures made of concrete block. Completed in November 2011 and designed by Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the project exemplifies the nonprofit firm’s mission to create safe and dignified buildings for impoverished communities. “If you’re going to do a building, do it well, stand on principle, and don’t compromise,” says Eric Cesal, program manager for AFH’s Haiti office.

The Ecole la Dignité project came about via a scouting process launched in April 2010, when AFH issued an RFP from Haitian schools in need of design services. Applicants were required to have operational funding, among other prerequisites, and AFH was immediately drawn to Vieux, who founded her thriving academy in 1999. “She’s a dynamic woman, and she had a very reliable funding stream,” says Darren Gill, an AFH design fellow who led the project. The school’s secluded, hillside campus already contained two buildings, and Vieux needed more space to accommodate growing enrollment.

Beyond providing daylight and natural ventilation, the designers were determined to use local materials, notably stones from a nearby riverbed. Mindful of seismic concerns, the team conceived a confined masonry system for the rectangular building. Stones form the foundation walls and entrance facade while concrete blocks make up the remaining walls; concealed reinforced-concrete columns and beams lend structural strength. Overhead, wood trusses anchored to a concrete ring beam support the building’s corrugated metal roof.

Inspired by local craft traditions, the architects lined the upper portion of the building with bamboo-and-rebar screens supplied by Studio Drum Collaborative, a Haitian design firm. Bamboo panels also cover unglazed windows and doors. During a recent visit on a warm day, the interior felt cool and refreshing.

Beyond AFH, the $75,000 project was financed by the Stiller Foundation, Students Rebuild, and the Bezos Family Foundation. Vieux says there’s only one problem with the new addition: Every student wants to hang out there. That bodes well for AFH. “We don’t want this to be the end,” Cesal says. “We want the school to expand and endure.”

ARCHITECT: Architecture for Humanity.

BUDGET: $75,000.

CONTEXT: Roughly 85 percent of Haiti’s schools are privately run. Families often can’t afford tuition. In 1999, Vivianne Vieux single-handedly founded Ecole la Dignité, the only free private school in the Jacmel area. Serving first through ninth graders, the academy currently has 300 pupils.