Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Greetings, and thanks again for visiting.

The 2011 late spring and summer will hopefully see more posts on here than the past few months; graduate school demands quite a bit of time.

On that note, I'd like to discuss some work at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture that I have had the privilege of working on.

For the first few weeks of the '10-'11 spring semester, I participated in a research-based class, preparing a field guide of information for 6 students traveling to Haiti to work with Architecture for Humanity in the design two schools. The guide was intended to prepare those 6 students and provide them with a wealth of information relevant to the design of a school. It was understood at the outset that design in Haiti is sensitive; the country has a tumultuous history and an extremely dynamic culture that must be understood in order to create a successful design.

As part of the class, a blog was created to be a depository of information so that the process could be as transparent as possible. Our efforts were also to act as sort of filter to cut through the wealth of information there is on Haiti relief and disaster relief in general.

To illustrate the difficulty of effective design in Haiti, I’ll outline the country's situation:
Haiti has never had an efficient government. A few decades of dictatorship preceded the earthquake and the government was run basically as a large, private business. Now, the country has been called "a country of NGOs". After the earthquake, over a million people were displaced and over 300,000 people were killed. This was almost entirely due to the fact that Haiti has no building codes, and has been called by Peter Haas "a disaster of engineering". Many of Haiti’s buildings are made of concrete, which is not necessarily suitable in that climate and can be very weak if not made properly. For example, steel reinforcement is required in almost all concrete structures, usually with what is known as rebar in America, and often in Haiti, concrete structures don’t have rebar with bumps on the surface which increase the friction between the steel and the concrete. This is because the absence of building codes and produces a situation with no perogative, accountability or even knowledge to use the proper techniques. Now, there is so much rubble in the streets that machinery can’t even get through to clear it.

There is one official dump in the country, and it is next to the ocean. Furthermore, when human waste is collected, either by plumbing or at the few dedicated sanitation sites, it is poured at this dump. Otherwise, human waste stays where it is deposited or it goes into surface water.

3% of Haiti’s forests remain. Because of its terrain and climate, this has caused immense erosion. This prevents or deters further reforestation and agriculture. It deposits soil, silt and pollutants into the ocean. It can also prevent the replenishment of ground water aquifers, which are the few sources of clean, fresh water.

Most of Haiti’s schools are private. This takes a large portion of a family’s income, if they have an income, to send their child to school. Sometimes schools don’t even have bathrooms, so rather than leaving to go all the way home to use a bathroom, children don’t eat or drink so as not to create the urge. Girls often drop out of school when they reach puberty in order to prevent embarrassment due to the effect of their menstrual cycles.

These are just some of the issues that must be balanced in order to create an effective design.

The field guide was the product of around 20 students sifting through information on themes such as natural, cultural, social, historical, political-economic, urban and material systems. As I said earlier, a blog was created to facilitate communication and transparency in the compilation of the field guide and can be viewed here http://design4haiti.tumblr.com/. PDFs of the individual sections of the Field Guide can be viewed on the website by clicking the top right tab titled "Field Guide".

If you are interested Haiti, or any underdeveloped nation affected by disaster, I encourage you to peruse this resource. In it is a wealth of tertiary relevant resources.

I am also including the blog that the 6 students that traveled to Haiti have been detailing their experiences in. http://umnhaitiblog.tumblr.com/

Lastly, I would like to summarize my overall impression of design in Haiti. In my opinion, the conditions that are upon Haiti right now, as far as outlook and future success goes, are the worst in the world. It was easy for the country to get the way it is now. All it required was an ignorant mindset, thinking that the cheapest way is the best way, and half a century or more of relative uneventfulness (in a relative sense), and everything, came tumbling down, literally and figuratively. It took a whole semester of work by approximately forty people (counting Architecture for Humanity in Haiti) to produce a two effective designs. This should outline the importance of planning and diligence to prevent situations like that of Haiti from happening again.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Space is big

My preferred style of writing is not so much writing as it is amended writing with images and videos as food for thought to allow images and ideas to surface in much the same way they do in my mind.  With that, I'm including this video that never fails to bring about my sense of wonder.

This post was prompted by fellow physicist friend who is interested in science journalism and posted the next video on facebook the one I'm about to post.

The blurb for the video talks about NASA's inability to market itself properly and as a result, its funding is cut.  It also explains that funding allocated for media purposes may be cut which would mean lights out.  It seems that if even a fraction of the feeling that drives a researcher to research can be communicated, NASA would have fewer problems and I think the disparity experienced in the scientific community now would be soothed.  So I think it would be very important to find just why and how a researcher researches.

It has always been very clear to me why science is so important.  My love for science has always been about a selfish desire for knowledge.  Of course science is applicable to our society, continually improving the quality of life, and often it is the very ruler with which we measure the progress of our society, but my guess is that the passionate scientists are driven too by a thirst for answers.  They are not separate issues, though.  I think it's true to say that science is a dog-eat-dog community, and that often, scientists work their entire careers toward one big paper to be published, for example, and the struggle between competitors for one shot at notoriety can be brutal.  In this type of conflict, it can be commonplace to protect ideas in fear.  What I'm getting at is that although it may be common to withhold information from one's peers, I think it is a widespread value of scientists to want to share revelations with the world, and that this value does exist despite a selfish desire for knowledge.  Although we want to share our knowledge, the drive comes from within.

As a scientist myself, it is disheartening to learn of funding cuts for programs that to me are so obviously important.  A popular debate towards cutting funding on obviously expensive feats such as space travel and miles-long underground circular particle accelerators is that we could be spending literally billions of dollars on much more poignant things.  Understanding that, yes, it may appear that money spent on expensive international science projects and facilities could be better spent on fixing problems closer to home, cognitively speaking, like hunger or homelessness, money spent on science is spent to nourish curiosity, not to mention technological improvements.  Curiosity, mind you is the driving force behind quality education, behind art, behind much of architecture and in nearly any and every crevice.  This link between science and art which has so much to do with curiosity will be explored further in subsequent posts.