Architecture for Humanity, Pétion-Ville, Haiti

Tarantulas, cholera and hurricanes
  are but a few of the extreme
conditions a project team faces while building schools in a devastated nation.


Eric Cesal, Architecture for Humanity

In the wake of disasters, project managers must do their jobs in some extreme environments. helping citizens rebuild after earthquakes, hurricanes or war can present project leaders with the some of the toughest challenges of their careers.

Disaster relief can also be some of the most fulfilling work—if project managers can get past the discomfort, frustration and endless delays, says Eric cesal, regional program manager for the not-for-profit design services firm architecture for humanity. Mr. cesal is currently based in Pétion-ville, haiti, where he's overseeing a portfolio of disaster relief projects, including construction of several schools and community buildings, following the February 2010 earthquake that crippled much of the island nation.

He has worked in disaster-stricken communities since 2007, including new orleans, louisiana, USA in the wake of hurricane Katrina. But he says he has never experienced the level of devastation and crisis that he found in haiti.

“Haiti was the most severe natural disaster in the modern world,” Mr. Cesal says. “Even those of us who had worked in disasters before were surprised by how many challenges we faced in haiti. It forces you to mentally reframe your goals and what you are trying to accomplish.”


Mr. cesal's team has had to radically adjust its approach to managing projects and assessing risks to accommodate the extreme conditions it faces.

“A lot of things converge in haiti that you've never seen all in one place before,” he says.

Notably, the country faces the risk of hurricanes, flooding, cholera and earthquakes. This convergence means all buildings must be designed to withstand seismic loads and extremely high winds, and construction schedules have to be built around the six-month hurricane season that starts in June.

We are not
just delivering
buildings; we
are delivering
a recovery.
Design and
are instrumental
parts of that, but
they're not the
only goal.

— Eric Cesal


The green lettering designates that the building is one of the few on campus that is structurally sound.

“The level of protection you need to consider in this kind of environment is unlike anything in a conventional project,” says Darren Gill, design fellow at Architecture for humanity, who's also based in Pétion-ville.

During a severe storm, storage sheds that hold construction materials can blow over, and unfinished structures that aren't waterproof will be severely damaged.

“If a hurricane comes before a project is finished, it's a scramble to keep the site and the workers safe,” Mr. Cesal says.

Despite planning around the rainy season, unexpected delays last June prevented the project team from finishing one of the school buildings—with a hurricane due to hit in a few days.

“We had to tie everything down, move materials off the site and postpone completion until the hurricane passed,” he says.

Another complication to project management in haiti is the fact that while the country is extremely poor, basic goods and construction materials are surprisingly expensive. Mr. Cesal estimates that he pays 50 to 100 percent more for plywood, concrete and other building materials than he would in the United States because of taxes, shipping, and logistical challenges to supply and delivery.

Project team members also have to take into account disease, violence and limited access to basic amenities, including food and clean water. They all carry antibiotics, hand sanitizer and maps marked with the locations of local hospitals.

Part of the project plan currently involves training teams to administer intravenous medicines for the treatment of cholera.

“Cholera is easy to treat if you catch it early,” Mr. Gill says. “But if you just traveled two days to a remote village, or there's a landslide or a flooded road, you're not going to be able to get to a clinic in time.”

Progress is further hampered by the lingering devastation in the country and its impact on the already limited transportation infrastructure. One of the projects in Mr. Cesal's portfolio is the construction of a school in an isolated mountain village. Trucks must cross five rivers to get there, and during a storm, at least one of the roads is sure to flood.

“When it starts raining, we have two hours to evacuate the job site or we are sleeping there,” Mr. Cesal says.

Because the site is so remote, he has to provide food and shelter for the workers who remain overnight, and carefully considers every material choice he makes because transporting supplies to the remote village is so difficult.

“The trucking companies in Port-au-Prince are not interested in sending trucks to these towns because there is so much work in the city,” Mr. Cesal says. “So even something as simple as driving materials to the job site becomes complicated.”


Architecture for humanity project teams rely on the guidance of local officials and leaders to help them identify risks as well as gain buy-in and support from the community. That kind of expert advice is vital when managing projects in an extreme situation, Mr. Gill says. “You can get more information from a local leader in a week than you'd figure out on your own in a month.”


Students at École Bon Berger currently attend classes under tarp-covered spaces like this and in the ruins of the school's former chapel.

His Haitian contacts warn him of impending political rallies, roadblocks and environmental events that might impact the progress of his projects or the safety of his team.

They also taught him how to handle another aspect of living in haiti: how to kill the massive tarantulas that hide out in the showers. (It involves multiple people throwing large rocks simultaneously—and hoping they don't all miss.) “Tarantulas get very defensive when they are disturbed,” he notes.

Local leaders also help project managers identify the broader needs of the communities in which they work.

“We are not just delivering buildings; we are delivering a recovery,” Mr. Cesal says. “Design and construction are instrumental parts of that, but they're not the only goal.”

An objective of each of the organization's initiatives is to involve the community in the planning and execution of projects while creating jobs and training workers so they take marketable skills away from the experience.

These broader goals affect the schedule, budget and expectations for every task.

“If I'm trying to get a foundation poured, the metrics of success are not the same,” Mr. Cesal explains. “I'd rather it took a month but included training people on how to do it, versus hiring a foreign crew to get the job done in two weeks.”

Project managers accommodate these goals by building a lot more time into the schedule and by making training a prominent focus in the decision-making process.

“It would be easy to get a U.S. or Dominican contractor airlifted in here and get the building built in half the time,” Mr. Cesal says. “But then we would have completed the wrong project. Keeping the broader goals front of mind is vital.”

In intense environments, project professionals must be willing to step outside of their job description, Mr. Gill says. “That means I may lay bricks one day and walk local officials through the project the next. Whatever needs to be done, we do.”

When team members suffer low morale and get discouraged by slowed progress, project leaders should give them a pep talk: Take heart in how even a single structure can create jobs and be an anchor for a community in severe need.

“If our only goal was to deliver a building, this would be very frustrating experience,” Mr. Cesal says. “But our goal is to be part of the recovery. We create jobs and we train people—and we execute buildings along the way.” —Sarah Fister Gale


Hiring consultants for disaster relief projects is usually effective but too expensive to ensure long-term sustainability. Even if part of the consultant's job is to train local staff, there is still the challenge of training local staff to take over in the shortest time frame.

—Marie Louise Norton-Murray

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