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Wisconsin Architect’s Relief Trip Confirms Architects Can Still Play a Key Role in Haiti—and Around the World

Going door to door, street to countryside, one architect takes part in Haiti’s early steps towards recovery

By Marilyn Kornfeld

When Madison-based architect Janine Glaeser, AIA, returned this summer from a relief trip to Haiti, she not only began to recruit her peers and plan a return trip to the devastated island, she started exploring the feasibility of establishing a local Architects Without Borders chapter that could respond to natural disasters around the world.

“There’s so much to do,” says Glaeser, who specializes in sustainable design and historic preservation, and serves as an officer in the Southwest Wisconsin chapter of the AIA.

Glaeser discovered the Seattle chapter of Architects Without Borders (AWB) while searching online for a way to put her professional experience to a larger purpose. Within a month she had raised the funds and joined a group of seven engineers and five architects headed off to Petit Goave, the epicenter of the 5.9-magnitude aftershock that shook the island after the 7.0 earthquake in mid-January.

The trip would not have happened if not for the efforts of key organizers from Architects Without Borders: fellow architect Rachel Minnery, AIA, and engineer Scott Douglas.

Glaeser also credits her employer, Roberts Construction Associates with “impressive support” and permission to take time off for her first trip, she says. “It’s the nature of our business. We do a lot of community outreach,” says Glaeser of the Madison-based company.

The sights that Glaeser and her teammates encountered upon leaving the island airport in their van still caused them all to go silent: row after row of tents lining both sides of the road along open sewers and heaps of garbage. The stench was overwhelming. Residents were afraid to go back into buildings, and the relief team thought they’d only be assessing the structural soundness of area homes. However, they needed to revise these plans since some of the basic infrastructure—schools, clinics, and hospitals—had still not been touched, nine months after the quake.

The volunteers sorted themselves into four teams of three, each composed of an architect and a structural engineer. They spent 15 days walking through damaged buildings and assessing how safe they were to enter or occupy. Nearly half were tagged as safe for occupation, and another third were tagged for restricted use. The group also identified 45 buildings with potential as hurricane shelters and 70 that could serve as shelter during earthquakes. They used the ATC-20 post-earthquake safety evaluation forms and manuals, kept detailed spreadsheets, and left behind written repair guides for use by the building owners.

“It was scary every single day,” says Glaeser. “Getting to the sites was terrifying--driving on perilous mountain roads in suffocating heat to remote sites with little food or water.” The team had packed for the trip as if they were preparing for an intensely isolated and remote camping trip: water and daily supplies, as well as their own hardhats, vests, clipboards, tape measures, and cameras. “You’re on a mission: Find some ounce of salvagability in a building,” she says.

The only way to make progress was to work closely with well-established NGO partners, including All Hands Volunteers, which served as a critical liaison between the volunteers and the local government. All Hands Volunteers also provided Internet connectivity, an occasional building with a roof for sleeping, and most importantly, funding for debris removal, repairs, and construction.

“You can’t work on your own. You have to create connections and teams to get things done,” she says, describing the process as both “serendipitous and essential.”

Despite the difficulties and extreme conditions, Glaeser wants to return. “The people are so open and kind. And the land is breathtaking,” she says.

During one particularly difficult moment on the trip, when she felt overwhelmed by the devastation around her, a fellow volunteer asked: If you were able to tell just one family that their home was safe and they didn’t have to live in a tent anymore, do you think that would make the entire trip worthwhile?

For Janine Glaeser, without a doubt, that answer is yes.


Following their evaluation of a church and school building in Peti- Goave, volunteers Janine Glaeser and Brian Olmsted explain what the yellow rating (i.e., the building requires repairs prior to re-entry) means to a church pastor and pose for a picture.
All images courtesy of Janine Glaeser 2010.

Just outside of the Port-au-Prince airport, the AWB team passed row upon row of tents where many displaced Haitian families were still living. Witnessing this only reinforced the team's goal: to get people out of tents and back into safe buildings.

Many remote mountain rural schools like this one are still holding classes outside in tents. The AWB team marked three out of the four buildings on this site green for safe re-entry and only one was marked yellow requiring repairs.

This collapsed building once housed the pediatrics ward of the Petit-Goave central hospital. It was marked red for demolition. 

Interior assessment of a rural mountain school with typical local construction: un-reinforced walls with a corrugated metal roof over either metal trusses or wood rafters. This building was marked yellow because the non-bearing interior walls were in danger of collapsing. 


Janine Glaeser has been presenting her experiences to AIA chapters in Wisconsin and reaching out to fellow architects nationwide. For more information on getting involved, or if you’d like Janine to present her experiences in Haiti to your chapter, contact her at


Take a look at the AIA’s collection of Web resources for those interested in supporting the disaster relief efforts in Haiti.

Listen to the NPR story, “Haiti Still Shaken Months After Earthquake”.

Visit the AIA’s Communities by Design Web site.

Back to AIArchitect November 5, 2010 Issue

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