Building Montrouis and Dignité - an interview with design fellow Gerry Reilly

Building Montrouis and Dignité - an interview with design fellow Gerry Reilly

  • by Architecture for Humanity
  • Jan 10, 2012
  • comments

San Francisco isn't exactly on the way from Ireland to Haiti. All the same Gerry Reilly decided to pay us a visit and maybe even do a bit of work before returning to his post in Port-au-Prince. As an architecture design fellow, Gerry manages building projects at the Rebuilding Center for Architecture for Humanity. He's been with the Center since October 2010 working closely with several school projects. As a result the stories of the development of the two newest schools–Collège Mixte Le Bon Berger, in Montrouis, and École La Dignité, near Jacmel–are etched onto his brain. Students Rebulid spent some time last Wednesday getting some details and generally nerding out on rebuilding in Haiti.

Students Rebuild: Montrouis (as Collège Mixte Le Bon Berger is often referred) had a dedication ceremony a few weeks ago. But it's not quite finished?

Gerry Reilly: It's not quite finished. It's 92-93% finished. There are just a few things outstanding and the very final step will be painting the (roof) trusses. Once we get that rainbow effect finished, then we can declare completion. I'm sure you've seen the renderings. We've got a very long building–35 meters, or 100 feet– and it's got a truss every 600mm or 2 feet. Each one's going to be painted a different color, going from green to lime to yellow, orange and red. It should look amazing.

SR: I remember that rendering. It's got colored fins making a louvered shade along the top. But the Montrouis trusses are steel tubing.

GR: Right. The trusses inside are just frames, but the parts that extend outside are going to be clad in metal on both sides, making these vertical planes. We're going to have to experiment with the paints, paint mixing, it's something the contractor is quite confident he can do. We'll have to get together on site and with different paint samples to see what we can come up with.

SR: Have kids been able to start classes?

GR: The welding is pretty much finished, and that's the only reason the couldn't have entered the building. There was no electricity on site, and the crew needed a generator to power the welder, it makes a lot of racket, but they're taking the (holiday) break to finish up. Other finishing touches would be some painting, slight crepissage/plaster around the doors, the stairs are being installed today. School starts on the 9th (January) and there will be finished rooms waiting.

SR: The other thing about that rendering are the other buildings depicted.

GR: Montrouis has three phases - the first phase is eight classrooms, that's what's being finished. The second phase is a 1-story block that sits in front of the first phase, with two kindergarten classrooms, a kitchen and a staff room. This block also holds the stairway that goes up the grade of the site to the classrooms, so for Phase 1 we actually built the back wall of Phase 2. That's a decision we made knowing we'd be moving forward with the Phase 2 building, that additional funding would come in once Phase 1 was complete . The final phase is the composting latrines, with rainwater harvesting system for flushing. But the entire school apart from the kindergarten students will be back in class.

Montrouis courtyard rendering - Phase 3
Completed classroom and furniture at December's dedication ceremony
Above: Montrouis courtyard rendering at Phase 3; below: completed classroom and furniture at December's dedication ceremony

SR: To complete the classrooms there will have to be sets of furniture-benches (I imagine) and chalkboards, desks for teachers. Where does all this fit in?

GR: Because it's an existing (non-collapsed) school, Wilson (D'Or, the headmaster) had a lot of furniture that he could use to furnish half the school. We had some money in the budget for more furniture, however during construction we got a call from Judy (Chambers, 2nd client representative for Montrouis). While back in the US she raised $800 to donate to Montrouis. We gave the money to Wilson, who went to town, bought some timber and hired some friends to make the rest of what they needed.

SR: Could you talk a bit about the school's construction?

GR: We had a team working on schematic designs in 2010. January and February of 2011 we had a team of three working on construction documents for Phase 1, we got them done pretty quickly, four weeks. Then we bid it out, came back in 3 weeks. We had a contractor on site at the start of June. Construction went pretty smoothly. The contractor contacted us when he had questions on the drawings, staying in constant contact which, for a Haitian contractor right now is very important. Our first problem was when we hit solid bedrock digging the foundations. You usually have to dig down 1.5 meters, but in some areas we were at bedrock after a meter. So instead of building a straight strip, we had to step one up over the bedrock where it was occurring. The result is more complicated than what I'm drawing (at this point Gerry had resorted to illustration, reproduced below) but the idea is you can lay a shorter foundation right on the bedrock–there's nothing stronger than that. There were other minor problems, but you're always going to have those in a construction process.

Mr. Reilly's sketch of Montrouis foundations adjusted to discovered bedrock
Top: Hitting Rock; Above: Mr. Reilly's sketch of Montrouis foundations adjusted to discovered bedrock

SR: A really interesting feature are those cartooned sun window screens. Did the contractor build those?

GR: What he did was he hired an artist from the area to make them. The Montrouis area especially is renown for its metalwork, so the work was subcontracted and finding someone to make the 8 sets of windows and doors was no problem.

SR: So those weren't spec'ed out in the drawings?

GR: No, we saw that there's no point as architects to try to explain to an expert in metalwork how to do it, so we said "just go for something like this." We checked now and then for quality and left the rest to the local guys.

SR: Could you compare working on Montrouis with working on Dignité?

GR: Dignité was the first entirely built project. We finished Ceverine early in 2011, just before Dignité went on-site. But Dignité was the first time we were dealing with bidding out the project, finding a contractor. The Ceverine project was handled by Yves Francois, which we couldn't consider an outsourced project. Yves was educated in the States, is based in Port-au-Prince (actually just upstairs from the Rebuilding Center) while on Dignité it was a local contractor who only knew French and Creole and the Haitian ways of construction. It was a different ballgame. We had  schedules estimating completion in 12 weeks. After three weeks, the schedule was already not being met. We brought the contractor in, spoke with him. A few weeks pass and things haven't improved, we spoke with him again: "how can we help you work through things?" Our construction managers, Carl Harrigan especially, spent a lot of time with the contractor going through his accounts to figure out how they can pay off this debt so they can get materials for this, and maybe consolidate other debts…Carl really tried his best. In the end though, the contractor went bankrupt. He got the superstructure finished, to the tops of the walls, 80% complete. Architecture for Humanity decided to self-execute, be responsible for hiring the carpenters, the masons, the metal workers…we were dealing with all the trades, contracting them with the client. It went pretty well. The building was five months over schedule, but on budget. The client is exceptionally happy, the kids are in and it's a beautiful space. Externally it's a successful project, but internally we didn't meet all the goals we'd wanted to.

SR: How much of these shortcomings was contractors not being accustomed to the bid process?

GR: That was a big factor, however every contractor we meet isn't accustomed with it either and we give the same amount of attention to every contractor. We certainly learned lessons from Dignité so for next time we'll try more to alleviate the pressure on the contractor in any way. It's a learning curve, for the contractor and for Architecture for Humanity in Haiti.

SR: A lot of that learning happens on the pages of the drawing set. You guys had some interesting approaches...

GR: The drawing package for Dignité was 50% 2D drawings and 50% 3D drawings. For the details it was nearly all 3D drawings. There was a lot of time and effort put into the Dignité drawing package - for a two classroom school, especially. The idea though was to fully explain every detail and aspect the contractor needed. We found that the contractor wasn't paying attention to them! We had our Construction Outreach staff maintain a constant presence on site, and they were excellent. They had spent the time looking at the drawings, the details, the junctions, asking us questions, acting as go-betweens between the labor and the drawings, which ideally the contractor would do.

3D model depicting Montrouis roof truss assembly
Jan 3 status - trusses and railings all installed, awaiting panels and paint
Above: 3D model depicting Montrouis roof truss assembly; below: Jan 3 status - trusses and railings all installed, awaiting panels and paint

SR: Was a similar set of drawings issued for Montrouis then?

GR: Yes. The team that did the drawings for Dignité rolled off them to work on the drawings for Montrouis. Where the Dignité drawings took eight weeks, the ones for Montrouis took four - that was because we knew what to do, where to set our attention and how to get translations into French and Creole. The contractor read the drawings and was an excellent go between the laborers and the drawings.

Drawing of the recessed seat from Ecole Dignite Construction Set explaining hidden steal and concrete

SR: So it wasn't hard to introduce better reinforcing techniques etc. to these guys?

GR: What we had before construction was: a set of drawings and a site. Before we  started to build we had a week's training from Build Change: a couple of days on reinforcing, a day or two on on how to mix concrete, a couple of days on how to marry the two, how to reinforce columns, how things should be tied, this is how to pour it and vibrate it. Training helped out a lot.

SR: What were some lessons learned from Montrouis?

GR: There were some mistakes during construction. For example, we had a construction outreach member on site four days a week and be back at the Center to review progress on Fridays. We found was the contractor was so keen to work, they would certainly be on site Friday, as well as Saturday, but sometimes they were working on Sunday. We found that they would do quite important work on those days. They'd mix concrete on Saturdays, without anybody from Architecture for Humanity on site. We immediately flagged that as a problem and the need for supervision on these days was a must. I guess that's when the scheduling came in: you can only mix concrete on certain days, it needs to be checked by us, and we need a heads up so we can schedule a check. There's a few lessons like that.

SR: Because mixing concrete is so…

GR: Proper concrete requires good proportions, moisture, a check if it's been vibrated after the pour, but most importantly we need to check the steel before the pour, otherwise it's impossible to verify. For the concrete you generally know if the mix is correct or not and  there are some simple tests you can do on site to represent a good or bad mix to the workers. Stuff like cupping it in your hand, turning it over and seeing if it sticks to your hand. If the concrete falls off it's either too wet or too dry. But generally we need to check everything beforehand and along the way.

SR: Concrete block is the material of choice - it's a familiar material and we know how to check its quality. I know you guys had been looking at earth block techniques, and it hasn't really been working out. Are you guys looking at exploring other materials moving forward?

GR: For Dignité we explored different materials, we explored local limestone. That was because we were dealing with a difficult to reach site, it was up a very steep hill and difficult to get materials to it. We took a look at the site and said "we could use some of the materials here." There were a lot of stones on site and in the fields around it. The first sketch had Dignité entirely done in stone, walls two feet thick with steel going through it. After some budget review, we decided to only do part of the project in stone, the front walls.

Haitians do limestone walls all the time: for retaining walls, and partition walls between lots, mostly in the rural areas, like Jacmel. We altered the construction, making them seismically engineered. We put in a series of hidden concrete columns. You would leave cavities in the stone wall to put the steel in and the rocks act as a permanent formwork. We also built in horizontal beams using the same idea: you don't see any of this from the outside.

SR: There are three schools yet to finish through the Haiti School Initiative. What are you looking forward to on these next projects?

GR: I'm excited to get a composting toilet successfully built. That would be groundbreaking stuff, a large scale composting toilet for a school. It would generate revenue, and it would hopefully change the perception of a toilet. Starting with schools, with kids, we're hoping they can understand it's not just waste, but you can actually make something from the compost. We're doing that for Pele, and looking at Home of Knowledge too.

SR: When can we expect to see these toilets come online?

GR: The first one will be Pele. They've had some problems with the ground. The water table is right beneath the site surface. If you dig a hole in Pele, it's going to fill with water. That's slowed them down a bit. Once they get work out of the ground, though, we can see a toilet up in a next few months.

SR: And what happens with the Montrouis contractors after that project is done?

GR: They will certainly be on our books. When we come around to needing contractors again, they will definitely be invited to bid for projects. They're very hard working, they're willing to learn, and on their next project, whether with us or someone else, they'll have learned so much from Montrouis. They'll be a great set of guys for a job.

Stay tuned to more Haiti school updates via Students Rebuild Haiti blog