Konbit Shelter began as a sustainable building project in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, and has developed into a long-term relationship between two communities, based on a shared commitment to the process of recovery.
Initiated by a small group of artists interested in how the creative process might positively impact people’s lives in times of crisis, Konbit Shelter has collaborated with the village of Cormiers, Haiti, to create a community center and two single-family houses, as well as the seeds of initiatives in sustainability and education.
Beginning as a direct response to the devastation we were seeing on the news in the days following the quake, our initial goal was to partner with a community and embark on a collaborative project, sharing our knowledge of the highly resilient Super-Adobe construction method through the building of a permanent community space.
Super-Adobe, an architectural style developed by Iranian-born architect Nadir Khalili, utilizes locally available materials to create structures of incredible strength. Made from 10% cement and 90% earth, these domed structures are resistant to earthquakes, tornadoes, fires and floods.
We set out to see how this remarkable system could be made useful to vulnerable populations in Haiti, and in the process, create soulful structures that place value on beauty, creativity and craft in the reconstruction process.
Sourcing all of our materials locally, raising money from our creative communities in the United States and partnering with a small organization of farmers, we were able to create jobs in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Our building project offered meaningful work for people at a time when many were desperate to participate in something constructive that could restore a sense of efficacy amidst the chaos and displacement.
The intimate scale of our project as well as our direct relationship with people in Cormiers enabled us to begin building at a time when most of the NGOs were still wrestling to get their materials out of customs. The work was long and hard for all involved, but it became clear almost immediately that what began as an idea to share knowledge and resources through the creation of one building had forged a relationship that would evolve and grow.
In January 2011, we smoothed out the last bit of earthen plaster, carved the last patterns into the hand-made doors, and adorned the structure with color. On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake – 7 months after we broke ground – we inaugurated the completed community center with a day of celebration and ceremony, organized by the Mango Growers Association of Cormiers and our friends Ayiti Resurrect, a Haitian-American alliance of artists and healers.
We kept up our work creating a Super-Adobe family home with a composting toilet, and most recently an adapted cement-less adobe and lime house for a family of 6. Along the way, we have sought feedback and participation: we have evolved a living answer to the question, “How can we bring the knowledge pool and resources of a global architectural and creative community together with local wisdom in a way that meets a community’s needs and creates prototypes of future possibility?”
Alongside our building work, Konbit Shelter has helped facilitate a clean stove project with students from the University of Illinois, set up a solar power system in the community center with dedicated computer and Internet connection, plus the beginnings of art classes and other workshops.
At present, our team consists of artists, builders, engineers, architects and educators who see this work as a process of continuous exploration with the residents of Cormiers. We feel grateful for the work we have been able to do, because from the beginning, the process has been a two-way street; what we bring in terms of resources to create jobs, homes and learning has always been returned to us a thousand-fold in the gift of participating in ideas that become reality. The mutuality of this exchange of learning and experience is what keeps us connected to this place.
The next leg of our journey will begin with a visit in January 2014, to open a conversation about how to activate the community center we built as place of learning and sharing. For the many children who cannot afford formal schooling, the community center suggests the possibility of a free and public place of learning, a place where the knowledge, expertise and traditions of the community take center stage, and where inquiry can flourish. Together we’ll design a set of children’s workshops that induce wonder and inaugurate the center as a home for curiosity. We’ll be joined by educator Bryan Welch, co-founder of Kite’s Nest, Brightworks, and A Curious Summer.
The definition of Konbit in Creole is a traditional form of cooperative communal labor in Haiti, whereby the able-bodied folk of a locality help each other prepare their fields. It is a time for solidarity and cooperation in the face of adversity. Konbit Shelter is referencing the word with a global interpretation, people coming together to work cooperatively across national boundaries.