Canadian Consulting Engineer


Award of Excellence: Haiti Prototype Schools

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and reverberated throughout the country. The earthquake caused an estimated 300,000 deaths and destroyed or damaged large parts of the built...

St. Joseph School Under Construction
St. Joseph School Under Construction

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and reverberated throughout the country. The earthquake caused an estimated 300,000 deaths and destroyed or damaged large parts of the built environment, including over 4,000 schools in Port-au-Prince and 60 per cent of schools in a large area of Haiti’s southwest. In a country where half the population is illiterate, the loss of so much of Haiti’s educational infrastructure was devastating.

In response to this disaster, a group of four engineering firms – Blackwell Bowick, Halsall Associates, Quinn Dressel Associates and Read Jones Christoffersen – answered a call from Finn Church Aid (FCA), a Finnish non-governmental organization, to help rebuild Haiti’s destroyed schools. Recognizing they could make a bigger difference if they banded together, the four firms created a joint venture to provide pro bono engineering services for FCA’s Haiti Schools Project.

The goal was to develop and build at least two prototypes for permanent, durable schools that could be replicated throughout Haiti depending on the local conditions. The team also aimed to transfer knowledge and skills to local Haitian engineers and contractors to ensure that future projects in the country would be better designed to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

The team made a significant commitment to the project on a financial as well as a professional and personal level. The firms agreed to have at least one field engineer present in Haiti for the first year, and a team of designers in Canada to back up the field presence. A total of six engineers travelled to Haiti from Toronto and Ottawa to ensure the project’s smooth execution. Those who went to Haiti included Dan Carson of Halsall Associates; Christian Bellini, Michael Hopkins, Tim Joyce and Kenneth Cryer of Blackwell Bowick; and Shane Copp of Read Jones Chistoffersen.

Shane Copp spent almost 17 months on the ground in Haiti, not only overseeing the structural work, but also assisting with project layout, demolition, scheduling, safety issues, quantity calculations, civil works, architecture, plumbing, electrical work, quality control, training of the site staff, and project administration.

The team held weekly coordination meetings via Skype and liaised not just with FCA, but also with local construction professionals, school principals, teachers and other members of the communities to ensure their needs were being met. Jointly, it is estimated the firms contributed over 3,500 hours in total.

Rebuilding the schools presented considerable challenges. In addition to a basic lack of infrastructure, materials could be in short supply or expensive, and the results had to be achieved without resort to costly machines or skilled labour. For example, gravel was often produced by crushing stones by hand, which is a slow and laborious process.

Another challenge was the remoteness of some of the school sites. St. Joseph School in Embouchure, for example, was located in a remote area that could only be reached by a rigorous two-hour hike down a hillside and across a riverbed. This meant that the building materials had to be as lightweight and efficient as possible.

Designs and drawings had to be simple and explicit because the local engineers and contractors had little experience reading them. Also Haiti has no building code.

Despite the difficulties, the results exceeded all expectations and in just over a year, by the fall of 2011, two prototype schools had been built. The St. Matthieu school is a heavyweight structure of reinforced concrete columns and shear walls with masonry infill. It is a prototype suitable for areas accessible by road. The St. Joseph school is a lightweight alternative for rural areas where materials must be transported by foot. This prototype has a timber stud wall construction with plywood shear walls.

Perhaps just as important, as one school principal told the team, the Haiti schools project has provided hope – not only for a better future for Haitians, but also because it shows the difference that a small-scale volunteer engineering effort can make in improving our world.cce

Name of project: Haiti Prototype Schools

Award-winning firms (structural

engineering consultants): Blackwell Bowick, Halsall Associates, Quinn

Dressel Associates, Read Jones

Christoffersen (Shane Copp, P.Eng., Dan Carson, P.Eng., Liz Oldersaw, P.Eng., Shahé Sagharian, P.Eng., Jennifer Watson, P.Eng., Scott Wallace, P.Eng., Christian Bellini, P.Eng., Kenny Cryer, Ben Burke, P.Eng., Michael Hopkins, AsCT, Tim Joyce, P.Eng., Matti Kuittinen (Kombi Architects)

Client/owner: Finn Church Aid

and the Episcopal Church of Haiti.

Other key players: YCF Group (contractor)


We liked this project because it had immediate and long-term benefits to a devastated country. The effort put in by the firms involved to deal with many logistical issues was huge.