Ryerson Interior Design students create Haiti Shelter Initiative

When second-year Ryerson School of Interior Design student Kathlene McGuinness undertook a research project on displacement shelters for Haiti in her first year, she never imagined such a practical application for her newly acquired knowledge. The country’s many design obstacles moved her to donate to Canadian-supported SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Petion-Ville), a comprehensive school in Petion-ville, Haiti that serves more than 550 of the town’s most vulnerable and underprivileged children. Now a year later, she and her classmates have spent a semester of free time working to shelter those students, from right here in Canada.


Upon learning that SOPUDEP’s building had suffered extensive structural damage in Haiti’s January earthquake and was now abandoned, McGuinness immediately volunteered her services. She offered up what she had learned in class to design temporary shelters that would stand up to the unique challenges Haiti presented: hilly terrain, susceptibility to landslides, limited materials and the likelihood of wood being looted for fuel.


“Because many of the staff and students also live at the school, they were not only without space to hold classes, but they were also now homeless,” said McGuinness, whose studies in Interior Design are a second degree. “People were living in the playground under sheets; something had to be done. I put the word out to the Interior Design student body and the response was amazing. We ended up with a core group of 14, plus volunteers that came in and out at various stages in the project.”


The group designed 10’ x 10’ work/live modules that are hurricane- and earthquake-resistant, fully engineered to drain storm water and that can be fitted together to create larger units. They used materials that can all be sourced in Haiti: bamboo (a new agricultural initiative in Haiti), cinder blocks and tires salvaged from the rubble, plastic twine, corrugated metal and tarps (available primarily through rescue groups). The design is also flexible enough to be constructed from other recovered materials, keeping costs down and increasing accessibility. At under $250 a unit, and simple enough to be assembled by anyone, the shelters are a cost-effective, time-efficient means of housing students and staff for at least a year.


Valerie Cordoza, a first-year Interior Design student who took up McGuinness’s cause, was born and raised in Haiti, leaving the country at the age of 14. In addition to design insights, Cordoza was also able to contribute invaluable first-hand knowledge of the country and contacts that proved useful for supplies and information. Fluent in French and Creole, she helped the group communicate with the beneficiaries of their efforts and even took on the task of translating the 75-page assembly instruction document.


“Working on this project was not just a professional endeavour for me, but a very personal one as well,” said Cordoza. “To be able to make a real tangible contribution to the people of my home country, who have endured such devastation, meant a lot to me. I’m really proud of our group for stepping up and offering what help we could. We can’t forget though, that the people of Haiti do not only need immediate relief, but long-term help to rebuild what was destroyed and creating this awareness will be one of the biggest challenges going forward.”


The Haiti Shelter Initiative was funded by the the Sawatzky Family Foundation, based in Orillia, which also funds the majority of SOPUDEP’s operating budget. President Ryan Sawatzky, who has a design background as well, worked very closely with McGuinness and is currently coordinating the construction of the shelters in Haiti. Twenty-six shelters will be built: 16 will be used to make eight classrooms, accommodating over 200 students, and 10 will house the staff and their families.


Based on their impressive work, the Ryerson students have been invited to help design the school’s new permanent building. “The Haiti Shelter Initiative was an incredible opportunity to use the skills we’ve learned to solve a real-world problem and help out people who really needed it,” said McGuinness, who estimates she put in 400 hours on this project. “Our temporary shelters fit the needs and constraints of the SOPUDEP population and will provide them with proper shelter that is reliable and dignified while the permanent school is being built.”


For more information, please visit www.ryerson.ca/news/media/General_Public/20100527_pr_haiti.html.