Photo showing several men building a concrete brick wall. The men are mostly black Haitian, with a Caucasian man wearing a baseball hat in the foreground smoothing out mortar among the bricks that are being laid.

In October of 2016, JSA architect Jay Longtin traveled to Haiti as part of a volunteer building crew. In just seven days, he and a ten-member crew, with help from the local community, built a house for a Haitian family. Here, he tells his story:

I volunteered with the Fuller Center for Housing, an international, Christian nonprofit that builds and renovates houses in partnership with families in need. Homeowners work hand-in-hand with volunteers to build or renovate their homes, which they pay for on affordable terms, interest-free at no profit.

Our construction site was in Pignon, a town of 30,000 about five hours north of Port Au Prince, the capital of Haiti. Haiti, a Caribbean country that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is still recovering from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed 230,000 people in 2010. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% living in abject poverty.

As an architect, it was fascinating to build in a region so very different from the east coast of the United States. There are no slump tests when you mix concrete by hand, on the ground, with river water! Even with a bare minimum of tools and supplies, the construction went well. This family has a new concrete block house, a substantial improvement from their previous mud structure.

This was my first volunteer trip and I was not sure what to expect. I was concerned that I would feel uncomfortable with the religious nature of the organization, but there was no religious tension in this group. Would I do it again? I have to say yes, although I struggle with the inefficiency of flying eleven people (ten volunteers plus a team leader) to Haiti to perform manual labor. It felt more like cultural tourism than actual aid, but then again, not many people are willing to send money to a far away project, including me. All in all, a positive experience.

Jay Longtin, AIA is an architect with JSA Design in Portsmouth, NH. He specializes in environments for senior living.

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