Suppose, for a moment, that you were presented with an opportunity to put what you learned in the classroom, what you learned in the lab, what you learned in the field to use for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of people. That you could save hundreds of thousands of lives by putting to work the knowledge that you share in the classroom everyday. Consider the basic principles of physics put into practice to rescue a society at risk.

Here's the catch: following this path probably won't net highly-cited articles in traditional research journals, well-attended conference presentations, or even fame and fortune. You'll run into the occasional brick wall of apathy, you'll have to wander through unfamiliar places to find funding, and you'll have to plan your journey with the expectation that everything that could go wrong will. But most daunting of all, you'll need to think with your head, and act with your heart.

Engineering2Empower, a dedicated team of faculty and students initiated by engineering professors at the University of Notre Dame earlier this year to address the creation of sustainable housing in Haiti, has knowledge and heart.

Looking for Solutions in the Rubble

When an earthquake of unprecedented scale struck Haiti in 2010, Tracy Kijewski-Correa and Alexandros Taflanidis, early-career professors in the department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame, were called upon by their medical practitioner colleagues to asses the structural conditions that led to the widespread collapse of housing units. They traveled to Léogâne, a Haitian town 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince with a history of support from the Notre Dame community.

"Medical personnel informed us that they couldn't sustain their work without the help of engineers. We went down to figure out what went wrong, and it didn't take too long," says Kijewski-Correa of her first trip to Haiti after the earthquake. "Cultural and economic factors need attention. We can't just provide building codes."

A bit embarrassed by the irony of the situation, Kijewski-Correa and Taflanidis explain how they started to process what they had seen in Haiti just three months after the earthquake.

"We had really nice seats on the airplane on the way home. We had he best seats we've ever had on a flight, and I wanted to sleep. I wanted to sleep," reiterates Kijewski-Correa, shaking her head, "but we spent the time brainstorming."

"We knew what went wrong," adds Taflanidis, recalling their in-flight brainstorming session. "We started to think about what solutions were available, but we killed them fairly easily. These solutions would work well in many other countries, but the market constraints and the cultural constraints in Haiti create a very tough problem."

Devastated by centuries of violence and neglect, Haiti is considered one of the poorest countries in the Americas. While many U.S. universities and aid organizations arrived to assess the damage post-earthquake, they're eventually forced to walk away.

"No one in academia wants to tackle this. A lot of people find it difficult to get involved in a place that doesn't have a starting infrastructure that can be tweaked. Beyond the technical difficulties, this work doesn't get you millions of dollars, it doesn't get you papers that will be well-cited. There's no incentive to work on this in academia," says Kijewski-Correa from her perspective as an professor and a civil engineer.

Understanding What Went Wrong

"It's basic physics, F = ma," explains Kijewski-Correa. "Typically in earthquake prone zones, steel reinforcements provide the ability for walls to flex and ride out the very strong ground motion of an earthquake without crumbling. When an earthquake comes, there's ground acceleration. The forces that are going to result from that are proportional to the mass of the structure. Those forces are distributed based on the stiffness of the walls. In Haiti, the walls are very brittle. So, they blow out, they collapse. The forces are then redistributed to the columns. These are very thin concrete columns with little steel reinforcement. They are also blown out by the forces, resulting in a ceiling collapse."

In the United States, homes are built with an emphasis on the frame, for example, a wood frame sheathed with drywall. That's what Kijewski-Correa and Taflanidis wanted immediately for the Haitians, but the Haitians don't have wood or drywall.

When Kijewski-Correa and Taflanidis got back to the university setting, they put together a team of students, and they went to work developing a plan to engineer resilient, sustainable housing for the people of Léogâne. But they kept in mind the shortcomings of earlier missions.

"If you want to empower the Haitians, you have to listen to what they want. Safety and privacy is of exceptional importance to them. The houses should look like they are fortified from the outside," emphasizes Taflanidis.

"Taking the rubble [from destroyed housing] and recycling it had seemed like a great idea," says Kiljewski-Correa of previous redevelopment plans. "The UN thought this was green and sustainable, but the Haitians wouldn't live in these houses because they were like tombs."

In March 2011, the team returned to Haiti for a community planning workshop intent on learning more about what mattered to the Haitians. After meeting with community leaders and interviewing homeless Haitians in transient camps, the team was ready to go back to the university and put their plans to paper.

Out of the Classroom, Into the Spotlight

The idea for Engineering2Empower came to Taflanidis following a conference in August of this year. The engineers, feeling lost in a world of business plans and marketing, needed a way to promote the work they wanted to do.

"I'm not a businessman. I don't understand all of these things very well," he laughed, breaking with the seriousness that had gripped the conversation.

"As academics, we promote our work through papers and conferences, so this is completely new to us," adds Kijewski-Correa. "We know that whatever aid is there now will move on to the next disaster in 3 or 4 years. NGOs focus on short-term needs. Their job is not to innovate. Innovation comes out of university settings. That's what we're good at. E2E is a banner for the innovation that will drive new solutions, because sometimes just tweaking the old solutions doesn't help."

"If you think about it from an educational perspective," says Kijewski-Correa, "we teach our students to solve challenging problems, and I can't think of one problem that is more challenging. These people have no resources, they are illiterate, they have no government to rely on. They want a house that has a strong appearance, [but they don't have the resources to build it]. And then we're going to throw in hurricanes and earthquakes, and we need to develop something that doesn't create a economic dependence on foreign aid. You put all that together, and then you tell students, 'now solve that problem.' Those are the problems that we are solving."

So what's the solution?

"We decided to build frames. We take what they have, reinforced concrete, and we give them a couple of innovations," explains Kijewski-Correa. "The walls should be like skin, and there should be a frame that is like a skeleton. By reducing the mass and concentrating the limited resources that we have into very precise locations, we no longer have an F = ma problem. We want to concentrate our engineering and resources into the places that matter most."

"They used to build like this in the old days," says Kijewski-Correa. "When we walked around and looked at the area, they were building one of these, they call them gingerbread houses. They had houses built of wood when they had wood on the island. There's an example where a concrete house collapsed right beside a wood-frame one that's a hundred years old. It's still standing. But building here with wood now is unsustainable…we're trying to use this idea with the steel framework."

Since access to wood is limited and quality control is important, the frames would be made of steel and would be purchased pre-fabricated at community depots. Because Haitians tend to build homes very slowly, one brick at a time, communal resources have been built into the E2E plan to assist and empower the Haitians on what could be a multi-year journey to home acquisition.

In an effort to allow families to procure building materials gradually, self-storage locker systems have been proposed. These lockers, secure at the community depots, would allow families to purchase pressed concrete panels once they had saved enough money and store them until they had enough panels to complete their home. The home-building plan, which includes several steps, also allows for a transient shelter phase once the steel framework has been erected. The families can live in their home while they're building it. The price? Cheaper or comparable to a traditional masonry home.

The E2E team is going back to Haiti next month. They plan to build a prototype on the University of Notre Dame campus in the coming year, and they are working with MBA students to develop a viable business plan.

"We're trying to create a presence because we need community support to help us finish the work," says Kijewski-Correa. "This is real scholarship that matters, that affects peoples lives."

If you would like to learn more about Engineering2Empower and their plan to engineer an empowered Haiti, visit their website here - Engineering2Empower.


The E2E plan includes lockers for the storage of building materials and a transitory phase in which tarps can be secured to the steel framework until concrete slabs are purchased. (credit: T. Kijewski-Correa)