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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

New Design for Haiti

Kelli Oura, Danielle Locklar, and Lauren Reinnoldt

A senior design analysis of Engineering Ethics and the challenge of building a modular house in post-earthquake Haiti.

The following article (and accompanying PowerPoint slideshow) was written by Kelli Oura, Danielle Locklar, and Lauren Reinnoldt, all Civil Engineering seniors at Santa Clara University who graduated in June 2011. The Senior Design team worked with SCU Professor Reynaud Serrette to construct an easily replicable, safe, and modular house as a possible solution to the systematic housing problems in Haiti after the destruction of many buildings in the January 2010 earthquake. The team won a Hackworth Grant from the Ethics Center to support their work writing this article about the ethical dimension of their engineering project; this work also fulfilled the requirement of all Senior Design teams at the SCU School of Engineering to provide an ethical explanation and justification for their projects. The article below provides that explanation and justification. The accompanying PowerPoint slide show provides a look at the engineering decisions that went into constructing the house.


As part of the curriculum for Santa Clara University's School of Engineering, seniors participate in a year long research and design project which includes an ethical analysis. Presented in the following paper is the ethics section to "The New Design for Haiti." The analysis consists of three parts which include: 1) the background information and ethical importance, 2) engineering virtues and 3) the difficulty of implementation in Haiti.


The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, and the disappointing rebuilding efforts which have left Haitians still fighting for survival have brought to light the inequalities in building construction faced by undeveloped countries compared to the developed world. The extent of the damage caused by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake was largely due to the lack of building codes, improper construction practices, and lack of quality material. Haiti traditionally used concrete blocks with little or no steel reinforcement in the construction of its buildings and homes. Moreover, in an impoverished country like Haiti, it is common for contractors to add sand to concrete to stretch out the mixes. This practice, along with the lack of steel reinforcement in most construction, produced weak, unsound structures providing no lateral resistance in a country prone to high lateral loads in the form of the tremendous force generated by earthquakes and hurricanes. This sad but true reality has been the cause of thousands of deaths that would not have occurred if the design and construction practices were at the standard of the developed world. Without an improvement in such practices, we can expect more needless deaths when the next natural disaster hits. Millions of dollars have been raised to help rebuild the flattened Haiti from the ground up. However, the disappointing fact is that it is currently over a year after the earthquake and there is still no systematic solution in sight for the displaced people. Thousands of Haitians are still being housed in temporary shelters such as tents, which leave them vulnerable to disease and danger.

Our Senior Design Project is called " The New Design for Haiti ", and it is an attempt to provide a solution for the displaced Haitians and to also improve Haiti in aspects other than just structurally. We are providing a single family home that we envision to be the building block in the development of a community in Haiti. Permanent housing affords Haitians with the security, protection, health benefits and privacy that temporary housing cannot, while improving and bringing the Haitian community back together and providing a sustainable and strong future. Our single family home is based on a modular system using foam-insulated steel panels. We have designed our home to resist both the hurricane and earthquake forces Haiti is prone to by designing based on two jurisdictions, San Francisco and Monroe County, Fla. San Francisco and Monroe County are two of the most challenging places to design for seismic and wind loads, respectively, in the United States. Not only is the home designed to be structurally sound, but it is also designed to fit with Haitian values and cultural needs. A prefabricated modular home will make possible simple and quick construction, low cost, quality control, and flexibility in application. Essential to our "packaged home" is a how-to guide which provides easy instructions for Haitians to construct their own homes. Although we are focusing on the application of such a modular structure to the rebuilding of Haiti, we believe the structure can also be implemented in other countries in need and for different types of buildings. Due to the limited resources available in Haiti, most of the material will need to be imported. At a first glance, "The New Design for Haiti" addresses the structure and shelter issues but the hope is that the modular system will also be able to provide a basis for an industry in Haiti that will help to stimulate the Haitian economy through trade amongst the Caribbean islands, and also improve the well being of the country.

There are three general ethical claims that have informed our work on this project. The first, which we have already mentioned, is the issue of equality in which, "all equals should be treated equally."1 There is no sufficient justification for the vastly unequal and substandard structures that collapsed in the earthquake, killing tens of thousands. Living in the United States, we are not exposed to and are often unaware of the inequalities faced by people around the world. The harsh reality is that Haitians are still suffering and, on a larger scale, people around the world are living and occupying life-threatening and unsafe structures not designed properly. There is an obvious problem with the uneven distribution of wealth that leaves a large population of people worldwide at risk. Does disaster have to happen before anything is done to address these inequalities? Does your individual wealth define your worth as a human being? Should we not all have basic protection? These are all questions that have arisen in reflecting on our project. We believe that this inequality needs to be addressed and that we should all be held to the same standard. Wealth does not define our worth as individuals.

Our second ethical claim is: by providing homes to the Haitians, we are addressing our belief that everyone has a right to a home. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights is a collection of thirty articles striving to assure and teach all to respect the freedoms and rights of people of all nations. Several articles from the UN Declaration are especially relevant to "The New Design for Haiti." These articles specifically deal with an individual's entitlement to personal well being in the form of a home. Article 17 states: "Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others."2 The idea that every human being deserves a place to call home is simplistic but is not a reality for so many. From developed nations to third world countries facing the effects of natural disasters, individuals are living on streets, in slums, and in less than par structures. Article 25 states: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."3 A home represents so many aspects of life for its occupants including health, safety and a sense of self-esteem. Currently, the people of Haiti are living in tents in close quarters. This is a problem for personal sanitation and overall health because when so many are disposing of waste near where they live, there is a large likelihood of contamination. The result is apparent in terms of the amount of deaths and the spread of diseases since the earthquake, particularly evident in the outbreak of cholera.4 In addition to improving health for the people, the "New Design for Haiti" modular housing system will offer a sense of security and safety. Living in a stable, enclosed home offers protection from crime, gangs and potential environmental elements. This stability is consistent with allowing people to move on with their life in pursuit of "right to life, liberty and security of person," stated in Article 3.5 The third and possibly most important effect a home can have on an individual is the sense of belonging and humanity it provides to its occupants. The feeling of not having a home can inflict a sense of financial failure, or of being less than a person, or of being unworthy of such privileges afforded to humanity. A home seems to be a simple, understood part of life for many in the developed world, yet it is a rare commodity for a nation with a poor economy and hundreds of years of misfortune. As engineers we are called to accept the challenge of "holding paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public."6 For these reasons, our goal is to provide Haiti with inexpensive modular housing because all humanity deserves a roof over one's head.

Our third ethical claim pertains to the common good. Another positive aspect to the design of our modular system is that it also has the ability to be used in other types of applications such as schools, hospitals, and commercial buildings. Thus the modular system is consistent with the common good approach to ethics where, "every society needs 'common conditions' which are important to the goodness of everyone."7 Structures from homes to hospitals are necessary for the functioning of any society. They provide the basic needs for individuals to live a quality life and to be able to provide the best for themselves. A sturdy, modular structure like ours could yield a large amount of housing, thus profoundly affecting the common good. We also hope that the possibility of creating the parts of the modular homes could lend to the development of a domestic housing industry in Haiti, another development that could greatly affect the common good. "The New Design for Haiti" is a building block to the creation of a new community to stabilize the country and to provide countless opportunities for the people of Haiti.


Engineering is an essential and paramount field in society and as such should adhere to strict ethical views in order to provide the best possible service. As students we learn of the vast opportunities we will be facing in our professional life, yet the focus is rarely turned to the controversial decisions we could be facing as well. For guidance with future decisions, the American Society of Civil Engineers Code of Ethics offers key information necessary to make proper decisions. The Code of Ethics states, "engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare and the environment; being honest and impartial; striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession." When deciding on pursuing "The New Design for Haiti," it was of great importance that the project reflected these fundamental principles of professional engineers.

When abiding by the Code of Ethics, one must adopt a series of virtues to exercise in hopes of protecting the fundamental principles of engineers. While working on "The New Design for Haiti," four engineering virtues were identified that correspond to the ASCE Code of Ethics. The engineering virtues are honesty, trustworthiness, beneficence, and impartiality. At the surface these virtues seem understood and widely accepted, yet the question is asked if they are applied in undeveloped nations.

Engineers perform vital roles in society and usually handle issues that most people do not realize are there. Civil engineers are enormously trusted with the safety of millions of people using structures, roads and bridges without giving every person a detailed explanation of design criteria for these superstructures. Holding such a significant purpose and responsibility, it is imperative that an engineer is honest and trustworthy. These engineering virtues are demonstrated by an engineer providing a structure that has been designed transparently to specific standards to resist seismic events or wind forces, which are Haiti's different loading scenarios. This is important anywhere an engineer is working, but it is especially important in Haiti because they have no enforcement or inspection process, so the stability of the structure and safety of its occupants rests in the hands of the honest and trustworthy engineer.

These virtues call an engineer to not only adhere to moral and ethical principles, but also to have the desire to do good unto others. Beneficence as a virtue for an engineer ties into the Golden Rule, "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you in the same situation." All engineers are trained problem solvers and spend every day helping people with the things they want to accomplish. Yet engineers, despite their location elsewhere in the world, can use their talents and skills in an effort to aid Haiti to achieve an acceptable stable position as a nation through the provisions of secure structures.

The final identified engineering virtue is impartiality. Impartiality is defined as a habit of justice holding that decisions are based on objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, or on the basis of preferring the benefit of one person over another for unethical reasons. Despite Haiti's economic status, engineers must remain impartial in the face of the status of Haiti's citizens. In particular, engineers must consider the types of design structures that they themselves would live in or would deem acceptable to live in for citizens of a first world country. Such a concern brings up numerous ethical questions such as: although Haiti has no sanitation system, or electricity, do we include such things in our design of "The New Design for Haiti"? Or if Haitians just need a roof, is it acceptable to give them a home that isn't adequate for the nation's loading events? In our judgment, the virtue of impartiality requires us to answer such questions in the following way: It is unacceptable to use precious resources to give a struggling people less than what you would have done for yourself or someone of higher status. A standard exists for housing, and all people, despite race, nationality or status, should be helped to achieve that standard.


Here we address some of the practical and ethical challenges to the actual construction of our house in Haiti. The fact that Haiti has a lack of knowledge in the construction industry and that there are not many resources readily available for use meant that we faced many obstacles when creating our design.

Over the years Haiti has suffered through multiple natural disasters including hurricanes and earthquakes. While most countries learn from the design mistakes and come back with better solutions for rebuilding, Haiti has continued to use the same design ideas that have failed throughout the years. The mistakes that were made in the design of the buildings that collapsed in the hurricane of January 2010 include using substandard concrete or cinder blocks with no lateral supports and supporting columns that were too small in diameter. The rebar used in the columns was too small and smooth to really give any support to the concrete poured around it; instead, the concrete slipped down the rebar when the earth began to move rather than gripping it in place. Also, the concrete mix design that is continuously used throughout Haiti incorporates beach sand which simply causes the steel reinforcements to rust. While many companies in the U.S. are working on housing solutions for Haiti in the future, Haiti is currently rebuilding houses using the same construction techniques that failed from the beginning – the same concrete blocks and the same rebar. One of the biggest decisions we had to make for our project was whether or not we were going to use the same resources currently used or if we could find new materials that we could work with to create a better design.

As a result of research of new materials, we have chosen to use structural foam and cold-formed steel in our design. Using these materials, we have created a panelized system that could be easily shipped as a kit to Haiti and constructed within a matter of hours. To make our design even simpler, we are including a color-coded pamphlet with step-by-step instructions and pictures on constructing the house. It is through the provision of such user-friendly details that we believe it will be easy to recreate our house design, no matter how much knowledge or experience the construction workers may have.

For the layout of our house, we have incorporated two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen/living room area, adding up to about 480 square feet. This house size is bigger than the sizes of the houses currently being built in Haiti, because we wanted to make sure families are given adequate living space in our design. The inclusion of two bedrooms allows parents to have their own space away from the children, giving them privacy. We combined the living room and kitchen because Haitians are accustomed to cooking outside and therefore wouldn't need much room inside the house. While Haitians do not have plumbing or electricity, we incorporated a bathroom into the layout so that the house would not need major renovation when plumbing becomes available to families. There is a big patio area out in the front because Haitians are accustomed to sitting outside and being social with neighbors. We have also incorporated natural ventilation, a housing feature already implemented in Haiti's houses today. The natural ventilation is located at the eave of the roof where blocking is placed between every other roof rafter on the west and east walls, allowing for natural ventilation to be present in every room of the house. In the spaces that have not been blocked off between the rafters, we are proposing the Haitians place a wire mesh, a material already readily available in Haiti, in order to cover the open spaces so large animals and insects cannot enter into the house.

To incorporate some materials that are readily available in Haiti, we have chosen to use a foundation design that can be easily arranged by construction workers before the materials for the house were to arrive. The foundation is similar to a rubble trench foundation but will be incorporating gabion baskets for more support in the ground. These gabion baskets are made from a wire mesh which are then filled with rubble from the buildings that were destroyed. These baskets are placed into a trench that is dug up by workers based on dimensions given to them on a diagram. Underneath the baskets, a perforated pipe is laid to allow for better drainage below the house when there is heavy rain. On top of the baskets, a thin layer of concrete is laid, 7" where the trench was dug and 1" every where else, creating a solid ground for the foundation. This foundation design has many positive aspects for the Haitians including being inexpensive, utilizing materials native to Haiti, providing work for Haitians, and decreasing the amount of concrete needed.

While we are incorporating many materials into our house design that are not native to Haiti, it is our hope that our housing system can turn into an industry that will ultimately help improve the economy. The panels used to construct our house are simply made of a 4' wide, 8' high, and 3.8" thick piece of structural foam which is sandwiched between two pieces of sheet steel. The reason for the 3.8" thickness is so our panels could easily be placed into the 4" connections throughout the house. The thickness also gives our house a feeling of solid walls, another detail Haitians are accustomed to in their current housing systems. To bond the sheet steel to the foam, we are currently using a simple spray adhesive; however, the adhesive could be replaced with something similar and easy to acquire for the Haitians. Making these panels could be a simple solution to creating a new type of industry in Haiti that will provide more jobs. Ultimately, if more skills were to be acquired by Haitians within the welding and steel industries, the entire house could be manufactured in Haiti, making it easier to build more homes in the event of another natural disaster. The use of steel could also in the future stimulate the economy and increase trade amongst the Caribbean islands, further improving the stability of Haiti's economy overall.

Once all design details and structural calculations were completed for our house design, the next concept that needed to be taken into account was the discussion of who deserves to receive a home first. With the help of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and The ASCE Code of Ethics, the "New Design for Haiti" proudly allows everyone a chance for a new house. The meaning of a home is a lot more significant than people think about every day. A home offers its occupants shelter from weathering elements and diseases; a home is shelter from the violent gangs in Haiti; and finally a home is not just four walls and a roof. Having a home to live in gives a person a sense of humanity and the confirmation that they deserve the basic right of living in a home.

There are many obstacles which Haiti must overcome in order to one day end the constant suffering amongst the people. We went into this project with the mindset that our house would be a first generation design. It is not until sufficient testing of the panels and the fix of small details that a truly permanent design could be implemented in Haiti. However, Haiti's current status of building soundness and building design cannot be improved with what they have and, instead, Haiti truly needs to start over and be rebuilt from the ground up. New industries need to be introduced as a chance to improve the economy while Haitian workers need to take the time to learn correct construction skills. Rebuilding Haiti is not something that can happen overnight. However, this does not mean that it's not worth the time or effort to try and help because no matter what circumstances a person may be in, everyone deserves the right to shelter and a home.


Our moral compasses drove us to choose this project and as engineers, our upmost duty is to hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public. During the design process, moral questions arose regarding the right to housing and inequality throughout the world. In order to address these questions, we used the Santa Clara School of Engineering Handbook, the ASCE Code of Ethics, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Using these references, we were able highlight the difficulties and inequalities that many Third World Countries are currently facing. While our overall goal was focused on providing housing for Haiti, the design we created can easily be implemented in any country that is in a similar situation and is in need of quick, permanent housing. Our house design is more than just a home; it's a chance for a family to have the feeling of safety and belonging. Ultimately, our house addresses the inequalities of the world and provides a model for the ethical responsibilities of engineers and how we can improve the future.

  1. "Chapter 6: Ethical." Engineering Handbook: Issues in the Profession of Engineering. Version 1.1. Santa Clara University School of Engineering. Web. 23 May 2011
  2. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights." 10 December 1948. United Nations. Web. 23 May 2011
  3. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  4. "Cholera Outbreak Hits Haiti, Leaves 250 Dead." FoxNews. 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 23 May 2011
  5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  6. "Code of Ethics." American Society of Civil Engineers. Web. 23 May 2011
  7. Engineering Handbook: Issues in the Profession of Engineering
Jun 1, 2011