04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Role of The Architect in Rebuilding Haiti: To Compete or To Construct?

Every time there is a major man-made or natural disaster, the architectural industry typically responds through hosting a series of idea competitions to "help". Ten years ago, following the conflict in Kosovo, we did the same thing, but we've certainly learned from that experience. Although we've been approached by numerous parties, including major government entities, to host a housing ideas competition, for now, I have to say no.

In a time when needs are of an immediate nature, new and unproven concepts are not needed and are a distraction to the task at hand. It certainly gives the naysayers of the humanitarian design movement the opportunity to point out that our profession is not sensitive to the needs of those affected, and at worst is compounding the suffering of Haitian families.

During the recovery and reconstruction phase, it is better to focus attention by committing pro-bono services to implementing pragmatic solutions that support the local community and empower them to rebuild their lives, and not to air drop solutions on them. Most importantly, an on-the-ground studio model supports and empowers local building expertise, and doesn't just bring in professionals from abroad. We are committed, not just for this month, but for at least four years, to the support of the long-term reconstruction phase. Additionally, we are embedding our design professionals in aid agencies to make sure there is a consistency of construction quality as well as the ability to interconnect the many initiatives.

Can the design profession come up with innovative solutions? Absolutely. Hosting an RFP (request for proposal) process for safe, sustainable and adaptable structures is a valid and necessary way of working. After Hurricane Katrina we held an RFP for model homes in Biloxi. All the architects were on contract, all were compensated for their time and effort (albeit at an at cost rate), all the homes went through permitting, and, most importantly, all the homes were built.

Students also play an important role as they can collaborate and focus their time on developing solutions that were not created on a napkin but over months of study and revision. The work of the Tsunami Design Initiative is an excellent example of this. This coalition partnered with professional engineers to create a home that not only housed displaced families in a cost-effective manner, but was also engineered to withstand strong forces -- all for $1500.

There are a million ideas that can change the world, but if you don't build it, it doesn't exist.

Finally, there are dozens and dozens of model houses already out there. Since the earthquake in Haiti we must have received at least fifty calls from manufacturers, designers and sales people about housing ideas that will 'save the Haitians'. Ok, then prove it by doing a real life showdown between all these homes. From containers to eco-panels to inflatable concrete construction, let's put them on the Mall in Washington DC (much like the annual solar decathlon) and get all the international agencies to review each house by cost, speed of construction, earthquake and hurricane resistance, and, most importantly, the quality of living.

So if you ARE dead set on hosting a design competition, DO NOT guinea pig the Haitian community. They have suffered enough. Commit to building the winning solution(s), incorporate the needs and desires of the local community in the development phase, open-source the designs so that they can be replicated, and look at the long-term environmental and economic impact of your initiative.

Sorry for being a design curmudgeon, but our role is to support the rebuilding of lives, not just the rebuilding of homes.