Haiti’s First Straw Bale House   4 comments

Early Sunday morning a few of us climbed into the bed of an old, small, black pick-up truck with tired suspension and a near flat tire and left the city behind. We were invited to visit Janey Wynne in Kenscoff high in the mountains south of Port-au-Prince for a day of exploration at the Wynne Farm Ecological Reserve and Botanical Garden www.wynnefarm.org  The Farm is run by Janey with the help of locals and international volunteers who have come to work and learn about alternative techniques her father had begun in the 1930’s for farming on the mountainous terrain without eroding the soil. When we arrived in Kenscoff at the Botanical Garden (Janey’s Homestead) the sky was clear and beautiful and Pascal and Ki were replacing the starter on one of the farm vehicles. As we approached the homestead Janey came out to greet us. We each had previously met Janey in Port-au –Prince for one reason or another, I at a Bamboo workshop and Mark, Sarah and Tina at the GrassRoots United base. We had lunch and tea on the veranda and then took a tour of the gardens. Janey pointed out the varieties of trees, grasses and shrubs her father introduced to the area, many of them from South and Central America. They include many varieties of bamboo, which is considered invasive in many parts of the world. She said to me that Haiti’s deforestation is so severe that invasiveness is not a worry. “I don’t think any plant can be a pest here in Haiti,” she laughs. “We need plants that are pests.” She feels her efforts are only a small-scale demonstration of what could be done throughout Haiti and that any remedy for reforestation and soil stabilization will eventually depend on action from the government. After a full day of exploring the botanical garden and identifying species, genus and common names (I was in heaven given my landscape architecture background), Janey suggested we all take a rest in one of her favorite spots in the garden near a stand of Guadua (Bamboo). As I closed my eyes and began drifting off to sleep I could hear the sounds of rushing water, a harmony of tree frogs, several songs of tropical birds and my slow and steady breathing-oh, what a change from the city this was. Later that day after dinner we all gathered in the parlor for music and dance.

Last week as we were placing the final touches on the Ti Kay Pay building I noticed a plume of black smoke originating near the airport. I had heard an explosion and my immediate thought was that a plane had crashed. I grabbed Jean Louis by the arm and slung the camera around my shoulder and we ran toward the smoke. A large crowd of people gathered down a side street off of the main road. As we walked toward them another large explosion erupted. A 90’ fireball billowed into the air one hundred yards before us. Imagine Jean Louis and I standing in an alley with hundreds of people charging in fear toward us. Thinking quickly, Jean Louis pulled me into a doorway as we watched the panic unfold before us. We were pressed so tight against the door that I could not get my camera out of my bag to take a photo of the chaos. A few minutes later we were at the scene. Two fuel trucks had exploded and one was still engulfed in flames. I watched  the three fire truck water pumpers run out of water and with no nearby water hydrants there was nothing left for them to do but watch and hope the last fuel truck would not explode. It was unclear if this was part of a demonstration or just accidental.

A motorcycle is by far the best mode of transportation in Haiti. If you have ever driven the streets in Manhatan or think of the most congested place you have ever been in the world multiply that by a factor of 10 and you’ll have the traffic in Port-Au- Prince. If you like inhaling thick clouds of diesel fumes and dust and playing driving video games you’ll feel right at home. There seem to be no rules when it comes to driving in the city. Motorcycles, cars, dogs and people share the roadways at incredible speeds. Your horn is your safety net and one uses it without restraint and if you listen closely a beautiful horn song emerges.

I borrowed a friends’ motorcycle for a couple of weeks and took the opportunity to explore the country outside of the city. I headed northeast to the Bassin General a Croix-Des Bosquets with a friend of mine to check out the fertile valley where they grow rice. On the way there, we crossed the Rio de Haiti, which has long since dried up from an upriver diversion and has now become a sand and gravel mining hot spot. Beyond the Rio de Haiti, we traveled through several small farm communities and drove up into the foothills of Mome Chauou. As the dirt and cobble road turned into a donkey path and became too steep for the motorcycle to climb we stopped and took in the valley below.

I am happy to announce that the Ti Kay Pay is now 99% completed (is any house ever completed?).

I truly appreciate the invaluable contributions everyone on the team has made. This project has been a team effort in every sense including Martin Hammer, our lead architect, Mark Phillips, not only a major financial supporter, but a whiz carpenter and mechanic, Tina Therrien with her spirited Canadian, straw bale energy and plastering talents, and especially our Haitian members Jean-Louis, Annio, and Samuel. They are what this is mostly about, and it was great to see them engaged, and to hear them eager to build their own straw bale home and to move on to the next projects. I want to acknowledge Grass Roots United, especially Chad Walsh and Sam Bloch for their amazing support and resources, to Builders Without Borders who provided administration and financial support and to Katherine Nickel, President and Director of The Sheltering Pine Institute for its major financial support, funding drives and other valuable resources, and the umbrella that allowed us to complete this initial project. And finally, to all of you who contributed both in spirit and in kind, Thank you!

The construction crew from left to right: Samuel,Mark,Annio, Andy, Jean Louis and Tina

On the last day Mark confides in me that he was using centimeters when I had giving him dimensions in inches.

Posted February 24, 2011 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

Homestretch   5 comments

Haiti Carnival is the biggest party witnessed in this country. It is a manifestation of the Haitian spirit, the enduring buoyancy and optimism that has guided Haiti for more than 200 years.The residents of Haiti engage themselves in singing and dancing to the overwhelming rhythms in blinding lights and colors. According to the natives, this is the time for Mardi-Gras in Haiti.

Actually, I have no idea what Mardi-Gras is like in New Orleans, though I bet it’s nice. But now, I do know what Haitian Carnival is like, and it is something to behold.

Haiti is supposedly home to some 9-10 million people, and it seems that every last one of them came out for Carnival in Port-au-Prince’s downtown Petionville area on Sunday evening. Carnival in Haiti is a time for people to assemble to parade, sing, dance, amuse themselves, let go; a time when society accepts any and almost all kinds of behavior.

Last weekend I joined the staff of Grassroots United on one their regular beach outings. Unlike the beaches back home most Haitian beaches are devoid of sand. Large pebbles and washed up plastic bottles blanket the shoreline. Nonetheless, the surrounding mountainous terrain and the sound of lapping waves more than compensate.  At one point we are serenaded by a group of talented local musicians playing their well-worn instruments singing authentic island music.

It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. During that time I snuck home for a week and a half to tend to some domestic duties, marvel at  the piles of snow we received, and help publish a couple of stories of our project with two local newspapers. Article-The Independent Article-The recorder Article-The Recorder2

I returned to Haiti at the end of January and pleased to see  progress the team had made despite Marty contracting Cholera and in the local hospital for four days, Jean Louis having a hernia, and Mark with a gastrointestinal complication. We are now back on course and in the homestretch. Beyond  the anticipated completion of the Ti Kay Pay prototype we are also embarking on solidifying our next project(s) here in Haiti. Among the more promising of projects are; an art school in Jacmel, an office/housing structure in Leogone, and several residential units throughout the south central region of Haiti.

When you are prying your eyelids open with toothpicks to stay awake many times photos can communicate more than what ones brain is capable of  for words.


Posted February 8, 2011 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

La Terra tremble Anniversary   1 comment

This past Wednesday, January 12th 2011 marked the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. Thousands gathered in the streets, camps, hospitals, orphanages and churches to commemorate the event. The Haitians refer to the recent quake as La Terre tremble “the Earth trembles”. Many observed this anniversary and the recent cholera epidemic that has killed thousands more people in their own personal way.  I took the opportunity to tag along with two stellar aid organizations; Grass Roots United (GRU) and European Disaster Volunteers (EDV), hoping to take part in some small way—hoping to commemorate along with many others a catastrophe that shook this nation to its historic core, killing nearly a quarter million and leaving, still today, more than a million homeless in Port-au-Prince.

Our first stop was an orphanage that EDV recently launched in Clercine, an eastern sector of Port-au- Prince. Haiti had an estimated 350,000 orphans before the earthquake and as many as 1 million afterward. Yet many still have no safe place to call home. Off of a rubble side street with potholes the size of refrigerators and filled with stagnant water, we entered through the gate where we were greeted by brilliant smiles and laughter.

To our right children were racing about the playground and watching one another as they performed a hybrid of gymnastics and dance. To our left was the orphanage where inside the adults were busy preparing a rice, bean and chicken dinner for the children and the local community. I briefly spoke with one of EDV’s Haitian counselors named Johnson and asked him to tell me his thoughts on the anniversary. He placed the ladle on the counter, took my hand, and looked me in the eyes and said; “Andy, after the earthquake on January 12, 2010 many of these children lost their family, and their home. Today they are orphans with no education and very little to eat. We are here today to help in celebration of a new beginning, to give them hope for a better life. We want them to know that people care for them and will support them so that they may have the courage to continue to change their lives in a positive direction. These children are our future.” then he thanked me for coming.

From there we hopped on the GRU bus and made our way to a tent city in PAP. GRU director Sam Bloch offered to give technical assistance for a community of approximately four thousand by loaning a PA system for their commemoration. As “blancs”, we generated a bit of interest as we helped unload equipment and build a temporary shade structure. The children were first to try what little English they had learned on the streets. With beaming pride they would ask “Are you American?”, “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” As the children paved the way the adults soon followed with the same line of questioning. As our cameras captured priceless moments it also generated more interest. We surmised that this may have been the first time both children and adults may have seem a picture of themselves. As night approached and the ceremony came to a close we packed up our equipment said our goodbyes and headed back to base. It is humbling and alarming to be reminded of the degree of happiness to which many Haitians live their lives-not only in a post disaster environment wherein aid still has yet to reach the many thousands in need but from a historical perspective: from times of slavery, abuse and ruling of a defunct and corrupted government.


Our crew has made steady progress on the Ti Kay Pay prototype with the recent addition of labor reinforcements. Mark Phillips of Northern California recently joined us after a stint in Pakistan working on another post earthquake, straw bale project headed up by PAKSBAB. As a volunteer and major financial contributor to this project, he has already proved to be an invaluable asset to the team. He will be heading up the finish carpentry and PV array assembly allowing the rest of us to focus on the finish plastering work. Martin Hammer and I have worked out interior and exterior finish details on the fly and it has worked exceptionally well. The front porch or “Galri” is the showpiece of the traditional Ti Kay house and is the final design piece of the project to be completed. It functions as the transition between private and public space. It is considered in design terms as a place for prospect and refuge. It is a space created wherein a person is able to see what is going on (in this case the community) from a place that is relatively hidden from view and provides a sense of protection. Given the importance of this theory to create such a space in the Haitian vernacular we invited local architect Regine Laroche and Jean Louis to give us design input. With their guidance we have developed what we feel to be a very sexy, appropriate and functional Galri design. Keep tuned for the finished product.

We are within reach of bringing this project to completion and begin our next collaborative projects in Haiti. Would you please join us in supporting our long-term sustainable housing efforts in Haiti by making a tax-deductible gift to The Sheltering Pine Institute? Please visit the Project Description and Funding Page on this blog for how to donate. Thank you to all who have contributed thus far.

Posted January 14, 2011 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

Pa gen pwoblem   2 comments

I returned to Haiti on December 28th a few days earlier than anticipated. After a quick stay at home to catch up with friends and family over the holiday I left the chill of New England. I felt as though I never had the chance to settle back into the way of life as it was before I left for Haiti back in November. The people I’ve met and the places I have visited here have become a new and welcomed home. I find that time is difficult for me to keep track of here, partly because of my want to complete the straw bale prototype for the upcoming anniversary, but more so because of the drastic, contrasting qualities this small country displays. The close proximity of happiness and tragedy in Haiti has created a dream-like quality to my stay here.

Rains come and go here along with enormous white clouds and heat. The sky is pure blue. Narrow streets are crowded with vendors, goats, pack dogs and people. These streets are the meeting place for the community. Most people clearly have nothing. Simultaneously, children dance and clap and laugh with boundless enthusiasm. It’s hard to imagine where all the smiles come from.

Haiti means, “Land of high mountains.” The mountains surrounding Port-au-Prince are high, and beautiful. I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t realized Haiti was a mountainous country. Below the mountains, however, cobbled together tent and tin communities sit among the trash and in the constant smell of sewage as it trickles slowly through the streets and camps.

New Years Day I helped the staff of Grass Roots United www.grassrootsunited.org  relocate a temporary shelter for a tuberculosis clinic in Port-au- Prince. On our way evidence of manifestations still linger from the election results. We had a simple task once we arrived; move shelter from point A to point B. There’s a saying in Haiti “Pa gen pwoblem” (no problem) which I have come to understand means that everything takes longer than us foreigners are accustomed to. We first detach the shelter from its wooden base. This was a challenging task to do without any tools. Secondly, an abandoned vehicle occupied the newly chosen place, yes we had to move it without any tools. We managed to find a pry bar which helped inch the car (without wheels) to its new resting spot. It was then that I realized that every moment I spend helping feels like an eternity where nothing else around matters. As we all huddled in the shelter, with only our feet exposed to onlookers from outside we made our way up the street to its destination. I stand back to see our accomplishment for the day and I pinch myself.

Back at the project site we have been busy preparing the building to receive its first coat of plaster-Pa gen problem. We spent four days of procuring materials and supplies and three days of preparing the bale walls before we ever held a trowel in our hands. However, today was a momentous one for us all particularly for Anjo and Jean Louis. A quick demonstration including plaster mixing, trowel handling and plaster application had the two of them square dancing. By day end, with drooping arms and big smiles both came to appreciate what I am doing here. Over a beer, we recap our accomplishments since November and I share with them how quickly they have learned about natural building in Haiti and that this project would not be possible without them. They share with me that I make them good workers. They are happy learning a new skill, one which will hopefully give them food, shelter, and possibly and education.

I see people walk to and fro in their country in ruin without skipping a beat. A country in crisis? Yes. A people in crisis? Still, yes. Their spirit in crisis? I won’t pretend there isn’t frustration and despair here. But the many Haitians I have met so far combat their situation with a singular, smiling determination and a wicked sense of humor.

Posted January 4, 2011 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

After the Rain   1 comment

I thought we consulted Haiti’s historical weather data  before we even left the US for Port-au-Prince. All indications suggested a dry and pleasant building season. Although we anticipated the occasional light rain we were not ready for the few days of heavy rain and wind. It all began at 11pm just after Marty and I decided to get some rest in our tents after a long day of work. With headlamps strapped to our foreheads illuminating our way we spent the next hour and a half protecting the straw bale prototype investment. Our efforts reminded me of a circus act having no definitive ending. I swear I could hear that big top music playing as we scurried about. Later that evening I removed the clown makeup and rested well until morning. Periodic showers plagued us for the next couple of days preventing us from doing much of anything involving the roof.

I’d like to share several photos of the people who are truly making this project possible on the ground. We met Jean Louis and Anjo about four weeks ago by way of a local NGO called EDV.

They conveniently live just a stones’ throw from our project site. Despite our cultural and language differences there is a definite underlying sense of mutual respect.  We are working side by side; digging trenches, crushing and sifting rubble, stacking earth bags and rice bales, using hand saws, and pounding nails. 

We are without doubt learning a great deal from each other. I have made a particularly strong friendship with Jean Louis. He has shared a side of Haiti’s way of life that I feel many other “blancs” (white people) may never have an opportunity to hear about. I discovered for myself that this project became more about identifying and sharing with the local population the dreams, the ideas, and the passions we all have in life than about the tactile process of completing the building. I have realized though that one could not exist without the other. I look forward sharing and collaborating on many more projects such as this in the future. It has truly been a humbling experience.

After the rain subsided we uncovered the building and were presented with an omen a butterfly delicately resting on the straw bale wall- its wings spread, displaying its beauty. It was a perfect way for all of us to start our day. With coffee in hand I picked up my hammer and began assembling the roof trusses.

I should mention that we have placed 29 moisture sensors throughout the walls during construction. We hope to collect long-term moisture data for the benefit of all future, straw bale  buildings within this region of Haiti.

The roof trusses are designed and built using mostly 2×4 material and some discarded wood pallets. Our original intention was to build them entirely out of discarded wood shipping pallets or bamboo but given our time constraints we opted for the predictability of rough cut lumber. Haitian bamboo plantations are in their infancy. However, Kevin Rowell and Valerie Carey of Kleiwerks International (www.keliwerks.org) whom I met with in Port-au-Prince are spearheading a grassroots effort to organize and accelerate bamboo production in the western part of the island.

The day before I left Haiti to head home for the holiday we hoisted four of six roof trusses.

I will return to Haiti on January 4th to help with the completion of the building. This will likely include finish plasters, a stabilized earthen floor, fabrication of wooden doors and window shutters and possibly some landscaping. Jean Louis, Anjo, Martin and Tina (just in from Canada) are still there working away. I will be making periodic progress posts during the next two weeks before I head back.

With your financial support we can bring this project to completion and begin our next collaborative projects in Haiti. Please join us in supporting our long-term sustainable housing efforts in Haiti by making your tax-deductible gift to The Sheltering Pine Institute. Your contributions to date have helped us begin our work in Haiti with this first project. We have not reached our financial goal for this and future projects in Haiti. Your help is still needed. Please visit the Project Description and Funding Page on this blog for instruction on how you can help.

Posted December 18, 2010 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

Making History   Leave a comment

Manifestations in Port-au-Prince have made it advisable for us to stay out of the city. Hand gun shots broke the morning silence and black smoke choked the air. The results from the general election were released last evening and many Haitians are upset siting a fixed election.

A couple of days ago we finished filling and setting the gravel bags (the ones Jolina the seamstress made for us out of tarps) and promptly began assembling the cement bond beam forms. I should note that we face many challenges in procuring local materials and supplies and are continuously adapting and modifying many of our natural building techniques and intuitions to suit the local climate, aesthetic and available resources. I can say with certainty that this has been the most creative collaboration (with our Haitian helpers and the design team) in terms of construction detailing and building that I have had the opportunity to be part of.

The aggregate we used for making our concrete came from sifting the fines leftover from crushing the urbanite. At one point during this process I paused only to realize how fortunate we are in the US to have pretty much anything we want when we want it, but was I any better off because of it? As I watched Jean Louis and Anjo pick up the scrap twine, wood and other miscellaneous items I typically throw away at most jobs sites, I wondered why they were secretly putting them into their pockets.  

Our next step was to pour the reinforced concrete bond beam. This beam creates a level and stable base for the bales to sit on. Its other purpose is to provide some lateral stability for the wall system in the event of an earth quake. We allowed this beam to cure a few days. Meanwhile we began assembling the wood top plate and the roof trusses.

Today was a glorious day for us all on the construction and design team! We made history by setting the first rice bale ever in Haiti. There was an obvious skip and jump from Jean Louis as we encouraged him to begin laying them end to end, course by course. At one point we had to restrain his enthusiasm because we had decided to place several moisture sensors within the bale wall system in order to collect long term performance data.

Within the next few days we will hopefully have a roof over our heads!

For those interest in the CBC Radio Canada interview on “Homeless in Haiti-The New Homes of Haiti part 3” which includes a segment on our project in Haiti please visit; www.cbc.ca/thecurrent

If you are new to this blog or would like to know more about what we doing please visit our PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND DONATIONS page.

Posted December 9, 2010 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay

Jean Louis   3 comments

I jumped on the opportunity to tag along with Jojo and Aldi to Delmas 33 in Port Au Prince late afternoon on Sunday. The area is a hotspot for “manifestations” (riots) during Election Day. The scene was charged with excitement as the two leading presidential candidate parties met on the street in a face to face confrontation which to me appeared as a celebration. This coming Tuesday the government will release the ballot outcome of the 12 total candidates- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-11856118. I believe either BBC or the CBC-radio Canada will announce these results and any residual activity as a result.

I just realized how far behind I am on posting our progress here in Port-Au-Prince after reviewing my photos-my apologies.

I do find getting out of the ground the most challenging part of any construction project. It’s one of those things you want to hit the bull’s eye on the first time. I was impressed as Jean Louis (JL) and Anjou and I made quick work of it. The following morning we stood next to the rubble crusher generating appropriately sized rubble to fill out foundation trench. Between fending off mosquitos, the overpowering (at least for me) sun rays and the unappealing stench of burning trash from a multitude of neighboring properties I thought we did exceptionally well for a half days’ worth of crushing. It was now time to fill the earth void with our fresh rubble.

I presume it was the first time JL and Anjo had ever seen or used a water level. As I inserted the clear tube into the modified fluid reservoir (thanks Britta water filter) they both approached me with curiosity. They quickly understood that it was a simple contraption utilizing gravity. I had them set pins with the water level at all corners and midway along the foundation to use as guides for the cement footing.

The following day we poured the reinforced cement grade beam (the equivalent of what most US home’s sit on). We were officially “out of the ground”.

Later in the day David Gutnick of the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Company) stopped by to interview Martin Hammer and myself about our project. They will be airing a one and a half hour show on Dec 7th covering sustainable reconstruction efforts in Haiti since the earthquake.  I can’t say that I have ever met a more animated person as he. It was a real treat to witness the dialogue as he engaged Jean Louis in a conversation.  

“With a mix of French and Kreyol and English and translation, Jean Louis was amazing.  Articulate and composed and as someone twice his years, and as if he had known strawbale for years.  He as only worked with us for 5 days.  We saw this young man turn into the Haitian spokesperson for strawbale in Haiti before our eyes, saying profound things about strawbale, with little of it coming from anything we told him directly.

“This house has no problem, you can live in it as many years as you like.  It’s a house like any other house.” “And when they see the construction, then they really accept it.” “Because it’s ours. The straw is ours.  We make it, we live in it, it’s no problem.” 

“You’re not going to need an air conditioner, or a fan, because it’s cool inside.”

David -“Did it take the earthquake to shake guys like you up, to change your ideas?  Were their good things (that came) from the earthquake?”

Jean louis- “Anpil, anpil, anpil.  Anpil.”  – a lot

Jean Louis (pointing to the straw bale) – “If we had this kind of house, less people would have died.”

Truly amazing.  My best experience in Haiti to date.”-Martin Hammer.  We do have some video of the interview with JL for those interested.

Today we began laying the filled gravel bags in order to get the rice bales well above the ground before stacking them.  It was a simple and relatively enjoyable process given what we had accomplished in the days prior to this. As anticipated we quickly ran out of bags. Quick thinking led us to cut up tarps (sourced locally) into proper dimensions. As luck would have it a nearby seamstress currently crafting beautiful sandals from recycled tires was willing to sew us our bags. How cool is that another potential cottage industry via our rice bale building?  

We are planning another trip to the Artibonite on Saturday to pick up all of our rice bales. The bale raising could commence as early as next week.

I’d like to personally thank all those who have contributed to this project both in terms of encouragement and in financial donations. If you are new to this blog or would like to know more about what we doing please visit our PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND DONATIONS page.

Mesi paske ou ede,


Posted December 3, 2010 by Andy Mueller in Ti Kay Pay, Uncategorized