How to Rebuild Haiti Using Trash
A cranky, old Dallas inventor has come up with a way — if he can just get out of his own way.
Six months later, with help from his wife and two grandsons, Lacey built the first Ubuntu-Blox house on SMU’s campus, as part of the Hunt Institute’s inaugural Engineering & Humanity Week. That first house was a little bit bigger than a garden shed, merely a way to prove the concept. But just like in Haiti, it was the only dwelling of the half dozen built on the grassy quad that actually looked like a house, more earth-bound than the various plastic igloos and so on.
(A quick aside: the bright orange t-shirt Lacey received at the event is the only thing I see him wear during my week in Haiti, apart from red work t-shirts. Near the end of our stay at the compound, I watched Lacey hang his laundry while I ate breakfast. Up on the line went five identical red t-shirts, all with a slight rip at the right hem; when he’s cutting or bending wire, he uses his right leg as a brace, and the shirt gets caught in the middle.)
The Haitian women learned to harvest the trash, use machines to make blocks, clean the Styrofoam, and, most important, build a house. photography by Ben Depp
After Engineering & Humanity Week, the house was shipped back to Lacey’s family’s farm, then to the University of Oklahoma, where it was poked and prodded by engineers, then back to the farm, then finally to a facility in Plano for earthquake and hurricane tests. It survived all of it, losing only a small amount of plaster. If Lacey is cocky about what he has come up with, he has earned it.
“Someone asks me about earthquake stuff, I don’t know,” he says. “It stands up to an 8.3 on the Richter scale. Unzip your pants.”
Lacey tends to speak in sound bites. Here is a small sample of the ones I heard while we were in Haiti together:
“Men work like spiders. Women work like fire ants.”
“You know what an expert is? Somebody from 250 miles away with a briefcase.”
“I like my coffee like I like my women: straight and strong.”
“If I’d been born rich instead of so goddamned wonderful, I wouldn’t have to do this shit.”
“It’d all be simple if they just let me take over and piss everybody off.”
“No rest for the wicked or willing, and I’m just an easy old son of a bitch.”
“When you go back to the land of rock-hard abs, tell ’em you were in a place where the black women loved touching a fat man’s belly.”
Oh, and one more:
“Hopefully, by tomorrow, we’ll be able to see who’s wearing a thong and who’s not, because their skirts will be up.”
Lacey says this at the morning meeting on Friday. Days at Haiti Communitere start with breakfast at 7:30—usually fruit and bread, maybe eggs if you’re lucky—and then a meeting in the workshop, led by Samuel Alcide, the genial Haitian base manager. He wears a Garland Welding cap, a gift from Lacey.
This morning, the meeting is mostly focused on a security update. There have been a couple of murders in Bois Neuf, says Jimmy Levi, co-founder and development director. The situation, as they understand it, is this: the main gang leader in Bois Neuf was recently arrested. The murders seem to be over control of the area. One was in the market, in the restroom, and it was gruesome. Levi says to avoid going to Bois Neuf for the next few days.
After that comes an update on where the current projects stand. The base is hosting a Sustainability Social tomorrow, a chance for the community to visit and see what they do here. That’s when Lacey wakes everyone up with the thong comment.
“I wasn’t paying attention to what you were saying until you said that,” Levi says, laughing.
One-liners aside, Lacey has real news: three women from the Boston neighborhood met with their opportunity council last night. The council agreed to fund an Ubuntu-Blox building for them, a community center, paying for the cement and rebar. Haiti Communitere will loan them a machine to build the blocks.
Lacey is beaming. This is his Platonic ideal. He would come to Haiti, train the women to make a building using his blocks, and then they would go and make a building. It’s the end of a long week, the end of a long month, the end of a long year, but his vision is finally being realized.
This was always about those women. It wasn’t just a way to build low-cost houses or help reduce the amount of plastic trash. It was a way for these women to do that. He designed the machine to build the blocks so that it wouldn’t take much strength, and the blocks themselves weigh only a couple of pounds. Though he wants the houses to be built, period, he’s also very clear on whom he wants to build them. And while he’s in Haiti, he can make sure that happens.
But he can’t control what other people want, and that’s where it gets tricky for him. Technically, this is Haiti Communitere’s project. Which is fine; that’s how he planned it. From the beginning, Lacey intended for Ubuntu-Blox to be open source, he says, that someone—hopefully many someones—would take it, make it better, make it different if necessary. He didn’t patent anything, not the house itself or the blocks and the machine to make them. It all belongs to no one and to everyone.
“It’s impossible to steal a gift,” Lacey says. “That’s true ownership, when you can give something away.”
That concept applies to more than just Ubuntu-Blox. It is the core of Lacey’s belief system. A free-spirited atheist, Lacey won’t be owned by anyone. Usually how he puts it, he won’t be managed. He can barely even stomach the word, spitting it out half-chewed, let alone abide by the concept. It has been that way for almost 30 years, since he quit his last real job, working for the telephone company. Really, though, it has been that way forever, more than 60 years and counting. Even during his stint in the Army, during the Vietnam War, he never gave up total control of himself.
Lacey is a do-it-yourself kind of guy. When he built an intricate outdoor staircase for a rich client in Highland Shores, he did it all by hand, hiring only a couple of laborers to help him move the 400-pound blocks of stone. But there are some things he can’t do. Speak Creole, for one, a serious liability in Haiti. Also, there is his personality, which Lacey bluntly describes as “abrasive.” “Some people like me,” he says, “and others think I’m the most detestable person on earth.” At the very least, he needs a filter, a layer between him and those who can make this go. He needs people, even if they have their own ideas. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—have gotten this far in Haiti on his own.
But it’s hard for him to take. He’s “locked horns” with Duigou and Overton plenty of times during his stay in Haiti—among other things, over the wire the two procured to build the blocks (“Got shit 10-gauge instead of 12- or 14-gauge,” which is easier to work with) and over his inability to remember the names of the women (“I told them my mind doesn’t work that way”).
“It’s made this thing a total nightmare,” Lacey says. “There’s been a couple of incidents where I said, ‘I can pay my own goddamned airfare out of here.’ ”
Lacey’s shoulder starts to bother him more as the house grows taller.
“The scare is I fuck it up and have to go through the surgery again,” he says.
He had surgery on his left shoulder just after Christmas, after a fall at his farm in early November. They went in arthroscopically, putting seven holes in him. His surgeon told him to wait another month before coming to Haiti. So did his physical therapist.
Lacey never really considered that, of course. Having the surgery in the first place was enough for him. Normally, he would have shrugged
off the injury, even if shrugging would be one of the many things he couldn’t do anymore with that busted shoulder. He’d merely add it to the list of body parts that are no longer up to factory specs after 60 years of being Harvey Lacey—fighting in a war, fighting in general, climbing telephone poles, racing motorcycles, working with unforgiving steel and stone and fire.
Just look at his hands: swollen until the skin is almost taut, fingers and knuckles pointed in odd directions, some of the nails holding on only by habit. At best, they look like beaten-up gloves his real hands are in. Lacey has trouble using his iPhone, because almost all of the pads of his fingers are gone, worn down, burned off, hidden under calluses.
But under all that, his hands are sensitive, capable of delicate tasks, and so, too, is Lacey. He needs a thick skin, because his emotions are often too close to the surface. And nothing gets to him, almost to a fault, like these women.
“These girls will make you cry,” he says to Lucia DiPoi, a former communications assistant from the Clinton Foundation paying the compound a visit. “We were looking at pictures on my phone, and I showed them a picture from my surgery. They saw that and they said, ‘Harvey, you work too hard for us.’ ” He suddenly focuses on showing DiPoi how he makes an eye in the wire, keeping his head down. He finally looks up. “You can’t work hard enough for these women.” Sure enough, he’s tearing up. “I’m sorry.”
One of the women calls Lacey over and starts bickering at him in Creole. Duigou explains she needs a different tool for making eyes in the wire. The eyes are crucial for creating the blocks, Lacey explained to me earlier. If they aren’t the same every time, then the wire won’t hold. The block will be useless.
“Well, chew my ass and tell me you love me,” Lacey says. He digs around in the grass and finds what he needs. It’s a T made of two lengths of welded pipe. He had to make this one because the earlier models were too short and gave the women no leverage.
“You don’t like this one?” He hands it over. Then, to Duigou: “Tell her I made that one special for her.”
Duigou translates and the woman starts laughing. She smiles sweetly at Lacey and gets back to it.
On Friday, the women are in full-on revolt mode. With the Sustainability Social the next day, tempers are short in every corner of the compound. There is too much to do and not enough time to do it. The women are angry with Overton for reasons my nonexistent Creole won’t help me understand, but this much I can piece together: they aren’t coming tomorrow.
Lacey isn’t sure why they’re angry either, and he doesn’t really care. He just wants them to come, to show their friends and families what they’ve been doing. He’s proud of them and wants everyone else to be proud of them, too. He calls over Simon Mackenson, one of the translators.
“You can get mad at Tim later,” he says. “Tomorrow is for us.”
It seems to soothe them, but Lacey is still nervous until just after 2 the next day, when the first few women start to trickle in. Eventually, they all show up.
The day is perfect. The women are beautiful in their church dresses and high heels. Their families are impressed by what they’ve accomplished here. Lacey, wearing his cleanest red t-shirt, hugs everyone within arm’s length and kisses all the babies. Any frustration he’s had is gone.
After they’ve all had a chance to look around, there is a show on the concrete slab in front of the Ubuntu-Blox house. Everyone crowds around, some sitting on ad hoc benches made from nailed-together 2-by-4s and cinder blocks and buckets. There is a female group that mixes traditional dance and a sort of melodrama (it’s like Haitian Tyler Perry, as far as I can tell). Then a singer-guitarist from Cité Soleil. Then a clown troupe—wearing footie pajamas, for some reason. Then, finally, the Cyborg break dance crew.
The North Carolina school bus takes the women back to Cité Soleil. The staff at Haiti Communitere hangs out until it’s too dark to see. I run into Jean-Louis the house builder on the way back to my room. He asks if I had a good time. I tell him I did. He smiles.
“Big day,” he says. We clink our Coke bottles together. “My heart is happy.”
Capvva is where it all makes sense, why Lacey wants to go faster, why Bloch wants to take his time, why they are both here in the first place.
Capvva is an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp, a tent city near Cité Soleil in the northeast corner of Port-au-Prince. The nearest water source is 20 minutes away. The tents are patched and frayed, near the limit of their use. More than two years after the earthquake, it is still home to about 500 families. It’s one of many.
Coming to Capvva was the point of today. Lacey and I have been traveling around Port-au-Prince since breakfast. For most of the month he has been in Haiti, aside from a few short trips, Lacey has been confined to the compound. But it’s Sunday and he’s leaving in a couple of days, so it’s the perfect day to get out. With some negotiating help from Overton, we hired a tap tap—one of the pickup trucks, brightly painted with religious slogans and imagery, used as share taxis—and a driver and set out.
After stopping at the presidential palace (still caved in) and the Clinton Foundation’s ill-fated housing expo outside of the city (never more than a ghost town), we pick up Clemson Saint-fleur in Cité Soleil. He works at Capvva as part of Join the Journey, a Christian-based outreach group. He is going to take us inside.
When we arrive, we’re introduced to the president of the camp, and he leads us on a tour. That’s not true. He leads Lacey on a tour. I am sidetracked as soon as I get off the truck. Before I can even meet the camp president, a little girl, probably no older than 2 years old, grabs my hand and won’t let go. And I don’t really want her to. Barefoot and wearing only an oversized t-shirt, she looks up at me and smiles, and I stop being a professional for half an hour.
I can’t be. That would require hands to take notes or the will to do so, and before I’ve gone 20 yards, my hands are full of children and my mind is elsewhere. The first girl shares my left hand with two others, including a naked toddler, and there are two more on my right, plus another tagging along on my shirttail. Lacey and the camp president are so far ahead that I can’t hear anything anyway. We wind our way around the camp in silence, a kid or two dropping off here and there, only to be replaced by more.
When we finally make it back to the truck, the other kids detach themselves, but the first little girl still won’t let go. I finally pry her fingers off mine and jump into the bed of the truck without looking back.
Every argument seems petty when this is at stake. But also, every argument makes sense. Everyone—Lacey, Bloch, Overton, Diogou, Clemson, Jean-Louis—is trying to do the right thing in a place where there are too many right things that need doing. If you don’t pay enough attention, you might pick the wrong right things.
A week after I left Port-au-Prince in early April, as the rainy season kicked into full gear, six people drowned. A few weeks after that, a fire burned down Haiti Communitere’s workshop, destroying two years’ worth of donated tools and causing $175,000 in damages. A few weeks after that, my photographer friend, Ben Depp, was detained by Port-au-Prince police for 24 hours, after trying to deliver insulin to an arrested American.
Haiti is still Haiti.
Harvey Lacey’s house was finally finished in June, covered in natural plaster and painted yellow, with a blue tin roof. It still looks Haitian and still won’t kill babies. Also in June, Haiti Communitere built an Ubuntu-Blox factory, to regulate the process of making the blocks. The community will be able to bring in the materials and build their own blocks, then take them away and build houses with them. The factory will also help Haiti Communitere with its new partnership with GiveLove, using the Ubuntu-Blox to build public toilets.
Lacey is planning another trip to Haiti and working on an idea he calls “community in a container”—a shipping container packed with all of the materials he needs to build 100 homes. He’s going to continue helping Haiti Communitere with the project, but he is determined not to let anyone own Ubuntu-Blox, in Haiti or anywhere else. No more gatekeepers. Haiti Communitere may take it slow. He never will.
“I’m going back,” he says, “and throwing keys to anyone that wants one.”
WRITE TO ZAC.CRAIN@DMAGAZINE.COM.