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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.
photography by Ben Depp

The story pours out of Harvey Lacey quickly, an avalanche of fresh grievances crashing down the mountain of previous slights and avoidable mistakes that have accumulated during his time in Port-au-Prince.

The main one is this: Sam Bloch and the team at Haiti Communitere want to take it slow, and Lacey is damn well tired of taking it slow. He has already taken it slow enough.

When Lacey leaves in a few days, the house—built of blocks made from recycled plastic trash; his idea, he calls it Ubuntu-Blox—still won’t be finished. It will be close, but close is never good enough for him. He doesn’t half-ass any job; back in Texas, where he builds fences and staircases, ingenious in their design and craftsmanship, he is known for giving his high-end clients more than they expected for less than they were expecting to pay. And close is certainly not good enough here. This isn’t any job to him. It’s a mission. Lacey came here to train Haitian women to build these houses and, goddammit, he’s not done yet.

But the house is close enough to completion that it’s time to start talking about where Ubuntu-Blox goes next. Lacey and Bloch had one of those conversations a few hours ago, and that’s what he’s telling me about now.

It’s just after 9 pm on Thursday, March 29. I’ve been in Haiti for a couple of days. Lacey has been here for almost a month. The rest of the residents of Haiti Communitere have mostly retreated to their rooms or tents. We’re sitting at a picnic table on the front porch of the compound and, except for the church service down the street that never seems to stop, it’s quiet. Lacey is delivering his own kind of sermon. As always, he has the voice and cadence of a country preacher and the vocabulary of a stevedore. (And the fluffy white beard of both.) He calls himself a welder, but he is much more than that. An untrained engineer and self-taught inventor, the 64-year-old Lacey holds three patents on building systems. He hasn’t had a real job in three decades, and he hasn’t needed one. Someone always needs Lacey to build something, to come up with a creative solution to a peculiar problem.

Lacey says Bloch is worried that going too fast might lead to substandard houses; it takes only a few, maybe even just one, to discredit Ubuntu-Blox, to unravel the entire project. In that case, Lacey says, they need to start working on hiring a certified inspection team. Because soon enough, he believes, Haitians will be screaming for 200 machines to build the blocks, to build the houses, and he is beyond ready. He’s been ready for that since the idea for Ubuntu-Blox came to him in a dream.

He bristles at the idea of going slow, doesn’t understand it anymore than he understands the Creole everyone speaks here. He looks at the simplicity of the design—bags of shredded Styrofoam baled into blocks, then wired together tight, the blocks made with simple machines and sweat, the rest with more hard work and a set of diagonal pliers—and feels like the entire enterprise should be so simple. Teach them how to use the machines, how to build the house, give them access, and—boom. Instant revolution. If everyone would just get out of his way, they’d already be building real Ubuntu-Blox houses for people in Cité Soleil and Wharf Jeremy, not just bickering over how to finish building another model home at Haiti Communitere.

But Lacey is forgetting one very important detail: this is Haiti. Even when you’re on the same side, you might not actually be on the same side of the same side.

Haiti, and Port-au-Prince especially, is a third world/first world mash-up—modern clothes, primitive structures, old traditions, new technology. (Everyone has cell phones and Facebook pages.) There are parts that were broken by the earthquake in January 2010, but there are parts that were always broken.

It’s systemic—regime changes, political corruption, lack of funding—but it’s also very basic. Everything made of concrete, from roads to cinder blocks to the various structures that use those cinder blocks, is essentially built to fail. Not intentionally, of course, but there’s no way around it. With little to no fresh water available, they use seawater to make the concrete and the blocks. Salinity is concrete cancer; fresh water, like rain, leeches out the salt, and the concrete is compromised. And, since it’s in the Caribbean, it rains a lot in Haiti. So roads fail, buildings fall, and nothing ever really stands a chance.

It doesn’t take long to grow immune to it. One day at Haiti Communitere, a couple of the guys working on a public toilet project funded by the Gates Foundation are taking a break, sitting at a picnic table under the mango tree out back. There is a loud bang.

“That’s just something in Haiti falling down,” one says after a brief pause.

“Right. No worries.”

This is why rebuilding the country is like an ant trying to eat an apple. Who knows where to start or how long it will be before you can tell anything is happening? In the aid community, Sam Bloch says, “Haiti is known as where projects go to die.” On the flip side of that, he says, if you can make it work there, you can make it work anywhere. The challenge, and the necessity of attempting to overcome it, is what attracts people like Lacey and Bloch.

Bloch is one of the founders and the executive director of Haiti Communitere, a resource center in Port-au-Prince that acts as a middleman for various aid and relief organizations. It’s a gated compound born out of a former junkyard a few minutes from Toussaint Louverture International Airport. Bloch has been in relief work since the Thailand tsunami in 2004, and he’s been in Haiti since 12 days after the earthquake hit. In his spare time, what there is of it, he’s an avid rock climber and outdoorsman. He looks the part, with long dreadlocks and the easy manner of someone used to talking people into things, whether it’s donating money or jumping on a zip line. Bloch has been in the country long enough that he’s officially a Haitian citizen. “They gave me a permanent resident card and everything,” he says.

A couple of hours after his argument with Lacey about his plan for Ubuntu-Blox, Bloch invites me to go with him and some of his Haitian friends to see RAM, a mizik rasin band (a mix of traditional vodou music with rock and roll), at the Hotel Oloffson, an Anthony Bourdain-approved hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince. Located in a 19th-century gingerbread mansion, it served as the private residence of two Haitian presidents before being converted. It is a proper Haitian experience, he tells me, so I accept. Plus, it seems like he wants to talk.
“There’s something to be said for communism when it comes to disaster relief,” Bloch says, when we arrive at the hotel, after a 20-minute trip so rain soaked and circuitous that it feels like I’ve been flushed down a toilet in slow motion. He’s talking about how quickly Cuba was able to rebuild following a hurricane in 2008 versus most of the other places he’s been. It’s a conversation he could have with more than a few people here, since many of the tables around us are filled with NGO workers.

After buying us a couple of bottles of Prestige, a local beer, he changes the topic to Lacey and the house. Bloch is diplomatic, but honest, admitting to challenges working with Lacey. He laughs off some of it, like many do, as just Harvey being Harvey; Lacey’s default setting is “cantankerous.” Yet while Lacey is the driving force, Bloch is invested in the project, too. They’ve been building up to this point, all of them, for a long time. Lacey has already been over once before, last fall, and before he came for this trip, Roxanne Duigou and Tim Overton, the Canadian couple heading up Ubuntu-Blox on Haiti Communitere’s side, spent months in Cité Soleil finding the right women for the job, working with the various neighborhoods to come up with about two dozen volunteers. (They work for free but are given two meals a day.)
Bloch needs Lacey’s exuberance to keep it all moving forward. But Bloch needs Lacey to understand that Haiti Communitere’s prudence is necessary to keep it moving forward in the right direction. After all, they’ll still be here after Lacey goes back to Texas.

“I said to him, ‘We’re not here to pick up your pieces,’ ” Bloch says. “ ‘You can’t be writing checks that we have to cash.’ ”

Bloch lives in a converted shipping container, and it’s nice enough, as far as converted shipping containers go, like a pop-up college dorm room. At one point, GiveLove (the organization founded by actress Patricia Arquette) was interested in using these as homes for Haitians. But they ran into a problem: the Haitians didn’t want them. They would say, “This is not a house.” The same goes for many of the test houses on the compound. Though they are great ideas, use sustainable technology, and do the job just fine, they aren’t homes people want to live in.

The round Earthship, for instance, built by a team from New Mexico, is a fascinating blend of architecture and engineering, with adobe construction and light filtering in through windows made of glass soda bottles. But it is absolutely alien-looking here, a junk-drawer curio even though it is fairly simple and cheap to build and uses local resources.

photography by Ben Depp

Lacey points out all of this as he shows me around the construction site on my first morning. “One of the advantages of this thing when we’re done: it looks Haitian. But it doesn’t kill babies.”

Yesterday, the Ubuntu-Blox house finally started raising from the slab. The women put up three courses of blocks. Before they go much further, it’s time to plan where the windows and door will go. The women will be here soon. Lacey and Overton want a window in the south-facing wall; Duigou is worried about the heat gain. Lacey says the roof’s 3-foot overhang will take care of that and having a window to break up the wall will look better.

“If it’s up here, it’s fine,” Duigou says, giving in. “It’s curb appeal.”

“I haven’t heard that in a while,” Bloch says, “especially building houses in Haiti.”

Soon after, the women finish their breakfast and change into their work clothes. They aren’t exactly coveralls. The girls work in tight jeans and miniskirts, spangly tops and fashionable hats. They are dolled up.

They saunter into the house, greeting Lacey and Overton with soft bonjours (though Lacey, without much traction, is trying to teach them to say, “Hi, y’all!”). Lacey shows them where the windows will be and asks, through Jean-Louis, the master plasterer and one of the translators, if that’s what they want. They say there are too many windows. Not enough privacy. But after some back and forth, he does get them to agree to the south-facing window.

“Ask if they’re not just saying yes because I’m beautiful,” Lacey tells Jean-Louis. After a flurry of Creole, they all laugh, singsonging his name—“Har-vey.”

After all of that is settled, four of the women get on an old North Carolina school bus with Overton. They’re going to harvest Styrofoam and other plastic trash from the canals. The other women stay behind to build blocks, hopefully enough to get another three or four courses up before the end of the day.

I follow the bus on the back of a motorcycle driven by Ben Depp, a Haitian-based American photographer. Even with our helmets on, we stick out. A chorus of “Blanc! Blanc!” follows in our wake. It’s hard for me to pay it much mind, since it’s hard to think about anything other than the road. Driving in Port-au-Prince is a series of guesses and prayers, lanes serving as suggestions, goats and hogs just as likely to block the street (no one will touch them for fear of “getting the voodoo,” I’m told) as other cars and pedestrians or crater-size potholes. But drivers pay attention, so people get away with maneuvers that would be unthinkable in the United States. Luridly colored buses packed with people merge into spaces barely big enough for a compact car. Motorcycles make blind turns across three lanes of traffic. It somehow all works.  

When we finally reach our destination, the canals on the outer edge of Cité Soleil, there is some good news: the bulldozers have finally come through, moving away some of the trash.

“It’s good for the canal but not so good for us,” Overton says.

We go up the road a bit, but there’s not much trash there either. “It’s a bit slimmer here,” Overton says, “but we were just here yesterday.” Unfortunately, we don’t have to drive too far before we find what we came for. The part of the canal we’re at is completely covered with clamshell Styrofoam containers, like an iced-over stream in winter. The women fish the containers out with long cane poles, spearing them, tossing the poles to Overton when they’re full. The women occasionally get distracted, but one of them, Phara, is a machine. Overton can barely keep up.

Before the women came aboard, Duigou and Overton went out to round up trash on their own, to gather enough to get started. Three men turned up.

“Hey, give me a stick,” one of them said. Overton told him they weren’t paying. “Well, you’re doing it; we’ll do it, too.”

“They gave us, like, 45 minutes,” Overton says. “It was cool.”

No one offers to help today, but a crowd does gather. Too many white faces on hand to avoid that. After an hour or so, Overton and the women head back to the compound, to disinfect the containers and shred them for use in the blocks. When we arrive, Lacey is teaching some of the women how to cut rebar.

“Yes, that’s good!” He goes from woman to woman, checking on their progress.

“This is hard work,” he says. “Someone said these Haitian women’s hearts aren’t in it. Well, when I built that house at SMU, I had the same thing. And that was my grandson.”

Less than two years ago, there was no house and there were no blocks. There was only a dream, a dream born out of having bad beans for dinner. That’s how Ubuntu-Blox came to be, according to Lacey: a dinner that didn’t agree with him and his tendency to see things fully formed, then figure out how to make them.

That night, back in November 2010, Lacey imagined a machine that could build blocks out of recyclable materials, basically a hand-cranked trash compactor. He went out to his shop and made it. Then he started making the blocks, little hay bales constructed from plastic shopping bags filled with Styrofoam or soda bottles or even more plastic shopping bags, and wired tight. They weighed only a pound or two, but he found that, when strung together, they were strong as steel.