March 3, 2010

Reviving Haiti brick by brick, mind by mind



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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Friday, February 5, 2010...Architect Curt Sachs has been helping design hospital improvements at Cap Haitian's Justinian Hospital, doing his work at his Portland home.

Staff Writer

He's never set foot in Haiti, but Portland architect M. Curt Sachs has used his skills to benefit a terribly poor hospital in the country's second-largest city.

Sachs' first career was as a cancer therapist. He went back to school to become an architect, and has specialized in designing health care facilities.

The story of his work on the Haitian hospital began two years ago, when he sat next to a water engineer from the Woodard & Curran engineering firm on an airplane flight.

''We got to talking, and I said I was an architect, and my dream forever was to spend time designing better health care facilities for Third World countries,'' Sachs said.

The engineer mentioned that her boss, Hugh Tozer, worked with Konbit Sante, a Portland-based nonprofit that has been working for about a decade with Justinian Hospital in Cap Haitien, in northern Haiti.

Sachs connected with Tozer, and he soon began working with the nonprofit, studying building plans for the hospital. He worked with Konbit Sante's executive director, Nate Nickerson, and with doctors and others who had spent time at the hospital over the years.

''It really has helped,'' said Tozer, who is president of Konbit Sante's board of directors. ''We've paired Curt with three emergency doctors from the United States who have spent a lot of time in Cap Haitien. They are able to work and get the feedback from the emergency doctors in the Justinian, and then bring that to bear through conference calls.''

The work involves some basic but important renovations to the hospital's emergency room, Sachs said. The project had been approved for funding by the United Nations, but has been delayed by the earthquake that struck the capital, Port-au-Prince, in January.

The disaster has led Sachs to consider ways to make buildings at Justinian Hospital more resistant to quake damage.

Cap Haitien is about 90 miles north of Port-au-Prince. It was not damaged by the earthquake or by a significant aftershock several days later. But Justinian residents said they were worried about the structural safety of their living quarters at the hospital, noting that cracks in the walls had gotten bigger. They requested tents so they could sleep outside.

''Is it likely (the cracks have) gotten bigger that far from the epicenter? Who knows?'' Sachs said. ''Structurally, it's the same problem they had in Port-au-Prince. It's a lot of concrete, but very little of what's been built was properly reinforced.''

The challenge is to focus both on long-term plans for the hospital and short-term fixes, Sachs said. Money is always an issue.

It is possible for structural engineers to look at buildings and determine where weak points would pose problems in an earthquake, Sachs said. Those areas can be reinforced.

''I think it's entirely possible, in my quasi-professional opinion, to go in, analyze and not have to rebuild Justinian,'' Sachs said. ''Justinian probably has good bones.''

Sachs, 60, is an independent architect. He has worked as director of design and construction at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City and as associate dean for facilities planning at the New York University School of Medicine, providing in-house design services for both. He also designed a temporary infirmary for the San Quentin State Prison in California.

He is an adjunct professor at the University of Maine at Augusta and at Southern Maine Community College. He's teaching a course on sustainable design in SMCC's architecture and engineering program.

The earthquake hit after the course started this semester. He proposed that his students focus on durable houses for Haiti that could be quickly and easily built. The houses would be designed to provide cooling and possibly domestic hot water from solar panels.

''The students went nuts,'' he said. ''Even among this generation of students that feels entitled, it is unbelievable how excited they are about trying to come up with a solution for housing.''


Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:


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