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Notre Dame students working with contractors to design affordable homes for Haitian families

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana — While foreign aid is necessary to help countries get back on their feet in the immediate wake of a natural disaster, Notre Dame's Engineering2Empower program believes rebuilding needs to originate internally for a country to re-establish itself.

That is what Engineering2Empower, or E2E, is working to do in Haiti, the South Bend Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/RLpKAH).

Funded by the College of Engineering at University of Notre Dame, E2E began a housing initiative there following the earthquake in 2010.

The goal is to design affordable homes that Haitian families could purchase from Haitian businesses.

This week, Notre Dame students and faculty are joining contractors here in building two prototypes of the inexpensive but effective homes.

They began building the homes Tuesday on White Field north of campus. By building two different types of homes, the builders are working to perfect their design and construction process.

Erik Jensen, a senior majoring in civil engineering, said E2E was founded two months after the earthquake displaced 1.5 million Haitians from their homes.

Even though the earthquake's magnitude was not remarkably strong, it was the second most devastating natural disaster in history, Jensen said.

"About 250,000 people were killed within a couple seconds because of the poor construction techniques in Haiti, the lack of quality control, the fact that a lot of the homes are do-it-yourself homes and there are not a lot of engineering solutions available to them," Jensen said. "They just build the only way they know how, which are vulnerable practices."

E2E's work takes place in Leogane, a Haitian community outside of Port au Prince. From Notre Dame, two faculty advisers and about 20 students work on the Haitian housing project. Arco Murray, based in Chicago, and Western Forms, from Kansas City, Missouri, serve as corporate partners for the project. Dustin Mix, a co-founder of E2E, acts as the project's in-country director in Leogane.

Jensen said E2E serves as an intersection of a number of disciplines from business and marketing to political science.

"We're not just engineering," Jensen said. "We're operating on a lot of different levels, which is why our 20 students are from the business school and political science backgrounds. Our area of expertise as engineers is just one scope of the project."

Alex Taflanidis, a faculty member and another co-founder of E2E, said the program is unique because it focuses on all of the constraints that limit Haitians from rebuilding, not just from the engineering side.

"We are not just about going down there and building homes," Taflanidis said. "We are trying to create a sustainable model to empower Haitians to build their own homes."

The goal is to create businesses operated and owned by Haitians in Haiti that will create the structural homes, Taflanidis said.

Taflanidis said E2E has spoken with 2,000 to 3,000 families who have expressed interest in the project.

"The solution that we're developing operates under the materials and capacities that (Haitians) already have," Taflanidis said. "They already know how to build homes out of concrete. So, we're not relying on importing anything into their country or expertise that they don't have."

E2E follows a three-step process: listen, innovate and empower. Taflanidis said they work hard to understand the financial and cultural constraints around building in Haiti, and often involve Haitian people in the problem-solving process.

"By making the Haitians part of the process for developing the solutions (in housing) we try to incorporate new know-how into the free market," he said.

Taflanidis said this is pivotal because the Haitian people will be asked to use their own funds to pay for the houses.

"This is one of the few ways that Haiti will be able to rebuild," Taflanidis said. ". Looking at how the country is going to be able to move forward in five to 10 years, it has to be a process that needs to originate from Haiti. That's why this process means so much to me because I see the enthusiasm from the Haitians themselves."

On the innovation side, E2E has spent years designing the perfect homes.

Angelene Dascanio, a junior majoring in civil engineering, said designing the homes has been a continuous process of perfecting each aspect.

"The cool thing about this is it's not just a template given to use that we do mindlessly," Dascanio said.

Dascanio said she was attracted to the project because of the hands-on nature and the connection to service.

"What keeps me working year to year on this house is its cause and its impact. I never doubt when I pour in hours of work over the physical house that it's going to mean so much to the thousands of people, huge population, that is homeless (in Haiti)," Dascanio said. "The true purpose of the project is so giving and so service oriented that everyone wants to do anything to help."

Jensen said his involvement in the project has been most rewarding because it has given him the opportunity to bring lessons from the classroom off paper and see them visualized.

"Homes are quintessential," Jensen said. "They're the basis for a lot of things. . There are so many benefits that stem from having a stable house. Getting to see that put in people's lives has been really rewarding," Jensen said.


Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

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