Lauren Delventhal had never been to Haiti before, and her first trip last spring was far from glamorous: searing heat, no running water or electricity in the house where she stayed with five other University of Kentucky architecture students.
But that trip — where the students designed a new building for a group of Haitian orphans — changed not only how she viewed her education, but how she will use her degree.
“We returned to the idea of architecture as something that provides a shelter to someone,” said Delventhal, who is a first-year graduate student in the College of Design. “We were taking our skill set and education and using that to meet the basic needs of people. Oftentimes, architecture in this country is much more about the wants and not about the needs.”
The needs in Haiti are great; the impoverished island nation is still reeling from a devastating earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The earthquake is what destroyed the Chez Moi orphanage in Port au Prince, leaving more than 20 girls living in one residential house outside the city.
Their plight came to the attention of Frankfort philanthropists Steve Hayes and Joyce Rector. They knew UK professor Bruce Swetnam spent time in Haiti in the 1980s, building churches and schools. So they asked him to take a look at designing a new building for the girls, and Swetnam, in turn, asked his students.
Last April, Swetnam took the six students in his spring studio to Haiti. They stayed near the girls, and experienced the heat, the poverty, and the tribulations of their lives. But they noticed another aspect of Haitian life, says Alex Bossie, a fourth-year student.
“In terms of materials, the girls are impoverished, but in terms of love and joy, they’re much more wealthy than we are,” he said. “That was a pretty profound idea that I came back with and it had a big impact on me.”
Student Kathryn Sanders felt the same way. “The spirit and energy around us was contagious,” she said. “That’s what we focused on and why we’re so excited about this project— the girls were so kind, you want to help people who help you and who are excited.”
All the students were struck with the idea of “humanitarian architecture,” design with a humanitarian purpose, including disaster relief. They studied the vernacular architecture of Haiti, the climate, the daily routines of the girls, and came up with preliminary designs that they showed the girls by posting on the side of the Chez Moi school bus.
Their design proposal includes a two-story dorm with plenty of breezeways, and along with the renovation of the current house and kitchen. Eventually, Swetnam said, they’d like to design a space for vocational education for the girls and apartments for the older girls to transition to individual living.
“I always come back with more than I give,” Swetnam said. “I always learn to be a better architect through this process.”
Swetnam said this project is a continuation of the College of Design’s other humanitarian projects, such as the HBEER program, which converted houseboats to energy efficient living spaces. He hopes those kinds of efforts can expand to something like the Rural Studio, Auburn University’s studio started by architect Samuel Mockbee, in which students design and build projects throughout poor areas of Alabama.
Since returning, the students have started to raise money for materials and more travel through one of UK’s first group fundraising ventures, the Big Blue Crowdfunding project “Humanitarian Architecture: Empowering Haitian Orphans.”
Sanders, who grew up in Eastern Kentucky, said she hopes to see the new orphanage get built, but she’s also looking at projects closer to home.
“There’s definitely a lot of need near and far, and there’s always the potential to do something about it,” she said. “We can focus on using skills and talents to do something for someone else. Hopefully, we’ll continue doing a lot of those projects.”
To learn more
To contribute to the crowdfunding project, please visit https://uky.networkforgood.com/projects and select Humanitarian Architecture.