I often describe Haiti as magical, and I am not alone in that view. Mysticism is strong here where ancient voudou merges the physical and the spirit world. It also provides context for the daily trials of people with so little control of their lives. Time and again my Type A American expectations are upended. Like magic, Haiti is not rational.
No one would describe Ohio as magical. It is sensible and grounded, rooted in fertile soil and industrious citizens. It is the epicenter of the United States’ most enduring and traditional values, a practical place where logic and reason prevail.
As any of my regular readers know, I spent eight days cycling through Ohio this summer and developed a strong appreciation for its culture. I loved the hearty food, the exuberant cycling community, and the citizen’s faith that products of the hand and mind, our infrastructure and technology, are the tools that build successful lives.
We have a group of 23 missionaries from a church near Akron staying at the mission house this week. They have been working on construction projects, painting the banisters and walls, building a roof on the new kitchen building and laying foundations for new guest cottages. Last night Gama and I returned to the mission house before the last gasp of daylight and I was able to witness the handiwork of the dozen or so men (including three Cleveland firefighters, a civil engineer, a judge, a chemist, and three guys with a boatload of varied job experience) who built a roof that integrated logic and craft in three days.
The new kitchen is nestled into a corner of the mission property, Two property line walls meet at an obtuse angle to form two sides; the two additional walls are orthogonal to the other buildings on site. The result is a structure with one right angle and three odd angles. In pre-earthquake Haiti this out of squareness would hardly be noticed; most buildings got flat concrete roofs with haphazard cowlicks of reinforcing popping out for a potential second floor. Those roofs crushed a lot of people, so many post-earthquake structures opt for wood frame slopes with metal roofs. These will not last as long as the concrete in a country where wood is susceptible to decay, but they are too light to crush if they fall.
The new roof is a beauty. At dinner one of the guys explained the logic to me. We knew the metal roof needed to be between a 2 in 12 and 3 in 12 slope. We set the ridge four feet above the dividing wall in the kitchen, so it could be sheathed in full pieces of plywood. This put the slope in the correct range. We had to sister the joists, which were only 16 feet long, but set the longest rafter perpendicular to the ridge to the top of the wall. From there, we laid out the other rafters, some parallel, some not, to determine a consistent slope, and then built up the angled walls as much as needed to meet the rafters. The result is a simple yet consistent roof sitting atop a skewed box.
I asked about hurricane clips. We couldn’t find any anchors to drill in the concrete block walls, but we found a spool of metal tape and some through bolts. We set the bolts through the top course of the masonry, anchored the metal tape to one end, wrapped it over the rafters, and pulled it tight to the other side of the bolt.
The point of this story is not to sing the praises of the roof, which will not be published in Architectural Record any time soon. The point is to highlight how completely different Haitian and American cultures function. Take a dozen guys from Ohio, throw them in Haiti, give them an assortment of tools and materials and a jumbled problem and in three days they develop and build a practical, rather elegant solution. Our ability to problem solve is great, we relish the challenge.
On the BLB site, where we are building a larger yet more regular building, every step is an arduous process that must be repeated and repeated. The crew trowels grout into ten walls, but unless we tell them to grout the eleventh, they might not.
This lapse is not due to laziness; Lord knows Haitians work hard. It is simply that their minds work differently than ours. We look for pattern, for logic, we apply order wherever we can. Haitians are less analytical, less inclined to assign effect to cause. They are more comfortable with magic.