Back in the days before the earthquake the rule of thumb for the cost of construction along Haiti’s Southern peninsula was $25 per square foot; the original number we used for the Forward in Heath Clinic. After the earthquake the number doubled overnight to $50 per square foot. Then, as we designed engineered structures we experienced a steady creep to $70, even $80 per square foot. This may be small compared with American hospital construction costs, which routinely hit $500 per square foot, but it is a massive increase in three years and causes havoc with trying to assemble enough money to build here.
The challenge of figuring out how much it costs to build in Haiti is exasperated by the upside down relation of materials to labor from what we experience in the US. A first order approximation for American construction is that 1/3 of the cost is for materials, 2/3 for labor. In Haiti the proportion is reversed, then doubled. Even with labor rates creeping from $4 a day to $6 a day, labor represents only 10-15% of the cost of construction, while many materials cost more here than on the mainland.
Philanthropic projects like BLB and MoHI get all sorts of things donated, and we are happy to have them, but the cost of shipping goods from the US to Haiti is high, and the reliability of receipt it tenuous. Very little arrives ready to install for free.
Our single largest expense is steel. There is a reason why so many Haitian buildings are under reinforced; rebar is expensive. There are few suppliers in Haiti, demand is high, supply short, but we will not scrimp on this critical structural ingredient. While a typical Haitian house has 3 – #4 bars in each column; we have 8 – #6 bars. That is six times more cross-section of steel, at six times the cost.
Everything about steel is expensive, including the delivery. Rebar comes in thirty or forty foot lengths. It arrives on long flatbed trucks that cannot climb the hill to BLB, so the delivery company dumps it along Route 2 and laborers carry them to the site. BLB has over 2,500 forty foot long rebars buried in its concrete. A laborer can drag one rod up the hill, or a group of three to five laborers can bundle several together and shoulder them. Either way, we have made 2,500 round trips to get rebar to the building. Each round trip takes about half an hour. That is 1,250 man hours,
One day I was returning up the hill while a group of five laborers carried a bundle. Wanting to be helpful, I slipped my shoulder under the bars and took up my share of the load. I did fine for twenty or thirty paces. Then I started breathing hard. Soon I could not keep step. After a few minutes I dropped away. The laborers did not mind; they smiled at my effort and reveled in their superior muscle.
I wondered how much this Herculean effort to move steel uphill cost. 1,250 man hours at $6 a day is just shy of $1,000. Peanuts, it seems, for such effort. Still, like so many construction costs in Haiti, it represents real money that has no corollary in this country, where machines that the place of so many human hands and backs.