Helping Haiti reCOVER

Breathe House
A rendering of the Breathe House.
Image courtesy of Initiative reCOVER
Anselmo G. Canfora
UVAPF 2011 Annual Report
November 11, 2011

Anselmo G. Canfora was looking to engage architecture students in a timely and relevant design–build project when disaster struck — literally. When Hurricane Katrina hit the American Gulf Coast in 2005, Canfora watched in dismay as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted disaster-relief efforts with its much-maligned travel trailers.

“That’s when I started to focus on disaster-recovery housing,” said Canfora, assistant professor in the University of Virginia School of Architecture and director of Initiative reCOVER. “The FEMA trailers were highly inadequate, exacerbating the deplorable conditions people were living in after a natural disaster. This was a compelling design problem I wanted to concentrate on through my research and teaching.”

To address this problem, Canfora focused his studio, the equivalent of a research lab, on transitional disaster-recovery housing. With the help of partners in the School of Architecture and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and external partners such as the Building Goodness Foundation and the Arup Cause, Initiative reCOVER was born.

When an international competition sought solutions for Haiti’s displaced population following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in January 2010, reCOVER responded. The team’s innovative “Breathe House,” so named for its natural ventilation strategy, took first place in the competition and will be built this spring in the Haitian community of Bois l’Etat, near St. Marc.

The pioneering structure combines panelized and modular prefabricated building components with new and proven strategies for leveraging the environment for comfortable, economical living, off the grid. The home’s rooftop photovoltaic system, for instance, provides the electricity required to power low-volume ceiling fans, lighting, a small refrigerator and sensors that monitor system efficiency.

Passive ventilation strategies, solar walls, expanded rooftops and advanced water filtration work to keep occupants cool and mitigate the spread of disease — particularly airborne tuberculosis, the  second leading cause of death in Haiti after HIV/AIDS. The reCOVER team also took great care to incorporate indigenous building materials into their design and involve local trades to help preserve Haitian culture and revive the local economy.

All of the home’s components — minus the modular amenities unit — ship flat-packed in a kit that can be assembled using only hand tools and in just two days, making it a smart and practical housing solution for the months and even years following a disaster.

Canfora and his partners are adapting the innovative design, copyrighted by the U.Va. Patent Foundation (now the U.Va. Licensing & Ventures Group), for use in a variety of climates and other site conditions, so that reCOVER can provide disaster relief housing wherever it is needed.

“Haiti is proving to be a challenging place to build a unit,” Canfora said. “We hope to learn as much as we can from this experience and continue to improve and adapt the design for future applications around the world.”

Initiative reCOVER is funded by the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.Va.’s Jefferson Public Citizens program and Vice President for Research, and several additional organizations and individuals.