Quebec singer builds shipping container village

MONTREAL - A Haitian-Canadian musician wants to help the earthquake-displaced people in his homeland by spearheading the building of a village.

MONTREAL - A Haitian-Canadian musician wants to help the earthquake-displaced people in his homeland by spearheading the building of a village.

But Luck Mervil's project wants to build homes that will withstand any natural disaster by using retired shipping containers as the main building blocks.

Mervil plans to use 900 retrofitted containers to construct a new village fit for 5,000, erected on a parcel of previously uninhabited land near Leogane, a coastal city west of Port-au-Prince.

Mervil, a Haitian-born, Quebec-raised singer, has taken leave from a successful musical career to concentrate efforts on Haiti.

Mervil is behind a Montreal-based organization called Vilaj Vilaj, which aims to build sustainable, long-term housing in Haiti and potentially elsewhere.

"I'm putting everything aside just to do this: by (building) the village, the idea is not to put a village there and leave, we're building the village with the people," Mervil said in a telephone interview.

"We came up with a solution where everything (we need) was already on the ground and part of the solution is that people are going to build their own village."

While container-driven architecture is becoming increasingly popular around the world, the buildings are a particularly good fit for Haiti because they are cost effective, easily convertible into larger structures and weather-proof.

"It's perfect for Haiti, it's a real house, it's a real place you can go and know that you're protected," Mervil said.

"We've created a design that would work in Haiti because the tools are there, the means are there and the need is there."

Eight months after the earthquake, many Haitians are still living in tent cities with hurricane season around the corner.

Upon returning from a brief trip to that country last week, Mervil says there are more than 20,000 NGOs on the ground in Haiti but none are thinking long-term and there's little co-ordination among them.

Mervil says he wants to do things differently.

The Canadian-designed village will consist of solid homes built with 40-foot and 20-foot containers — about 320 square feet of living space and running water and bathrooms.

A prototype home was built in Canada in about 10 days for between $8,000 and $10,000. But Mervil says the costs will be significantly lower in Haiti and Haitians, who are adept at working with metal, should have no problem converting the boxes.

In addition to teaching them to build a village, the new outpost will be self-sufficient with space for companies to set up shop so that villagers can work, Mervil said.

"For example, if we're putting solar panels on the homes we're building, we don't want to buy them from China, we want to build them ourselves," Mervil said.

"So that way we can sell them around the world and Haiti can stop asking (for help) and saying 'if you really want to help me, buy my product.'"

Mervil says fundraising will be done around-the-clock. The initial cost of building the village will be about $25 million, but the hope is to make the process entirely transparent.

Donors will be able to watch the construction live on the Internet and Mervil wants to put up weekly numbers to account for every dollar spent.

"We're not taking money from any government, I don't believe government has friends, it has interests," Mervil said.

"We want people to get involved and help us change it for real and we want to be the most transparent organization you've seen."

At Clemson University, researchers had been toying with how to convert shipping containers into homes that work against hurricanes when the earthquake hit last January.

They quickly started to think of how to help displaced Haitians.

"In the case of Haiti, the urgency is more on providing shelter first and a safe and secure environment that far exceeds the kind of self-construction that's going on there now and has been for years and years," said Doug Hecker, a professor at Clemson's school of architecture.

"A shipping container without any kind of foundation can resist 140 mile-per-hour winds, so it's a really robust structural building block."

Many places around the world have fashioned cargo containers into affordable housing. In some hurricane-prone, the sturdy steel structures are considered the best defence against the elements.

In Haiti's case, there are already containers on the island since Haiti's economy is import driven. Virtually no exports means the containers often get left behind.

Some critics say housing people in containers is inhuman, but retrofitted containers can actually be altered to be livable.

Haitians can't afford pre-fabricated houses built elsewhere and shipping them to the island at a cost between $30,000 to $40,000.

Mervil adds that some of the other temporary homes being pitched are too short term and likely to collapse as easily as the ones that came down in January.

Hecker said the containers already far exceed the structural code of any country in the world and greatly exceeds the non-existent building code in Haiti.

The Clemson group hopes to build its own project in Haiti with the help of the World Bank.

"Simply modifying the container for maximum adaptability over time — by making simple cuts into the container and providing a home that's engineered well beyond what people in Haiti live in today," said Hecker.

"The idea is to get them into something safe and secure and give people time to build it up to their own satisfaction."

On the web:http://www.vilajvilaj.com