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An architectural designer's holistic approach helps Haiti build anew

Kyle Fishburn understands that architecture can help rebuild the lives of people who will inhabit it

Kyle Fishburn on the deck of a home that he designed in Los Angeles.

From the start, building was in Kyle Fishburn’s blood. A Malibu kid, he spent many happy hours accompanying his father, Eric, a general contractor, on jobs in Los Angeles County. "When I was little I’d go to his job sites and just play in the cement sand," the 30-year-old Fishburn recalls.

By middle school, Fishburn had gone from playing at his father’s construction sites to working on them. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2008, he returned to Los Angeles to work in the family business. But Fishburn was itching to travel and looking for a chance to expand his design lexicon.

A home that Kyle Fishburn designed in LA.
Fishburn worked with his father's company as the construction manager and junior designer on this 3,000-square-foot private home in Hollywood Hills, completed in 2011. He "cut [his] teeth" on this project, and it was where he was introduced to Megan Boudreaux of Respire Haiti through family friends.

An avid admirer of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, he developed a real belief in human-based architecture. "A human approach is about who are the people there, and who can build this thing, and how can they build it," Fishburn says. The idea is to make architecture accessible, practical, and flexible.

In 2011, Fishburn embarked on a mission to do just that. He was tapped by Megan Boudreaux, the founder of the aid group Respire Haiti, to design and construct a six-room schoolhouse on a mountainside in the town of Gressier, about an hour and a half outside of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Although initially nervous about living and working in Haiti, which was still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquake, Fishburn’s fears were quickly put to rest. He found in Gressier an innovative, upbeat group of talented artisans, determined to reinvigorate their community. "They’re gregarious and very loving," he says. "The currency is their community."

Buildings built by Respire Haiti organization. An exterior view of the hills and an interior of one of the homes.
Fishburn’s first project in Haiti was the Respire Haiti Secondary School. Left: The northwest elevation of the school. Razwa grass, a local material used for furniture, was woven to a metal from to diffuse light and air into the building. Right: The doors were designed by a local artisan. The scalloped pattern reflects the shape of the roof and the nearby mountains.
Courtesy of Kyle Fishburn

"Once I was down there, I kind of hit the ground running," Fishburn recalls. Construction began quickly, and it became a community-wide affair. "I hired 50 people from the neighborhood, and we did a work program where we switched them out every two weeks," Fishburn says. "We developed a protocol with how to build, where to put rebar, how to mix the concrete, how to stack the blocks, how to do the grout."

Soon, Fishburn was building a new four-classroom building for Respire Haiti, and learning from his surroundings along the way. "With each building I wanted to push the envelope more," Fishburn says. "I learned that there were more local materials that people knew how to use." Residents used different grasses to make lobster traps or screens for their houses, and Fishburn saw an opportunity to deploy them in the new buildings.

He found a local weaver to teach 15 women how to weave the grasses, and soon flexible, sturdy, breathable shutters adorned the schoolhouse. Local women, skilled in weaving latanye grass, also created large screens for the roof structure that allow light and air to pass through the classrooms.

This reliance on natural, site-specific materials would come in handy when Fishburn was hired by the Laughing Angels Foundation to build a schoolhouse for the isolated, mountain community of Bas-Citronniers, 45 minutes west of Gressier. With no road leading into the area, Fishburn could only bring materials that fit in his truck, which he had to drive up a riverbed.

Building and completion of a school house.
The Respire Haiti Secondary School, from left to right: A classroom interior; the exterior of the school, located on a hillside in Gressier; and the building when it was under construction. Local women were trained in the art of weaving latanye grass, which was used on the roof.
Courtesy of Kyle Fishburn

The schoolhouse was constructed with local bamboo, palm, and bwa chen (a local wood used frequently for construction). To make a sustainable, lightweight, and easy-to-repair roof, Fishburn and members of the community used fiberglass bug screens painted with a mixture of cement and acrylic.

Fishburn stayed in Haiti for three years, constructing four classroom buildings and two medical facilities for different organizations with his company Kenbe Design/Build. During his partnership with members of the community, he was constantly inspired by his co-workers’ ability to face down repeated natural disasters that deprived them of safety and shelter. "That kind of courage and willingness to continue really grabbed me," Fishburn says.

In October, Haiti was delivered another blow: Hurricane Matthew, the strongest storm to hit the island in the last 50 years. The hurricane caused at least 550 deaths (some reports put the total at more than 1,000) and destroyed 80 to 90 percent of homes in many towns. Fishburn reports that the new buildings in Gressier and Bas-Citronniers somehow survived with only superficial damage.

Staff group houses built in Haiti.
In Bas-Citronniers, Fishburn designed and built a community medical clinic. The roof (left) utilizes the strength of hyperbolic paraboloid shapes (think of a Pringles chip), and is constructed from fiberglass bug screens covered with a cement mixture. The exterior (center) features rough sawn wood spaced apart to allow light and air to filter through. Fishburn also built a schoolhouse with bamboo, palm, and local wood (right).
Courtesy of Kyle Fishburn

Today, Fishburn is back in Los Angeles, working as a construction and project manager for the family company Guild GC. He also continues his work for Respire Haiti and is currently designing an Occupational Therapy center and watertight staff houses for the group.

These small, 15-foot by 15-foot structures feature large openings, with off-the-shelf exterior doors installed horizontally. The doors act as awnings when opened and provide security and safety from hurricanes when closed. "The driving idea behind these houses is to create a space that would take advantage of the local trade winds and stay as cool as possible," Fishburn explains.

Fishburn’s life is one of contrasts: overseeing the construction of a high-end five-unit condo building in West Hollywood by day, working on plans to prop up local artisans and builders in developing economies by night. While Fishburn’s two world’s couldn’t seem further apart, he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. "Every day is [about] problem solving," Fishburn says. "I like contrasts. Through contrasts I can find truth."

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