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Professor, students help Hondurans rebuild in wake of Hurricane Mitch

Jan Wampler believes in sharing MIT's richest resource--the skills of its faculty and students--with those who need it most. In this instance, the architecture professor is working with a group of graduate students who are reaching out to the people of hurricane-torn Honduras to design new housing for the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

When Hurricane Mitch tore through the tiny Central American country last October, it killed 6,700 people and wiped out 70 percent of the nation's crops. Ten thousand people were left with only tents for shelter, creating a disastrous housing shortage for Honduras, the second-most destitute nation of the Americas. Only Haiti is poorer.

Last November, Professor Wampler received an e-mail from SEEDS, an MIT student group promoting development in Latin America, asking for clothing donations to help hurricane survivors. His first reaction was that MIT could, and should, do more.

"MIT has all these skills and great resources, more so than any other place in the world. I feel like we ought to use them to help other countries, with environmental problems or buildings (these are my areas), but also with social and other problems," said Professor Wampler, who contacted SEEDS with this in mind.

After a two-week flurry of e-mail with their contacts in Honduras, Professor Wampler; Bruno Miller, a graduate student in aeronautics who is activities coordinator of SEEDS; and Sonia Miranda-Palacios, a graduate student in architecture, set up a tentative collaborative project with the Universidad Tecnologica Centro-americana (UNITEC) of Honduras.


In January, Professor Wampler and four MIT graduate students (Juintow Lin of architecture, Tina Pihl of urban studies and planning, Kathryn MacLaughlin of civil and environmental engineering and Mr. Miller) traveled to Honduras to survey two cities--San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa--for an appropriate site for the collaborative project with UNITEC.

They found thousands of Hondurans living in makeshift shelters of canvas and plywood or other found materials pitched in grassy areas on the sides of hills. Despite the hardships of their existence, the struggling Hondurans received the visiting MIT contingent with kindness and openness, said Professor Wampler. And those who still had homes welcomed the MIT group in so that they could study the architecture. "In Honduras we were always received with kindness," he said.

They settled on a neighborhood of about 25,000 people called Colonia Kennedy in Tegucigalpa, choosing to design a mixed-income complex for 100-200 families (800-1,000 people). Colonia Kennedy is named after John F. Kennedy, who visited Honduras during his presidency.

The complex will be the first-ever two- or three-story walk-up style housing in the country.

"The idea of housing in the form of walk-ups is very new in Central America, but it's becoming very important as cities run out of space and their populations keep growing," said Professor Wampler. "The buildings will be integrated into an already existing community [Colonia Kennedy], which alleviates one of the biggest hurdles for the success of these kinds of projects. In addition, it offers opportunities for students and faculty to explore issues of community participation, how to maintain the culture of the people, as well as an examination of materials and new technology."

The eight-acre site in Colonia Kennedy will receive the attention of 12 MIT students in architecture, civil and environmental engineering, aero/astro and urban planning, who will earn academic credit in subject 4.171 (The Space Between Workshop).

The team will create a preliminary plan for a sustainable community, addressing concerns for water, sewage, erosion, architecture, public space and even distance learning. Professor Wampler hopes to include a small library with a computer terminal for this purpose in the public space. They will present their plan to the mayor of Tegucigalpa and representatives of UNITEC during meetings scheduled for April 17-20.


Professor Wampler is optimistic about the chances of the housing complex being built. "If our plan is received enthusiastically, the preliminary design could be turned into design and construction documents very quickly by UNITEC," and built within a few months, he said. Disaster relief "money is coming into Honduras, but they don't have projects for it."

The project's documentation, which will likely include a lengthy report or book with sections on each area of the project--water, sewage, architecture, etc.--will prove useful to Hondurans when they set up their own design and building projects in the future. But Professor Wampler doesn't want to stop there. He hopes to collaborate on additional projects with UNITEC and will do another survey when the team is in Honduras in April.

He believes strongly that it would be good for MIT to work in other developing countries to create similar projects that encourage students to reach out beyond the confines of their own disciplines and cultures.

"For students, this is a chance to experience different societies and cultures, and to design within these parameters. They also benefit from working toward a common goal alongside students from other departments and academic disciplines," he said. "It has incredible educational value."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 24, 1999.

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