Katie Davis
Porter Gifford Katie Davis

Katie Davis is a designer with Stantec in Boston. In the last three years, Davis has provided humanitarian relief in Haiti through Architecture for Humanity, and designed a school for Port-au-Prince through Islamic Relief Worldwide. “My intentions in Haiti, at the most basic level, were about learning as much as I could,” she says. “And designing a school on site with what was readily available was a very steep learning curve.”

Architecture can be resilient and it can be sustainable, but it’s a humanitarian pursuit at base level—it’s about helping people and providing them with something functional as well as something desirable. Designing Lycée Jean Marie Vincent for Port-au-Prince was about assessing what was lost, as well as the ongoing needs of the students, their parents, teachers, and the community at large since the earthquake took a toll that spared no one.

But it was also about finding long-term solutions for a generation of students—like introducing simple composting, bio-systems, and solar power to improve the country’s disposal, sanitation, and electricity. Islamic Relief Worldwide had funded the rebuilding of four schools in Haiti, and the one I worked on was both the largest of the four and the precedent for the other schools. It was more about creating a set of standards for ourselves at Islamic Relief, and working with the local municipalities and firms, to move forward with responsible design recommendations that were specific to each site and condition.

You also have to use what’s available to you on the ground, on site. You have to use what makes sense to the local economy, including working with its local material and physical resources. One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that you have to design seismically. So we worked with structural engineers on the ground and made sure what we were doing aligned with their recommendations. Rebar is all over the place now, which is great, but part of our mission was to teach others how to build with it properly. And local metalwork was everywhere—intricate pieces created by hammering and bending is a traditional craft done by many Haitian artisans—so we found it a great fit for the beautiful and secure façade elements, such as the school’s windows and doors.

It took—and is still taking—a lot of patience and hard work to collaborate and coordinate the needs, construction, and systems because, even in the Third World, design matters—and design can make functional things stronger because they are useful and inspire others. We want this school to be a beacon for the community, for Haiti, and for the international community.

The funny thing is, when I was in school myself I didn’t do much related to the school building type. But I’ve always been interested in humanitarian design, how simple spaces can be designed to be functional and beautiful, like adapting modular blocks to different programs and carving interesting moments out of these spaces. —As told to William Richards