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Steel Saves Lives

steel saves lives 1Light-gauge steel structures provide shelter for Haiti's residents

SEI Haiti Project Team
Scott Coulombe, vice president of Steel Elements International, senior project manager on the Haiti project.
Jane Legere, SEI logistic coordinator, project accounting for the Haiti project.
Normand Pomerleau, SEI, initial response team and staff training for Haiti project.
Danny Clich, SEI, initial response team and staff training for Haiti project.

Earlier this year, Steel Elements International, based in Hudson, N.H., was contacted by Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit organization CHF International about the possibility of creating steel shelter developments in the earthquake-devastated country of Haiti. CHF is one of the world's largest humanitarian assistance organizations, and was one of the first groups on the ground responding to the Haiti disaster.

steel saves lives 2CHF staffers in Haiti were familiar with Steel Elements' work in metal construction, and decided to approach them about custom building a shelter that could serve as a more permanent form of housing for displaced Haitians. Due to their commitment to helping rebuild after natural disasters, SEI obliged to help on the project.

"SEI was compelled to help in Haiti due to the fact that we have a solution that will aid and save human lives in this tragic event," Scott Coulombe, vice president of Steel Elements and senior project manager for this project.

"It would be unthinkable to not want to help our fellow human beings in this situation."

steel saves lives 3This project, however, has been far greater than any project SEI has ever been involved in, and the results of this partnership were far beyond what anyone could have imagined

Built with durable cold-formed, lightgauge steel and industrial grade fabric, these transitional to permanent shelters are customized to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters--far more permanent than most shelters being built in Haiti. SEI and CHF worked hand-inhand to design the custom steel shelters, which SEI then built and shipped to Haiti to be completed by CHF on-site and delivered to residents.

steel saves lives 4To date, SEI has built 2,000 Galvanized G-60 steel shelters, with a plan to build a total of 7,500. There is an average of five people living in the individual shelters, which were built to last 30-40 years exposed (without cladding material) or more than 200 years with a permanent siding installed. These steel sanctuaries will surely make a remarkable impact in the lives of Haitians in need of safe, secure housing.

"The goal was to get shade/shelter from the environment in an extremely fast manner and to take the same structure and convert it into permanent housing by enhancing the exterior finishes to last a lifetime," said Coulombe.

SEI is manufacturing the materials under a joint agreement. The materials are all cold-formed steel studs and track, and are galvanized G-60 coated. All fasteners are coated with a special coating to prevent rusting and the roofing material is steel coated with Galvalume, which reflects 95 percent of the sun's radiant energy so the building does not overheat. A majority of the materials are shipped to Haiti from Florida. SEI performed all functions in-house for the project and there are about 50 people on-site each day in Leogane to assemble the building components and set up shelters. To make the process as easy as possible, SEI provides the materials in a pre-cut and numbered (kit) fashion, ready for field assembly. The first shelters arrived in Haiti on March 1.

steel saves lives 5The models are in compliance with Sphere guidelines that require 38 square feet (3.5 m2) per person, measuring 200 square feet (19 m2) or 10 feet (3 m) wide by 20 feet (6 m) long.

According to Coulombe, building in the country is a unique challenge.

"There is no infrastructure in Haiti, power is limited, there are non-existent street signs and roads are like stream beds. Bridges are missing or destroyed, tens of thousands of people cover the streets that you are trying to travel on, the weather is excruciatingly hot, materials get stuck at customs, vehicles to move materials from port to site are very expensive and unreliable. Ninety-seven percent of the Haitian population does not have clear title to their land, land space is extremely limited, the land is either too steep or near a stream or river that can flood," he said.

steel saves lives 6The organizational process was what Coulombe calls "definitely structured chaos!" Plans had to remain fluid and everyone had to be able to think and react quickly to new information that was coming in after the earthquake. Every aspect of providing housing had to be worked through, from having clean drinking water to security and everything in between.

"This project was so challenging from every aspect that I had to draw on my educational background and from 14 years of experience working with this product around the world to pull this project off," said Coulombe.

steel saves lives 7There were thousands of international aid organizations on the ground in a short period of time all trying to acquire the same limited resources in a country that had limited resources prior to the earthquake. Everything from anchors to tarps had to be custom designed and engineered to meet the environmental, as well as cost, conditions.

"It was extremely gratifying to see a product that we designed help move people from living under a bed sheet to a structure that will not be blown away in a hurricane or collapse in an earthquake," said Coulombe said. "[The] living conditions really had me thinking about how fortunate we are here in the U.S. I have been to many third-world countries and have not seen the extreme poverty that I have observed in Haiti."

steel saves lives 8SEI has dedicated themselves to this work so seriously that they have launched a new site,, which outlines the products and services that they're now offering other nonprofits on the ground in Haiti.

"This experience is something I will never forget," said Coulombe.

Although this is SEI's first time providing shelters after a natural disaster, they are actively marketing the steel housing and school units for other natural disasters, such as in Pakistan. As for Haiti, SEI completed loading the last containers of steel on July 13, 2010 and CHF will continue to erect the structures throughout the country.

steel saves lives 9Why steel is the material of choice in Haiti:

  • Lightweight
  • Withstands seismic activity (earthquakes)
  • Can withstand hurricanes due to strength and screwed connections
  • Will not rot in the humid environment
  • Termite-resistant
  • Fast to assemble (2 men, 1 day)
  • Easy to ship (50 units per 20-foot container)
  • Cost effective-less than $1,200/unit delivered to Haiti.