ASCE Civil Engineering Club in Georgia Launches Project to Aid Struggling Haitians

January 8, 2015
Marcellus Pitts, Civil Engineering Club mentor and coordinator in the Cobb County School System, directs one of the students working on the Marietta High School Haiti Building Container Project. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

Since its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Republic of Haiti has endured a long history of natural disasters that have destroyed countless structures, killed thousands, and left millions homeless. The resulting economic and humanitarian devastation has only compounded the chronic poverty and poor housing conditions prevalent in the island nation.

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.04 Mw earthquake struck this tiny island in the Caribbean, causing more than 250,000 deaths, 300,000 injuries, and leaving 1.2 million people homeless. The government of Haiti estimated that nearly 300,000 structures had collapsed or were severely damaged, including 105,000 homes, 1,300 schools, and 50 hospitals.

While the earthquake took place almost 5 years ago, humanitarian efforts to rebuild the country are still ongoing.

To help, students in the Marietta (Georgia) High School Civil Engineering (CE) Club, sponsored by ASCE, recently undertook an extraordinary project to research, design, and ultimately construct sustainable “green” buildings for residents of Haiti using old cargo containers. The housing will be constructed on a parcel of land in Plaine de L’Abre, Haiti.

Something That the Kids Could Really Sink Their Teeth Into


Tom Isley, Ph.D., director of Louisiana Tech’s Trenchless Technology program (fifth from the right) was a guest speaker at Marietta High School’s Civil Engineering Club. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

Phase I of the Marietta High School Haiti Building Container Project began this fall, when the 17 students in the CE Club, under the guidance of professional engineers and registered architects, began developing a master plan that included the design of the initial building, which will serve as a community center. Other future structures they are considering include a health clinic and training facility.

In this phase the students will also develop and present conceptual display boards, a scale site model and scaled building model for a multipurpose community building. After an agreement is reached on the concept, the students will research the local building codes and requirements and then develop detailed construction documents.

At the United States Green Building Council’s Health School Conference on March 30, the students will provide progress reports and make a final presentation to the Marietta High School administration and the Marietta County School Board.

In order to get a better idea of how to incorporate energy-related issues into their Building Container Project, student from the Civil Engineering Club visit the engineers at the Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

In order to get a better idea of how to incorporate energy-related issues into their Building Container Project, student from the Civil Engineering Club visit the engineers at the Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

“ASCE’s Civil Engineering Clubs are fantastic.  The kids are really interested and I love it,” explained Marcellus Pitts, M.ASCE, the CE Club’s co-mentor and coordinator in the Cobb County School System. “But we needed something that the kids could really sink their teeth into, that will be a continuation of what they learned in the CE Club. So [Leon Grant, preengineering teacher at Marietta High School and CE Club co-mentor] and I sat down and we decided that we want to empower these kids [in the CE Club] to such a level that when they graduate from high school, they are going to be sought after by colleges and universities. And we moved learning about engineering to a whole different level.”

Added Grant, “We are concerned about the shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals. This project is just what we need to excite and introduce students to engineering.”

To accomplish this, Pitts and Grant gave each of the students on the project the title of project manager or director and then solicited the help of professional engineers and architects who would mentor each of the students individually in their area of discipline.

“Not only is it a real project being done in real time, but these young people are getting exposure and experience beyond anything that anybody can imagine,” says Pitts, who has been part of several humanitarian missions to Haiti over the past 25 years.

Repurposing Old Cargo Containers


“The Haiti Container Building Project is a perfect fit for the DiscoverE Collaboration Grants program,” says DiscoverE Executive Director, Leslie Collins. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

Central to the design and construction of the structures is the use of old shipping containers.

“I have a colleague who shared with me this idea about using containers for building material, the same containers that are being used on a ship to transport large bulk items,” recalled Pitts, who is also CEO of Pitts Fowler Enterprises Inc. in Atlanta. “But when we first starting thinking about how [we were] actually going to do this, a lot of questions came to mind: How do we actually get the containers over to Haiti? Do we send it over as a completed structure or do we try to send parts over and build it there?”

To research alternatives, Pitts and Grant turned to Clinic In A Can, an organization that uses shipping containers to build mobile medical clinics in developing countries.

“We met with [Clinic In A Can] and we got a lot of great information that helped us immediately in terms of how we need to approach this,” says Pitts. “[Subsequently,] the Marietta High School administration designated a tract of land on the campus to allow the CE Club to do the modeling and to build the structure. And what we are going to do is turn that into a living, learning lab to look at various design alternatives.”

Just What We Need to Excite and Introduce Students to Engineering


Leon Grant (left), pre-engineering teacher at Marietta High School, works with a student in the Civil Engineering Club. Photo Credit: Marcellus Pitts

In Phase II of the project, scheduled for the 2015/2016 school year, the students will, with the aid of their project partners, prepare and build the foundation for the container building, set and anchor the containers on the foundation, and modify and repurpose the shipping containers into a multipurpose community building. The building will be designed to include a classroom area, restroom facilities, a sheltered outdoor cooking area, attached outdoor space, a rainwater capture/storage system for washing, and a wood-burning cooking system for outdoor cooking.

The final phase of the project, targeted for the summer of 2016, calls for the students to develop plans to dismantle and prepare the container to be shipped to Haiti. Pitts and Grant will accompany a group of students to travel to Haiti and set up the container building. A final report will then be written by the students.

“The great thing about this project is that it is almost creating a life all of its own. Everybody who hears about it is interested in it and gets blown away – students, professional engineers and architects, the business industry, various institutions, and the school administration,” concluded Pitts, who also notes that the project may continue in some capacity after 2016 since there are currently only 3 seniors in the CE Club, the rest of the members being underclassman.

In recognition of the students’ efforts, the project earned a DiscoverE Collaboration Grant of $1,000.

“The Haiti Container Building Project is a perfect fit for the DiscoverE Collaboration Grants program,” says DiscoverE Executive Director Leslie Collins. The grant program is designed to facilitate collaboration within the engineering community and to increase engagement of underrepresented groups in engineering. “Diverse students will work with diverse role models through ASCE, SHPE, high school, and university partners. In the end, they will have experienced engineering to fix a real problem. This project is a great start to what could be additional future partnerships in the region.”

A number of engineering organizations, businesses, and institutions are also supporting the project, including ASCE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Georgia Tech, Southern Polytechnic State University, Louisiana Tech, South Carolina State, Ball State, and Purdue. Other partners include the Atlanta Center for Creative Inquiry, the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and the United States Green Building Councils.

“So often, when you are creating a project where are you are blazing new ground in terms of approach and process, sometimes you need something that lets you know you are not crazy and what you are doing makes sense,” laughed Pitts.

“The kids are all excited [about winning the grant], the school is excited, and even the school’s principal [Leigh Colburn] is excited. [Upon hearing the news,] she said, ‘This is a defining moment for the school’ and so we definitely feel like we are on the right track, and we look forward to working together with our partners to make this project as good as it possibly can be.”

  • Great story! The U.S. Military has been using “containerized housing units” (CHUs) for some time now in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve lived in them myself. So that means there’s a lot out there as far as development and utilization, meaning no need to re-invent the wheel. Maybe you’re already aware of this but if you’d like more information shoot me an email.

  • Stop competing and cooperate. If these kids really want to learn about sustainable housing, they should collaborate with Michael Reynolds in New Mexico. He was in Haiti soon after the earthquake, building long before this program.

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