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Author Topic: "Timber Framing" in Haiti  (Read 3175 times)

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Offline Dodgy Loner

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"Timber Framing" in Haiti
« on: February 11, 2013, 01:20:32 PM »
Hello all, I’m back in the States after a week in Haiti and I thought I would share some woodworking-related thoughts from my experience there. First off, the reason I was there: My employer (a wood products company) pledged $250,000 in support to rebuild Haiti after the earthquakes in 2010. Most of the buildings in Haiti are either concrete (which is rigid, heavy, and very susceptible to earthquake damage) or sticks/mud/tin/whatever else they can scrounge up (which does not make for permanent dwellings), so my employer’s goal was to build durable, permanent, earthquake-proof and hurricane-proof structures using wood. Originally, the plan was to ship down the materials and let the cheap Haitian labor do the construction. The problem is that Haitians are completely unfamiliar with stick-frame construction, so there was no way that would work. So my employer put out a call for volunteers to go down and build the houses. We had to pay for our own plane tickets and for lodging and meals while we were down there – no freebies – but it was a great experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The houses we were building were not for Haitians (that was a tricky problem: who among them would “win the lottery” and get a new house, while the rest were living in mud huts?). So instead we built houses for foreign medical staff who will spend a year or more at a time living in the village to provide medical care to the residents. In this way, our work will have an impact on the whole community, rather than just a few lucky families.

The village in which we worked was mere miles from the city of Port-au-Prince, but it was a completely different world. Families lived in huts that they build with minimal tools. The entire structures could be built with nothing more than a machete, a handsaw, and a boring tool of some sort. What I found intriguing is that the houses were essentially a vestigial form of the timber-framed dwellings with wattle-and-daub walls that were ubiquitous in Europe for hundreds of years. Posts were tree trunks that were stripped of bark and sunk into the ground. Beams were either tree trunks or some random scrap of lumber that they found or purchased. Roof framing used the same materials as the posts and beams, but in smaller dimensions.

Between the posts, acacia branches about 1” in diameter are cut with machetes and woven to form the ‘wall’. Onto this framework, they apply mud, then add tin to the roof, and a house is born. Most of the homes have crude steel hinges to hold wooden planks for doors and windows. The homes have one or two windows, at most. Mud must be reapplied on a regular basis. Within a few years, termites and fungi will eat away at the buried posts, and the home will be disassembled, burnt for cooking or used to make charcoal, and the process will begin again.

I took a few pictures of the houses, but I tried to be discrete about it and so I did not get as many pictures or as good of pictures as I would have liked. We were in these peoples’ back yards, and we wanted to maintain a good relationship with them. The children loved to have their pictures taken, but most of the adults did not.

A typical home in the village in which we were working. Actually, this one was a bit bigger than most.


The corner post of this home was very curved, but artfully place to give the home a sturdy appearance. Who knows whether or not that was on purpose?


A closeup of the mud daubing. You can see the wooden sticks (the “wattle”) underneath.


I’m not sure whether building on this home stopped halfway through, or if it was being disassembled. In any case, you can clearly see the “post-and-beam” architecture in this one.


This home was in the process of adding-on.


The joints used to assemble the frame would be familiar to us all. I saw a disassembled home that in a charcoal/firewood pile that had many familiar joints: mortice-and-tenon, bridle joints, and half-laps.


Almost all of the joints appeared to be pegged to secure them.

Tenon


Half-Lap


Bridle


There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to where one joint was used as opposed to another. If the beam atop the post was an old 2x4, then the top of the posts might get a bridle for the board to fit into. If the beam was a tree trunk, then it might be mortised, and the top of the post would get a tenon. Sometimes they would mix and match joints in the same dwelling.

Anyway, I found it fascinating and I wish I had more time to study their architecture. Their tools, their materials, and their methods may be crude, yet these villagers escaped the 2010 earthquakes mostly unscathed while the concrete buildings in Port-au-Prince collapsed and killed hundreds of thousands of people. There is something to be said for simplicity.
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Offline Rooster

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2013, 01:57:15 PM »
Thanks for the story and info...

Is it possible that the house that was dismantled and is now in the firewood pile was built by a European immigrant, landowner, or missionary?...and that the tenon that we see is not an example of Haitian culture but that of Old World influence?

I'm just curious about your opinion.

Thanks,

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Offline Dodgy Loner

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2013, 02:37:28 PM »
Is it possible that the house that was dismantled and is now in the firewood pile was built by a European immigrant, landowner, or missionary?...and that the tenon that we see is not an example of Haitian culture but that of Old World influence?

There would be no such thing as "Haitian culture" without "Old World influence". The country is a former French colony that gained its independence in the early 1800s as the result of a slave uprising. The native tongues are French and Haitian creole, which is rooted in French but has strong African influence. Even the finer furniture that is produced for wealthier people in Port-au-Prince has a very strong French influence. So it's not surprising that the Haitians have adopted and modified a European version of timber framing. I'm almost certain that the timber frame in the firewood pile was made by a native Haitian - all of the homes in the village (except for the few concrete homes) were built exactly the same way.

Here is a picture of a joiner's shop that I passed on the way to the airport. There were two joiners working under a tent beside the sidewalk. They were selling their chairs and doors right there. If you are familiar with historical furniture forms, then you can see that the carved chairs are basically just a crude version of the chairs that would have come from France in the late 1700's.

 

 
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Offline Jay C. White Cloud

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2013, 04:13:39 PM »
Hello All,

Dodgy Loner, thank you for sharing your trip with all of us.  As a keen observer and student of all things "timber frame," particularly timber framing outside of Europe and of other origins, I would share the following observations.  I lived in the West Indies on and off through the mid 1980's.  I concur, depending on the region, there was strong influence from different European cultures that tried to dominate this part of the world, like so many others.
Quote
There would be no such thing as "Haitian culture" without "Old World influence".
However, as some one of Native upbringing and still identifying by this culture, I am very vigilant to point out that most of the places the Europeans went, already had there own cultures that was strong, vibrant and healthy.  After the Europeans came, not so much, as through diseases and domination these indigenous cultures were exterminated or simply enslaved.

I have been a student of pre-european timber architecture for the better part of 30 years, and have found that the heart and soul origin was most likely the Middle East then it went East into Asia before ever reaching Europe, by several thousand years.

I have looked at the timber and wood cultures of Africa for a long time, considering their beautiful wood work.  It was not until UNESCO created their short documentary below that I could even get other timber framers to believe me when I spoke of independent timber cultures like the Zafimaniry people of Madagascar.  All eyes still seem to turn to Europe for all things timber frame related, when this is just not the case.  Slave traders, (many black themselves,) routinely ship people from this island to the West Indies.  I'm not saying that the Creole culture of Haiti had any native Madagascar roots, but the possibility is there, not to mention the Islands own architectural forms which looked very much like what you find Haitians living in today.

Regards,

jay

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Offline mesquite buckeye

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2013, 04:29:33 PM »
All very cool. Thanks for posting Dodgy, and to you for additional info, Jay. :)
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Offline Dodgy Loner

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2013, 05:13:56 PM »
Jay, that was an interesting video that you posted. I didn't mean to disregard the native influences on Haiti's culture - I was only making the point that French colonialism had a huge impact on the culture of modern-day Haitians. Without the French, the language, the food, the religion, and the architecture would be completely different. It would exist, of course, but it would not be what it is. Haitian culture is a blend of French, African, and native cultures. Take out any part and you have something different.

I think the connection between the timber framing in Europe and what you see in modern-day Haiti is pretty clear, but I have no way of knowing whether or not the native people of Haiti had timber frame dwellings before Columbus showed up. Given that they didn't have hard metals, such as iron or bronze, I'm guessing they did not. But I don't know that. And if the African slaves weren't familiar with timber framing before they were brought to Haiti, they certainly were after they got there. We do know that the French had timber frames, and we also know that they controlled the island for a couple hundred years.
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2013, 06:10:48 PM »
Dodgy, I appreciate you sharing photos and commentary about the Haiti trip.  You gave an interesting perspective.  What species of wood was used for chair building?

Jay, thanks for the video.
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2013, 06:32:25 PM »
Quote
I think the connection between the timber framing in Europe and what you see in modern-day Haiti is pretty clear
I don't believe I can agree with that statement, nor the european aslant view that is often projected onto certain modern mixed cultures. I know your conclusions are not based on any biases, just assumptions/conclusions from observations.  I just had to make note of the other realities that exist in the West Indies.  I still read in your last post a stress on the French culture.  Yes the French did control part of the Island, and yes they speak two European languages on that island, but I believe your quote above is still overly stressing the European connection.

Taínos and Carib indigenous people lived there for thousands of years and many of the escaped African and indigenos slaves took up with them finally rebelling and taking back the island in the 1800's.  The folk architecture of modern day Haitians/Dominicans is more analogous to the original indigenous people, than anything you would find in France, (perhaps Southern Spain.)  I would describe the culture as strongly African and indigenous with some European influence, as do most Haitian and Dominicans, and that would include there folk architecture. 

Regards, 

Jay


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Offline Dodgy Loner

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #8 on: February 11, 2013, 08:07:05 PM »
Haitian culture is a blend of French, African, and native cultures. Take out any part and you have something different.

This was the point of my post. I think you're missing the point of my original post entirely. I am familiar with European and American timber framing techniques. I know next to nothing about African and West Indian building techniques. I was making a connection between what I saw and what I was familiar with. My larger point was about the ubiquity of post and beam, and pegged mortise and tenon construction. I think it is simple enough and intuitive enough that any culture with the tools and materials to utilize these techniques will do so. Much like the bow and arrow, timber framing is something that could have and certainly did develop independently in many different cultures. I'm an American of European descent so don't be surprised or offended if I see and interpret things from a Eurocentric point of view. I don't have any other basis from which I can interpret the world.
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Offline Jay C. White Cloud

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #9 on: February 11, 2013, 08:59:01 PM »
D.L.

I'm sorry, it's hard over the net to make a point and not sound "off key," some times.  I love this post thread you started, mainly because it would bring up these different points.  I didn't mean to sound like your observations didn't hold merit based on what you know and observed.  I just wanted to point out the biases that many have and that none of us should carry.  I tend to take a very academic look at things.  Myself, when younger, tended to look at things as I could preserve them, then as time went on, and my eyes grew wider, I started to look at things from many different perspectives.  At that point, I also started to realize that history had a very european slant to it and much was either missing or just plan false. 

I guess even your last entries quote would arouse my interest.  Why wouldn't it read:

"Haitian culture is a blend of Native, African and some European culture."

If you take the dominate race living there, their varied animistic/shamanistic beliefs and general genetic extraction, wouldn't my description be more accurate, as well as, what I have shared?

Regards,

jay
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Offline Dodgy Loner

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #10 on: February 11, 2013, 09:33:04 PM »
The dominant race is, of course, African.

The dominant language (Haitian creole) is mostly French with strong influences of African and some native dialects (A French speaker can easily communicate with someone who speaks Haitian creole).

The food is much like most of Latin America - it is strongly influenced by the native diet with a healthy dose of  African and European influence. Beans and rice are the staples, and corn, onions, tomatoes, peppers, avacados, plantains, mangos, papaya, fish, goats, and chickens are ubiquitous.

The dominant religion is hard to pinpoint - 85% of Haitians identify as Catholics, but most mix their Christian beliefs freely with Voodoo. It's certainly not a form of Catholicism that Europeans would recognize, and I think Haitian Voodoo is more strongly tied to African influences than to native religions. It reminds me very much of the Candomble that is practiced by African descendants in Brazil.

I guess if you were to ask me to list the influences on Haitian culture in order of importance, I would say that "Haitian culture is a blend of African, European (mostly French), and some Native culture". The native culture is simply not as apparent as it is in, say, Brazil, although it is certainly there.

I do agree that history as written by Europeans descendants has a European slant to it. I bet the history books in China are very different from ours.
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Offline D L Bahler

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #11 on: February 12, 2013, 01:15:07 AM »
Hello All,

Dodgy Loner, thank you for sharing your trip with all of us.  As a keen observer and student of all things "timber frame," particularly timber framing outside of Europe and of other origins, I would share the following observations.  I lived in the West Indies on and off through the mid 1980's.  I concur, depending on the region, there was strong influence from different European cultures that tried to dominate this part of the world, like so many others.
Quote
There would be no such thing as "Haitian culture" without "Old World influence".
However, as some one of Native upbringing and still identifying by this culture, I am very vigilant to point out that most of the places the Europeans went, already had there own cultures that was strong, vibrant and healthy.  After the Europeans came, not so much, as through diseases and domination these indigenous cultures were exterminated or simply enslaved.

I have been a student of pre-european timber architecture for the better part of 30 years, and have found that the heart and soul origin was most likely the Middle East then it went East into Asia before ever reaching Europe, by several thousand years.

I have looked at the timber and wood cultures of Africa for a long time, considering their beautiful wood work.  It was not until UNESCO created their short documentary below that I could even get other timber framers to believe me when I spoke of independent timber cultures like the Zafimaniry people of Madagascar.  All eyes still seem to turn to Europe for all things timber frame related, when this is just not the case.  Slave traders, (many black themselves,) routinely ship people from this island to the West Indies.  I'm not saying that the Creole culture of Haiti had any native Madagascar roots, but the possibility is there, not to mention the Islands own architectural forms which looked very much like what you find Haitians living in today.

Regards,

jay



Jay, I have to contend with you on one point. You speak of The transmission of timber building form from the middle east to Europe by way of Asia, etc. This I must disagree with.

I have made a long study of traditional Germanic building forms, and in particular the forms of The Alps (especially the Swiss Alps, where I myself trace my heritage over thousands of years)
Here I have learned one thing, Most western European timber framing is derived from 1 of 2 basic building forms, both of which are extremely ancient and are tied inseparably to ancient Germanic culture. First there is the iron age post structure, very crude timber framing similar to what we see in these pictures from Haiti. This is the father of many French and English methods. Then there is the central European log structure (interestingly, English and Scandinavian log building derives ultimately from framing, but Alpine log building does not) which has a history dating back to extremely ancient times. This style has been prevalent in the Alps since before there was such a place as Jerusalem.

Basic timber building practices have existed in Europe as long as there have been people there. Stonehenge, for example, is built with wood-type joinery reflecting the fact that it is based on a much earlier, timber-framed 'wood henge'. Timber framing in Europe developed along its own lines, from its own cultural traditions, and is not the child of Asia or anywhere else. That said, neither is Asian timber framing or African framing the child of anything European.

Take this in the context of my Swiss heritage, which means I don't care about Europe, or about making my people out to be big and important. We are mountain people, and we're a totally different race than the Europeans who go and write their favorite versions of history. We have a long history of not liking anyone else. I'd much rather have my mountains than to rule the world.

As for Haiti, this we should consider:

The Haitians trace their roots to modern day Ghana. They were captured and sold by their own countrymen to the French (I am in no way condoning European slavery, but still, we need to remember that the Africans themselves played a large role in this. Sometimes when we 'de-europeanize' the historical slant we tend to go too far in the other direction. The truth lies always in the middle). The French built castles on the Ghana coast for the slave trade, in order to ship them off to Haiti. As Such, Haitian culture is derived almost entirely from a mixture of Ghanan and French, with a few traces of native culture scattered here and there (such as a few loanwords in creole)

As for the origin of Haitian building practices, yes there is some knowledge held over from Africa, but by and large most of their building forms are derived from French influences. This is easy to see in Port au Prince, and in most of the other villages. Although it is harder to see in some of the more remote locations. The reason for this is not because there was no sound tradition from their native land, but rather because the French intentionally destroyed as much of it as they could. This is evident in the fact that creole is a dialect of French, not of any African language.   

Voodoo is very similar to practices still found in Ghana.

I spent 12 days in Haiti last spring. I may have some timber pictures buried somewhere in my file. Unfortunately I was deathly ill the last 3 or 4 days (I can't even remember, because I was so sick) with a virus that seriously messed up my thyroid and tried to burn my heart out.

But the Haitians themselves seem to say that they want to be African, and identify many parts of their culture as African, but at the same time will say that many things are French, and tend to view all the best things as being French. Indeed, people of French descent hold a high position of esteem in their culture, and anything that is connected to France (and increasingly the US) is thought of as being prime. I also learned that France considers the country to be a de facto French territory. Something on the order of 90% or some such ridiculous number of the country is owned by French businessmen, and just about every large business in the country is run from France. There are only two connections on Earth to the Port au Prince airport, Miami Florida and Paris France.

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #12 on: February 12, 2013, 02:22:29 AM »
Hello D L Bahler,

I did not want to detract for this post's topic so I started another post to separate this discussion from "Timber Framing in Haiti," which I thought was more respectful to this post topic.  Please find my reply to D L Bahler at: "Timber Framing a discussion of the History and Pre History."

Regards,

Jay
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #13 on: February 12, 2013, 07:40:41 AM »
Dodgy,very interesting pictures. Thank you for the insight on how others live and build.
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #14 on: February 12, 2013, 09:03:23 AM »
Thanks Dodgy! very interesting.
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #15 on: February 12, 2013, 11:20:28 AM »
Thanks Dodgy...and very honorable to donate your time and talents!!  It looks like Jay is a very passionate person with strong opinions and insights.  I appreciate you both for keeping it civil and in line with the positive and encouraging culture that we all appreciate here at the Forestry Forum.

Peace,

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #16 on: February 12, 2013, 12:07:53 PM »
Thanks Dodgy, interesting read.
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #17 on: February 12, 2013, 12:19:26 PM »
My nephew went to Haiti on a mission several years ago, and the son of a family friend is in Nicaragua right now.

Thank you Dodgy.  :)
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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #18 on: February 12, 2013, 02:07:09 PM »
Great read Dodgy. :)
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Offline WDH

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #19 on: February 12, 2013, 09:01:09 PM »
It is good that the topics got separated.  What Dodgy did to help needy people is very laudable, and I want to hear more about it.  With respect, separating the discussion on the history of timber framing, European influence, cultural bias, and all that is best handled elsewhere.
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Offline Magicman

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Re: "Timber Framing" in Haiti
« Reply #20 on: February 14, 2013, 09:24:17 AM »
Thank you Dodgy for the personal sacrifice that you made and for the humanitarian effort that you made to build homes for the foreign medical staff personnel that are volunteering their time to provide medical care to the residents.  They are fortunate that corporations such as your employer, and employees such as you are willing to donate the money and the time to this restoration effort.

I also appreciate you sharing the pictures and information regarding the housing that the Haitians inhabit.  It was all very interesting and informative. 
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