IDS Minor Carries Forward Commitment to Housing in Haiti
Andrea Midgett • November 6, 2014
The first student to combine a major in civil engineering with an International Development Studies (IDS) minor, Kevin Fink ’14 graduated with projects on housing sustainability in Haiti and Ecuador under his belt. He also had the hands-on experience of helping to build a campus prototype house that promises to provide safe, culturally appropriate, and affordable housing for Haiti.
Fink began graduate school at Notre Dame this fall under the tutelage of Kellogg Faculty Fellows Tracy Kijewski-Correa and Alexandros Taflanidis, the same civil engineering professors who so inspired and shaped him as an undergraduate.
“My current research focuses on developing and implementing assessment strategies for regions of the world with high natural disaster risk, to better understand where the greatest vulnerabilities exist,” he says.
He credits the two professors and the Kellogg Institute with lighting a passion within him that directed his undergraduate career and is illuminating his future.
“I see engineering as a path to impact the real world,” Fink says. “Coming here, I knew I would have opportunities to get involved, but I didn’t know what they would be. I found the IDS minor when I was a freshman. The classes were terrific, but my real motivation was the research project.”
Fink was introduced to Kijewski-Correa and Taflanidis through their work on sustainable housing in Haiti. He describes them as “brilliant and hard-working to the extreme.”
“Both have played a large role in shaping my philosophy of international development,” he says. “They operate on the principles of ‘get your hands dirty,’ and ‘make change.’ But do it in the right way, by interacting with the people you are working for—across cultures and boundaries—by building relationships and trust.”
Innovative Housing Prototypes on Campus and in Haiti
In response to the ongoing housing crisis after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Taflanidis, Kijewski-Correa, and (then) graduate student Dustin Mix formed Engineering2Empower (E2E), which got under way with the help of a Kellogg seed grant.
Fink is committed heart and soul to E2E’s goal of designing “disaster resistant reduction” (DRR) housing that can be built by unskilled laborers using local materials. And he is helping prove the goal is reachable.
“We figured if students can build a house like this, anyone can,” Fink says. “We spent two years researching and developing a prototype that we built on campus in the spring. Another prototype was constructed in Haiti.
“Our design takes the brunt of the weight of the house off the walls because, when those walls fall, they crush people. We created a frame that can bear the weight of the roof and withstand the kind of lateral movement generated by an earthquake.
“The Haitians use concrete mixers when they build; so did we. They don’t have concrete trucks; neither did we. We obtained and bent the steel ourselves, like them. The design was not the problem. The how to build only with materials available to Haitians was the issue.”
IDS Capstone Research in Ecuador
“Kevin came to our project with genuine curiosity in the E2E motto of ‘Listen, Innovate, Empower,’ and how that could be used to not only help Haiti but also to prevent future disasters in countries facing similar resource constraints,” says Kijewski-Correa.
His work on sustainable housing for Haiti pushed him to consider similar needs in Quito, Ecuador, where he had volunteered in high school, and eventually developed into research that fulfilled IDS capstone requirements. Looking at the city’s crowded, economically challenged neighborhoods, he asked: are the inhabitants unknowingly waiting to share Haiti’s fate?
“Quito’s last major earthquake was in 1859,” he says. “The more time between seismic events, the more catastrophic they tend to be. I spent a summer researching homes of Quito’s poor.” Funding and significant help in developing the project—an analysis of the earthquake resiliency of 50 homes—was provided by a Kellogg/Kroc Undergraduate Research Grant.
Fink’s approach was “completely grassroots.” He traveled great distances daily, by bus and by foot, to meet families living primarily on the mountainside above the city. Once inside a home, he conducted a detailed analysis of the structure’s columns, roofs, walls and foundation. His tools? A camera, ruler, and paper. He also spent time on a local construction site, where he experienced firsthand the limitations millions of Quito’s residents encounter when trying to put a roof over their heads.
“I learned more about life and humanity than about engineering while I was in Quito,” Fink summarizes. “I was outside my comfort zone. The IDS program provides a great amount of guidance in terms of shaping our research project early on, and gives us a full year to develop our project before we go do it. It’s an incredible model.”
Lessons to Carry Forward
The work and relationships Fink developed as an undergraduate were only the beginning. Looking back on his journey, he says, “My time as an undergraduate taught me that the world’s most pressing engineering problems cannot be solved through equations alone. At the end of the day, engineering is about collaboration and thinking outside-the-box, a lesson that has shaped the way I approach graduate school.”
The faculty fellows who fanned the flame of Fink’s interest as an undergraduate—and who are now directing him as a graduate student—could not agree more.
“Kevin’s work has shown very innovative thinking and demonstrated great leadership potential,” says Taflanidis. “His passion and motivation are remarkable; he truly views engineering as a means to serve society and provide solutions to enhance the resilience of communities against natural hazards, especially in the developing world.
“We are very pleased he decided to continue this work in his graduate studies. We are confident he will have an impact on improving DDR practices for vulnerable populations across the globe.”