In Mirebalais, Haiti, a cement laborer named Commie Brazil is wearing my AWP kneepads. Sporting cement dandruff and hauling a five-gallon bucket up a ladder in the sweltering sun, he pauses, staring at my pads before pointing to his knees.
How could I resist that face?
I wasn’t the only flooring installer to donate his kneepads – or tools – on a recent flooring trip to the new National Teaching Hospital of Mirebalais, 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince. We, the “Floorers Without Borders” or “the seamless flooring guys,” arrived in a foreign land on a mission to install 650 square yards of Forbo commercial sheet goods in five days. The team consisted of four union men from Detroit, seven from Boston and me, the non-union “Connecticut dude.”
Located in the Central Plateau of the mountainous Caribbean country, Mirebalais was untouched by the devastating 2010 earthquake. Still, the area has people living in poverty and dire conditions – inadequate health services, malnutrition and widespread unemployment – in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite that language barrier and other obstacles – including an uneven concrete sub-floor, a malfunctioning hand-groover tool and Joseph, a Haitian helper who ignored repeated instructions not to roll the glueless vinyl areas – camaraderie and Yankee ingenuity prevailed. In the land of improvisation that is Haiti, where people used contact cement to repair their torn sneakers, we borrowed a wet saw to enlarge worn-down trowel teeth, and a dozen American tradesmen and our Haitian brothers collaborated to pull off the job.
“The floor came out great,” said Andrew Johnston, a hospital project coordinator. “It’s going to be so important for providing good quality care. It’s critical to making it a world-class facility.”
The 180,000-square-foot, 320-bed hospital, due to open by July, will be a teaching facility for Haitian nurses, medical students and resident physicians. On any given day, more than 300 paid Haitian laborers, contractors and volunteers work at the hospital. A second flooring phase is scheduled for May.
Dr. Paul Farmer runs the project. He is the founder of Partners in Health (PIH), a Boston-based international health and social justice organization. Farmer, who has been in Haiti since the mid-1980s, oversees a smaller hospital about 30 miles away. PIH paid all travel and hotel expenses for the flooring volunteers.
The flooring excursion was organized by Troy Bickford, owner of Contract Flooring Installations in Boston and a member of Floor Coverers Union Local 2168. Bickford is a longtime friend of Jim Ansara, the hospital’s construction director, who called looking for flooring installers. Bickford put out a call to unions across the country where Chuck Shock, a Detroit retail storeowner, volunteered four employees, including his 28-year-old son, Tim. Both storeowners are members of the International Standards & Training Alliance (INSTALL).
After soliciting for tools and flooring materials from local and national distributors and manufacturers, Bickford had the shipment sent to Haiti. Forbo provided $110,000 worth of material at a tenth of the retail cost. Dal-Tile donated $250,000 worth of ceramic, and Laticrete pitched in with flooring products such as thin-set and grout.
Bickford was unable to make the trip, but he sent seven men, including his brother, Joe, who ran the job along with company employee, Jorge DeBurgo, a 32-year flooring veteran. “I think it’s a great project,” said Troy Bickford. “You get to see how it helps a lot of people.”
Nearly all the installers neglected to bring a Haitian Creole dictionary or phrase book and communicated mainly by smiling, nodding and using hand gestures. When that didn’t work, we talked louder. “Bale,” or sweep, was a favorite word.
DeBurgo, 53, who speaks English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, served as a translator. Born in Cape Verde and raised in Senegal, he said he identified with the surrounding poverty and primitive conditions. When sections of the uneven concrete subfloor caused the only hand-groover to skip, DeBurgo made his own groover to gouge the vinyl seam. He drilled a hole in the end of a flat screwdriver, inserted a one-inch screw and tightened it with a nut.
“Sometimes you have to improvise,” said DeBurgo.
The first day of the job brought the first dilemma. No flooring roller. The 150-pound roller, used to adhere the vinyl to the concrete, was still in transit from the USA. Our problems were solved because of the ingenuity of project coordinator John Chew. Using a PVC pipe filled with 150 pounds of cement, Chew made a 36” wide roller by sticking a steel rod through the center and attaching a metal handle. A carpenter later made a second, smaller 13” wide roller.
“This thing will work great,” said Chew, posing next to his creation.
The second day brought another temporary roadblock when we lost a half-day waiting while a PIH employee drove to Port-au-Prince to pick up a bonding agent to help the vinyl better adhere to the concrete. The 650-square-yard job called for vinyl to be installed in a 500-square-yard labor and delivery room plus smaller rooms throughout the hospital. We “hand-chopped” everything and the vinyl proved ideal: no pattern, thick, pliable and didn’t tear when pulled back.
PIH assigned us a dozen Haitian laborers, none who spoke English nor had ever seen vinyl flooring before. Nearly all lived in the surrounding plywood or cinderblock homes, most the size of a small U-Haul trailer. They were without running water or indoor toilets and few had electricity. Our helpers proved hardworking, attentive and extremely curious (an installer bending down to make a cut usually attracted two or three Haitians, who crowded around on hands and knees).
Our assistants ranged in age from 20 to 35, except for Joseph, who at 59, was three years away from the country’s average life expectancy. They earned about $15 a day – a coup considering 80 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day.
A Haitian supervisor, who spoke English, occasionally relayed our work instructions, and everyone followed directions to mainly sweep, pick up vinyl scraps, and do the heavy lifting, especially when it came to lugging the 350-pound vinyl rolls.
By the third day our Haitian brothers no longer seemed content as helpers and gradually began veering into the installer’s role. Shortly after installers rolled out and cut the first sheets, Haitian Denoyer Clottler, 26, picked up a hook knife and began cutting vinyl. Fearing a miscue, an American installer reminded Clottler to let the installers do the cutting before asking him to put down the knife. He did, but not for long.
“We do this. We do this,’’ said Detroit installer Andy Shock, repeating himself louder to a nodding, smiling Clottler. For the rest of the job, Clottler’s eagerness and determination to work with the vinyl fueled a helpers’ mutiny among his co-workers. One by one, sometimes under the watchful eyes of an installer, sometimes not, the Haitians mimicked the installers’ actions they’d seen over the past few days. As the Haitians’ confidence grew, so did the installers’ willingness to allow them to become more involved in installing.
One Haitian was put in charge of caulking all inside corners. Another used a skiving tool to smooth off the excess weld on the curved areas of the flash-coving. When Boston’s Eric Bickford, 30, bent down to scribe an inside corner, a group of Haitians hovered as he glued and placed the vinyl together. A few minutes later a Haitian, surrounded by his peers, repeated the same maneuver under the watchful eyes of an American installer.
Only Joseph seemed simply content rolling – and rolling.
Clottler had the good fortune of working with Andy Shock, who showed him how to use the heat-welding gun. After spending a few hours watching Shock and handing him tools, the two switched roles with Clottler doing the welding and Shock the encouraging. “You can’t go too slow, keep it moving, you’ll burn the surface,” said Shock, the only installer on the job – and island – who owned his own $2,200 grooving tool.
The last day on the job, Clottler arrived wearing new kneepads and a leather tool pouch an installer had given him. The pouch had a straight and hook knife, tape ruler and putty knife, gifts from Detroit installer Dan Breymann. Like a dozen of his co-workers he also was given a Laticrete t-shirt. “He’s the flooring dude now,” said Breymann, 31, who devised his own makeshift skiving tool by duct taping the ends of an 8” scraper blade. “If you really like something you pick it up quickly, like he did.”
Through a translator, Clottler said he learned a lot about flooring and after the Americans left, he hoped he could find work, possibly at the soon-to-open hospital.
DeBurgo’s view of the job reflected those of the group when he said, given the circumstances, he never thought the project could be completed in less than five days. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “Friendly people. It went a lot better than I ever expected.”
Meanwhile, as the American installers collected their tools, Joseph the roller was asked to help outside where he used a pick to break rocks. As for his weeklong experience installing floors, Joseph smiled and had this to say: “I hope you return.”