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>Student Profiles
Luke Schoenfelder (C'12)
Luke Schoenfelder (C'12) spent Spring Break constructing a "green" disaster-relief habitation in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
When impoverished areas are ravaged by a natural disaster, the need for inexpensive rebuilding methodologies becomes crucial. Over spring break, Government major Luke Schoenfelder (C’12) took his green technology to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to build a solar-powered structure out of recycled materials.
The premise behind Schoenfelder’s project—using what is known as “earthbag” technology—is deceptively simple. Aid organizations ship rations to disaster areas in polypropylene (plastic) bags, which are generally thrown away after a single use. Once the bags are empty, however, they can be filled with earth or rubble, formed into bricks, and built together to create livable, permanent structures. Placed between each layer of bricks is barbed wire, “which essentially velcros the bags together,” Schoenfelder explained, and the final structure is coated with concrete or plaster. The structure that Schoenfelder and his team created in Port-au-Prince is twelve feet high, nine feet across, fully insulated, and bulletproof.
With the help of the New Leaf Initiative, a nonprofit that supports “immersive” and environmentally conscience projects, Schoenfelder was able to gain local contacts in Haiti to begin work on his project. “We ended up going [to Haiti] for Spring Break, which was incredible because it enabled us to get this project completed and have something concrete to go with when looking at larger projects for the summer,” he explained. The building was constructed in an international compound, so that both the local crew who worked on it and aid workers from across the world could learn how to implement the technology.
The structure also employs micro-solar technology to generate electricity with solar panels and houses an environmentally conscious septic system. “We want to be really responsive [to] what the needs are in a community,” Schoenfelder explained. “For [Haitians] right now it’s sanitation. So, we ended up building this incredible septic system that uses gray water recycling from a shower that they have set up, which goes to flush toilets, which then composts the waste into a garden.” The structure and its septic system will serve as a prototype for other projects throughout Haiti and the developing world.
Schoenfelder’s project, however, is not just about environmentally conscious construction, but also about sustaining communities by using local resources and labor. “What was really cool is that we were able to buy all the materials in Port-au-Prince, reinvest them in the local economy and also use local labor, so we were very much community integrated,” he noted. “The problem is that when you have a natural disaster like this, you have these aid agencies come in and actually undercut business owners, so their way of life is cut out at the time when you need economic reinvestment the most.” By using local materials, Schoenfelder was also able to keep construction costs at a mere $200 (USD).

The team will continue their building projects in Haiti while exploring possible applications for this technology in other developing countries. Environmental Biology major Sam Apgar (C'13) will travel to Haiti over the summer to oversee new projects with fellow Hoya Jessica Robbins (SFS'12), who will conduct research for her senior thesis on human waste recycling. Likewise, Schoenfelder plans to return to Haiti at the end of the summer, and will be visiting Mexico and Venezuela to research “how we can integrate these designs in an urban context and also multi-level structures.” Schoenfelder hopes that this technology will have far-reaching applications, so that the team can provide it to international NGOs. “We feel like we can have a bigger impact if we harness the power of larger organizations,” he explained.
In the meantime, Schoenfelder has a number of initiatives in the United States that are expanding his capacity to implement green technology around the world. He currently interns for Apple Inc.’s federal affairs division, and works with Georgetown Energy—a student-run nonprofit that focuses on accessible solar energy—retrofitting neighborhood rowhouses with macrosolar panels. Earlier this year, the Clinton Global Initiative recognized his international efforts, and he received an Udall Foundation Scholarship for his environmental commitments. Similarly, the earthbag project was a semi-finalist in the Dell Social Initiative Challenge, competing for a $50,000 grant.
With this recognition of his work, Schoenfelder believes that change is in the air for green technology and international development. “Our generation is going to be willing to—and is going to—hold the companies they do business with accountable for their environmental practices,” he predicted.
--Jessica Beckman
Photo by Yovcho Yovchev. Photos of Haiti courtesy of Luke Schoenfelder.
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