To cap off his graduate class on energy- and light poverty, Chad Groshart, a lecturer at The New School's Parsons School of Design, in New York, and an associate director at environmental design firm Atelier Ten’s New Haven, Conn., office, took his six students out of the classroom. Their destination: the island of La Gonâve, located off the west coast of Haiti. There, approximately 120,000 people live without access to grid power or running water. The students’ mission was to work with locals and the Washington, D.C.-based, Haiti-focused community development group Roots of Development (ROD) to install five solar-powered light poles throughout the mountain village of Gran Sous, on the island, based on their work throughout the semester to develop, source, and plan for the installation of the fixtures such that they could be maintained long after the team left.
Groshart teaches the course, “Lighting in the Developing World,” in Parsons' School of Constructed Environments, for students with lighting, architecture, and product design backgrounds. The syllabus builds on Groshart’s previous trips to provide sustainable lighting solutions to off-grid communities in Haiti and Nepal, and aims to educate students about ways to bring light to the 1.2 billion people worldwide without access to power. ARCHITECT spoke with Groshart about his latest trip, taking his studio abroad, and tactics for working with local community groups to identify their lighting needs and find practical solutions.
ARCHITECT: What have you learned about energy- and light poverty from teaching on the topic and your trips?
Groshart: I’m a lighting person so, to me, energy poverty means a lack of light. But it also means no running water, no refrigeration, outdoor toilets. Spending time in that environment was powerful as a lighting designer because at nighttime you can really experience true darkness. There are no streetlights, no homes nearby with lights on. One of the more important experiences was students having to wear headlamps in their own bedrooms. We’re so used to having light be ubiquitous, to be able to do what we need to do without thinking about light. Having to bring your light with you everywhere, including to the outhouse, was a new and important experience.
What were some of your biggest challenges or considerations in implementing the five light poles throughout the village?
One of the key concepts of the class is that the idea of development has to come from the population that you’re working with. There’s a long history of people with good intentions bringing ill-begotten solutions to Haiti. The students and I [decided] to buy all the gear within Haiti so that it would be serviceable. It was critical that the gear be locally sourced and that there be a channel for the village to connect with the manufacturers of the poles if there were issues—making them their poles, not the poles we brought. Public lighting raises the awareness that this village and this community group are on the path to development. The light is a symbol of progress for the village and will hopefully allow them to be more effective in attracting partnerships and initiatives.
How did you determine the design and source the products?
We asked the community group—which was made up of old and young, male and female [residents]—what they wanted, and after some study they said public lighting in a number of areas. We did [point-by-point] and photometric calculations, talked about the height the poles should be, their output, and other solutions that were closer to the ground. Due to vandalism and security issues, we settled on tall poles that elevated the battery and the PV panel. We had someone from the village look at the proposed design and physically see the gear that we had found. We reached the vendor through our NGO and were able to get several bids. We coordinated delivery schedules and materials.
What about installation?
When we arrived, the students were broken up into two teams: "journalists" taking photos and writing down their impressions, and then a technical team to ensure the installation went smoothly. We had a technician from the vendor, and the community group organized to dig holes and provide concrete, sand, and shovels at each pole location.
How long did it take?
We were there for about a week. We arrived on a Saturday, and the gear arrived on Tuesday—it had to come by boat and then up the mountain in the back of a truck. On Wednesday, we mobilized at 6 a.m. and had students out digging holes with the community members. By that afternoon, all of the lights were in place and set in concrete. That evening, we walked around in wide-eyed wonder at how bright and how transformed these areas were. It was just the first night, but already there was a lot of fuss about setting up dominoes tables, card tables, and vendors offering snacks.
What did you learn about the lighting solutions that are successful in the developing world?
Development is not just about bringing technology to places that don’t have it. Often, we think about lighting in these regions on a home-by-home scale, such as having a solar lantern or a small light bulb that provides just enough light to do basic tasks. However, the cost and efficacy of PVs and batteries are improving and LEDs have certainly changed this equation. In this case, we were looking for something that would add value to the village without providing private lighting to the homes. We all realized that it would be hard to enact something like that equitably. Our budget and time frame would limit the number of homes we could do. Also, is the community set up to collect electric bills or turn off the power to those who didn’t pay? There were some bigger organizational issues beyond scale, so the group switched gears to something that would allow people to spend time together after dark. One of the important takeaways will be how the village adapts and how we see new and potentially novel uses of these areas of much higher illuminance.
How will you track that?
We’re in contact with ROD, which goes there several times a year, and have let them and the community group, which communicates with ROD via text messaging, know that we’re interested to see what happens. So there will be some follow up.
Did anyone resist the light?
Yes. For example, in the center of town there had been a person from the village with a generator who ran it for a few hours each evening to charge up his own batteries. He would also string a few CFL light bulbs to create an hour or two of light after dark, but the bulbs would quickly be destroyed. We learned that there were some benches in the town square where teenagers would go to meet their sweethearts, and that light had intruded on their privacy. The village council eventually got to the bottom of the issue, and when we came to install the light poles, we worked it out where a little bit of light was on [that area] but not as much as before. Not all light is welcomed. Another example is a gentleman whose house was near where one of the poles was going to go. I told him that it may throw some light into his yard and windows, and he felt that would be a boon. These are two very disparate reactions to a light going up near your house, but it shows the incredible difference in how we look at stray light.
What advice do you have for educators or practitioners that want to run a trip like this?
You need a strong, responsive, local partner that’s regularly on the ground to help you connect to other resources, such as vendors. They help speak with the population to get their buy-in and make sure that they’re being heard, pick you up from the airport, make sure you have a place to stay when you arrive at the village, and coordinate other logistics. Without an organizational structure in place, your plan could end up being carried out in a way that’s less effective than it could have otherwise been.
This interview has been edited and condensed.