Photo courtesy of Sukup Manufacturing

Grain bin homes saving lives in Haiti

The recent devastation of Hurricane Matthew was especially hard on the third-world country of Haiti. But even in a hurricane, there are places to see the light amongst the bad. Several Haitians are alive today thanks in no small part to loving people combined with the ingenuity and effort found in agriculture.

Sukup Manufacturing has made a name for themselves through high quality grain bins across the United States, but a different kind of product has been on display in Haiti in recent years. Called Safe T Homes, the buildings are converted grain bins described by Sukup as “quick and easy to construct” and “engineered structures that are suitable for all phases of recovery effort.” They’re a mighty contrast to the houses normally found in Haiti, which are built with questionable rebar-less concrete walls and flat sheet metal as a roof.

Photo courtesy of Sukup Manufacturing
Photo courtesy of Sukup Manufacturing

The Safe T Homes are said to offer certain qualities like fire- and termite-resistance, and, as recently displayed by the destruction of Hurricane Matthew, weather-resistance.

Paul van Gorkom is executive director of GoServ Global, an Iowa-based philanthropy organization serving those less fortunate worldwide. While Sukup deals with manufacturing of the homes, GoServ makes sure they’re put to good use in villages across the country. They did just that this past weekend.

“When Hurricane Matthew hit, the eye of the storm was just to the west of where our facilities were located,” van Gorkom said. “The hurricane came up from the south and we took a direct hit. And we’re very happy to say that all of our Safe T Homes, which is nearly 200 in Haiti now, are still standing. They were engineered properly by Sukup Manufacturing and performed as they were designed to perform.”

Photo courtesy of Sukup Manufacturing
Photo courtesy of Sukup Manufacturing

In 140-mile-per-hour winds, every single Safe T Home was left standing — a major contrast to other southern portions of Haiti. The BBC reports aid workers have noted 90% of certain regions, many in the south, have been destroyed.

The help through Hurricane Matthew has solidified the structure’s place on Hispaniola, the Caribbean island where Haiti is located. GoServ began work following the 2010 Haiti earthquakes that decimated parts of the country. The non-profit has since worked hand in hand with Sukup to place the Safe T Homes.

“GoServe Global is quite a young organization, we’re only five years old,” van Gorkom said. “Things have just taken off to now where we’re involved in several countries including India, Peru, Guatemala, as well as Haiti.

“Along the way, we teamed up with Sukup manufacturing, which is an Iowa based manufacturer that makes the Safe T Homes for us. It’s a converted grain bin that’s redesigned to be a home. There’s two windows that lock in it and a steel door that locks. Inside the home is a loft that creates a little more square footage for us. It’s all made out of steel like a typical grain bin would be made. And it was designed specifically to respond to the need in Haiti after the earthquake.”

Their endurance in the Hurricane has further solidified plans for many more.

“As things began to progress with our organization, we built a number of orphanages. So we have several orphanages that have been built using the Safe T Homes as well. This fall we plan to begin construction on a birthing center in Haiti which will have eight of these homes,” van Gorkom said.

Hurricanes and other storms are quite common in the tropical conditions Haiti is in, but so is heat. If you’re thinking the structures would seem hot, you’re not the only one. Van Gorkom noted that as the most common question he gets. Fortunately, an ingenious design has allowed the indoors of the grain bins to be relatively cool with a double layered roof system and other clever modifications not found on the everyday grain bin.

That was one of many challenges in their creation according to Sukup Grain Bin Engineer Brad Poppen. He’s been involved with the project since its 2010 inception.

“After the Haiti earthquakes, Steve Sukup said, ‘Let’s work with an 18-footer and go from there’ and that’s kind of where it started. Our safety director and myself, after the earthquake, started in the design process of taking an 18-foot bin and deciding what it needed. That got the ball rolling on how hot it would get inside it,” Poppen said.

The Safe T Homes are one-design with 20-gauge galvanized steel. Sidewalls are eight feet high and the overall structure stands 13.5 feet from floor to roof peak, according to the Sukup website. Each unit can sleep 10 people with 254 square feet of usable interior space.

“We wanted to ventilate it as much as possible. There’s also a heat shield as we call it. We attach that to the top of the roof sheets and it acts as a barrier so that the sun isn’t hitting on the actual steel roof. Of course it doesn’t make it air conditioned, but ironically it’s like standing in the shade. We did some tests — it does reduce it about 10 degrees. So if it was 100 degrees out, it was 90 degrees in the Safe T Home,” Poppen said. “It really made a difference.”

Poppen said there are some challenges when taking a design for something meant to store grain and putting human beings inside instead.

“The big thing in my mind, with the grain bin you have to make everything watertight and here we wanted windows and openings and ventilation,” he said. “That was difficult to wrap my head around basically when we first started it.”

Though at first Safe T Homes seem an odd and out of place way to house people in a Caribbean country, the ingenuity of American agriculture has made it a fitting home for people in Haiti. What it really boils down to is the work by Sukup and GoServ Global is saving people’s lives.

Poppen said his work of designing metal structures has attained a much more profound quality to it these days.

“I was the first one that kind of laughed at this whole thing. I’ve worked inside grain bins before and I know how hot it is. It’s not good livable conditions. Now after the hurricane and finding out they were jamming something like 30 or 40 people in these homes, and they received minimal damage — well, it’s quite enlightening,” he said.

Sukup reports around 50 units are currently being prefabricated in the shop, on their way to use in the field. GoServ’s van Gorkom said the future is looking bright for the homes and the people it will benefit.

“My passion and what I would love to see happen really is for these safety homes to be used in refugee camps. It just seems like refugee camps aren’t really temporary anymore. Our solution is going to last 80 to 85 years versus a temporary structure or a tent that might have to replaced every two or three years,” van Gorkom said.

GoServ Global is always on the lookout for public support. Find their website at The organization has an easy and convenient donation page as well as updates on work going on around the world.

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  1. Great article Joel!

  2. What is not explained by the Sukups is that I worked with them for 15 months on this and provided the design ideas and specifications for it (all documented) including the layout for the communities. Even helped build the original prototype – I didn’t realize I was doing this on my dime at the time as I had told them my expectations many times regarding my involvement. Big difference between the public and the behind the scenes Sukups. Sad thing is the design was not finished when I figured out what was going on – they can be built with less materials and less labor. Why didn’t I take them to court? Look up “Sukup – litigation”, I do not have tens of millions for litigation. I’d like to be recognized for my work too.

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