Every neighborhood should provide at least a few quirky unit types because if everything is just “bread-and-butter” homes, the place quickly gets boring. And if the place is a vacation destination, it’s even more important to have a lot of rentable places that are decidedly not like home. We’ve gone over the top at Mahogany Bay Village on Ambergris Caye in Belize, where every unit is strikingly unlike everyday houses. I’m starting with one I call the “Dream Suite” because the design came to me in a dream one night. Here are some of the cool things it does:
Provide a desk, and you’re renting a hotel room. Build shelves, and people can set up and work for weeks.
This seems like an unimportant distinction, but it’s huge. Unless you travel extremely light, a small desktop leaves you working mostly out of your gear bag because everything doesn’t fit on the desk. But it’s deeper than just fitting stuff on a desk, I believe.
The act of setting up and working is an act of inhabitation, and is a big part of the transformation of a cottage from just a vacation place to a home away from home. I travel a lot, working many nights (or early mornings) each year in hotel rooms, and during the three days last spring that I was processing photos from this shoot, it felt remarkably different from a hotel. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why, but then I realized that it’s the shelves that pull it off because they let me fully set up my workspace. As a result, I can easily imagine coming to Mahogany Bay Village and working several weeks finishing a book or some other project. There’s no way I could imagine doing that in a hotel room somewhere.
Build tropical buildings that know where in the world they are - a hot and humid place with salty air.
Salty air might feel good if you’ve been cooped up in a cubicle too long, but things like light fixtures don’t appreciate it as much as you do, so vaporproof fixtures like this one aren’t just about nautical style… they last longer as well. And drywall in a coastal area is a horrible idea because the air is always moist, and drywall is usually the first thing to grow mold or mildew. Because of this, there’s not one stitch of drywall at Mahogany Bay Village.
They call it “drywall” because you only have a wall so long as you keep it dry. Let it get wet, and it turns to mush.
Mold and mildew isn’t the only threat to coastal buildings. It’s such a pleasure to get to the beach and throw all the windows open, but if a summer shower blows some rain in a window, most laminated and fabricated components of modern construction are in danger of failing… and none so quickly as drywall. Because windows left open during an afternoon thunderstorm can cause so much damage, most people keep them closed and crank up the air conditioner. But then, are you sure you’re even on vacation?
Walls like this are left open from one side, closed on the other with simple wood boards, and filled with shelves for storing your stuff in what would otherwise have been a dark and useless wall cavity. But it’s not just useful. We can all agree it’s more charming than a blank piece of drywall, can’t we?
Dare to ask this question: do we really need insulation in warm coastal places?
This is what you see when you look upwards in the Dream Suite: mahogany rafters and joists and the underside of the roof decking. There is nothing between the roof decking and the metal roofing except a layer of roofing felt.
When I was there for three days, it got up as hot as 98° outside, but I never cut on the air conditioner. How is this possible? The metal roofing reflects about 90% of the sun’s heat back up to the sky before it ever gets into the roof. So there’s never that much difference between the outside temperature and a comfortable indoor temperature. I opened the windows at night and up until mid-morning, then closed them to preserve the cool morning air and cut on the ceiling fans through the heat of the day. Insulation in moist air acts like a huge moldy sponge, soaking up the moisture. Why have it if you don’t need it?
If you haven’t showered in a tropical breeze, you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures.
I have for years been an advocate for windows in showers for their natural light, but I’ve never designed one like this. This louvered window in the Dream Suite’s shower can be opened while you’re showering if you like. And you will like. Adjust the louvers for privacy, of course… but the sensation of a tropical breeze across wet skin is simply delicious.
These louvered windows are built of local mahogany (more on that in a minute) so they are completely unaffected by water from the shower. After all, they weather many storms from the outside; why not a bit of spray from the inside? People sometimes object to windows in showers, but even if the window isn’t mahogany, a properly painted window will not be harmed, especially if it’s covered with a translucent shower curtain for privacy.
Ceiling fans make you feel 10° cooler, so use them in every room where you spend much time in a warm climate.
Think about that for a minute… a ceiling fan blowing 85° air across your body leaves you feeling just as comfortable as sitting in dead air that’s 75°. And the cost of moving that air with a ceiling fan is a small fraction of the cost of cooling that air from 85° to 75° with an air conditioner. Ceiling fans should really be considered essential equipment for every room in which you spend significant time.
Research local craft skills and local materials. You never know what treasures you might find.
Mahogany Bay’s Town Founder did, and she discovered two important things: First, Belize is a big producer of sustainably harvested mahogany. There’s an amazing number of variety of the species there, because that’s its native territory. And there’s also a woodworking craft community there that can produce pretty much anything you want. Their core group is a community of Mennonites that moved down from Canada a century ago, and take both their stewardship of the forests they farm for wood very seriously, and also the maintenance of their craft.
Because these assets were already in place, it was possible to fine-tune them to produce the work you see here. And while this may look like some really high-end construction, it’s amazingly affordable because it’s based on resources and base skill sets that already existed.
I’ll be mixing posts on building types over the next several weeks. Some will be exotic types from Mahogany Bay Village, while the others will be main-ingredient types for traditional neighborhoods in the US. Are there any specific types you’re interested in seeing? Let me know, and I’ll post those first if I have them… thanks!
PS: This post is part of a large series I’m doing on various building types. Here are the other building types I’ve blogged about so far: the Edge Yard Dwellings (Cottage, House, Large House, and Mansion), the Rear Lane Cottage, the Carriage House, and the Sideyard. I’m also blogging about some really rare but inventive types as I find them. The first is the Mayfair Lane type I found in Buffalo. Finally, this is the first of several posts I’ll be doing about some types we’re developing as well, beginning at Mahogany Bay Village. And here are more pictures of the Dream Suite.