I had the distinct honor of presenting the sustainability of Caribbean Rim Architecture to the World Congress of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture, and Urbanism (INTBAU) in London recently. Later, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales hosted the speakers and other select attendees at St. James Palace where we reported on the Congress. I never speak from a script, so what follows is my best recollection of the presentation:
The ideas presented here today spring from the Original Green which I wrote five years ago, at the culmination of a quarter-century spent trying to figure out how we once built so sustainably, and how we can do so again. Simply put, sustainability should mean “keeping things going in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future.” If we cannot do that, it does not matter how many industry accolades or green points we receive; our work is not truly sustainable.
This work saw a major advance a decade or so ago when Julia Sanford proposed the idea of Caribbean Rim Architecture while returning from a design charrette at Schooner Bay in the Bahamas. The North, East, and West sides of the Caribbean Sea share similar climate, conditions, and culture that are best characterized as “heat, humidity, and hurricanes.” The Southern shore shares all but the hurricanes. Northwest of the Caribbean, the Bahamas and the US and Mexican coasts are so similar to the Caribbean Rim that we consider it to be an “echo rim” and treat it accordingly. Schooner Bay is the best living laboratory of Caribbean Rim architecture, and its spotless performance in Hurricane Irene’s highest fury of 125-130 mile per hour winds borders on the miraculous. Today, the first SmartDwellings are being built at Mahogany Bay in Belize, using many principles developed at Schooner Bay. This presentation is illustrated primarily with images from these two places, and also Alys Beach and Habersham in the US.
So what is the Original Green? It is the sustainability our ancestors knew by heart. It is what kept humanity alive for almost all of human history, until the dawn of the Thermostat Age when we began to believe that we could flip a switch and make everything OK. Now, we’re beginning to realize the errors of that assumption. But originally, people who didn’t build sustainably would freeze to death, die of heat strokes, or other really bad things would happen to them. So being green was about staying alive.
To achieve sustainability, we must first build sustainable places so that it is meaningful to construct green buildings within them. Those sustainable places must first be nourishable. Next, they must be accessible, serviceable, and securable. Sustainable buildings must first be lovable. Once they are, they must then be durable, adaptable, and frugal. I’ll give a few examples of the patterns of sustainable places, but spend most of our time illustrating characteristics of sustainable buildings.
Places must be nourishable because if we can’t eat there, we can’t live there. When I first started talking about this years ago, people said “Steve, you’re an idiot because I can eat whatever I want wherever I want. Today, it’s good to see people valuing local food more highly. A nourishable place is one where you can look out onto the fields and the waters from which much of your food comes, and where edible things are welcomed into town as well. We will always be able to get spices from afar because we don’t eat so much of them, but main ingredients really ought to be grown or raised nearby.
Edible Hidden Gardens
Today, people hold edible gardens in about the same regard as utility rooms: something that meets a need, but doesn’t need to be beautiful. This must change. And there is no culture better equipped to change that than the British because of their long and illustrious history of ornamental gardening. I believe edible gardens can be every bit as lovable as ornamental gardens because the only difference is the palette of materials. In the meantime, however, we should begin by planting edible gardens in the more private parts of properties until the day comes that we have learned to design lovable edible gardens, and can put them anywhere for all to see.
Walls of the garden, whether a building wall or a landscape wall or fence, should be planted to a harvestable height, which is approximately eight feet for most people. Because beans, peas, and other annuals only grow so far in a growing season, they should occupy the bottom half of the green wall. Espaliered fruit trees and vines which grow for many years should occupy the top half.
Chickens & Compost
Chickens are beneficial on several counts, so you might consider having them in your kitchen garden. If you do, consider placing their coop above your compost drums so it’s easy to clean the manure out of the coop and directly into the compost. In this example from SmartDwelling I, they are both tucked under the stair to the apartment over the garage.
The kitchen garden is the most intensely edible of all the garden rooms, but it should also be designed to be lovable. The lovability test for gardens is this: do you want to sit in the garden in admiration? This illustration shows a “morning pavilion” to the right, where one can sit with the sunrise streaming over their shoulder, watching the mist rise off the garden, and an “evening pavilion” to the left where one can sit to admire their handiwork at the end of the day.
Required side yard setbacks are often wasted, so why not plant them with fruit trees and let your dog run there?
An accessible place is one where you have a choice of modes of transport to access the place, especially the self-propelled modes of walking and biking. It doesn’t matter how far the cost of fuel rises if you’re living in an accessible place because you’ll always be able to get around.
Accessible places aren’t created solely by the means of access (like sidewalks and streets) but by the things around them as well. If porches are properly designed, people spend more time there. And streets inhabited by people are more interesting places to walk than those that are deserted.
Gifts to the Street
If every building gave a gift to the street, that street would be a much more welcoming place to walk. SmartDwelling II’s gift to the street, shown here, is a simple porch inset with a bench where someone can sit to rest and a few terra cotta pots for plants. Other gifts to the street can be things that shelter people (like an awning or gallery), things that refresh them (like a street fountain or sidewalk cafe), things that delight them (like a beautiful frontage garden), things that direct them (like a goal in the middle distance, or “terminated vista”), things that entertain them (like a great storefront), things that inform them (like a clock or sundial), things that help them remember (like a memorial), or things that give them a place to rest.
Sustainable places should be serviceable, so you can get the basic services of daily life within walking distance in your neighborhood, and the people serving you those services can afford to live nearby as well. The New Urbanism has figured out the first half of this equation; there is work left to do on the second half.
A 1,500 square foot house is unlikely to be used for anything except a residence, but tiny cottages can be used for many things. Populate neighborhoods with more tiny cottages, and all sorts of new businesses are likely to spring up.
Desks & Shelves
A rental unit furnished with only a desk and chair will feel forever like a hotel room. But units designed with built-in desks and shelves leave more opportunities for unpacking and setting up shop so that one may feel comfortable working for weeks on end there. True, such work does not constitute a permanent place of business, but it’s one more way of building a place where work takes place.
A single-crew workplace is a major game-changer that is as close as we can get to a silver bullet for urbanism. All sorts of things become possible today when we build workplaces small enough to be manned by a single crew. This is the Rum & Bean at Mahogany Bay, which is a coffee shop by morning and a rum bar (that also serves light fare) at night, and can be run by one person. It was the first building built, and the Rum & Bean was turning a profit months before a single residential unit was delivered… something considered completely impossible by the retail experts. It did the impossible both because the overhead was very low, and because nearby locals consider it the coolest place around.
Sustainable places should be securable so that at those inevitably less secure times in every city’s future, the most vulnerable parts of the urbanism (such as the interior of blocks) can be secured, leaving the streets open and free for anyone to travel there. And securable places make those streets more secure as well, by designing them so that many people inhabit them and keep order there.
Lining the Streets
Old European urbanism lined streets with buildings as their default setting, but we space them out more in the US. A block of loosely-spaced buildings cannot be secured on the interior, whereas securing the block interior when buildings form a wall at the perimeter, like in this Alys Beach street, comes quite naturally.
If a place is serviceable, people get out to walk to their daily services. It is important, however, that they get out for more than just chores and necessities. Civic space scattered frequently through the urbanism draws people out to hang out in the square or on the green, and populated streets are usually secure streets.
If a building cannot be loved, it will not last. The carbon footprint of a building is meaningless once its parts have been carted off to the landfill. My classicist colleagues plead for a high standard of beauty. But while beautiful things move us to admiration, the things we love move us to action… so lovability is the higher standard.
The Teddy Bear Principle
Katrina Cottages proved to be more lovable than any of us anticipated, for reasons we could not at first explain. I finally realized that the secret was in the proportions. Infants of all species (human babies, kittens, puppies, etc.) tend to be more endearing than the adults. Look at your baby pictures and then look in the mirror. The proportions are different. Your eyes were larger on your infant face than on your adult face, for example. The same is true with buildings. On a very small cottage (like these at Mahogany Bay) we can only shrink windows to a certain point, otherwise they would no longer meet code. This makes the windows larger on the face of a building, just like an infant’s eyes are larger on its face. I believe that the lovability of babies is actually one of nature’s ways of preserving species. If our infant selves were no more lovable than our adult selves, our parents might have thrown us out in the yard when we were screaming at three in the morning. Nowhere is the lovability of the infant more obvious than in bears. A bear cub is so endearing that every American child gets their teddy bear by the time they’re a few weeks old. But the mother bear is so terrifying that nobody wants to get within a mile of her. For this reason, I use the term “Teddy Bear Principle” to describe this unexpected lovability of the very small.
Head to Foot
We tend to love things that reflect us… including those things that reflect our physical form. Lovable buildings usually reflect the vertical arrangement of the human body, but in many ways. We have a top (head), middle (body) and bottom (feet). This house at Schooner Bay has a visible roof, walls, and subtle base, for example.
Reflecting the Face
Lovable buildings reflect our horizontal arrangement as well, especially the bilateral symmetry of the human face. Some are explicit about it such as the way this building’s gable reflects the forehead, while the chimney becomes a nose and the windows are two eyes.
Reflecting the Face Indoors
We can reflect the face indoors as well, such as this bathroom where the windows (again) are the eyes, the mirror is the nose, the sink is the mouth.
We can reflect the region in which buildings are located in many ways, including by reflecting regional craft skills. This steel fish is found in a town by a river populated by several skilled metal-workers. And yes, that is Cor-Ten steel, so it is meant to rust.
Curtains do several tasks to make a building more frugal by modulating daylight and heat flow. But they also drape beautifully, can be colored and patterned in countless ways, and move softly in a breeze, so they help make an interior (or a porch) lovable as well.
Small Sparkling Lights
I have included the previous pattern and especially this one to make an important point: not every pattern of sustainability need be complex and high-minded. We should not need for a pattern to be attached to reams of rigorous theory in order to accept it. Some patterns such as this are simple delights upon which almost everyone agrees, and which need little explanation.
Shower With a Breeze
If you have never had a shower with a tropical breeze, you have missed one of the great pleasures the Caribbean Rim has to offer.
Simplicity is a delight that has become more valued since the Great Recession. For too long, we have built buildings increasingly gunked up with layers of materials and assemblies, the ingredients of which we cannot even name. Building with sticks, stones, and other simple materials in ways where the construction is apparent is a welcome relief from over-complicated buildings.
A close ally to the delight of simpler construction is that of authentic construction. This is not to say that veneers should never occur, but there is a pleasure associated with looking at something like this floor structure and realizing that it’s the real thing, not just some stuck-on decoration.
If a building is lovable, it needs to be durable enough to carry that lovability long into an uncertain future. The Caribbean Rim is an unusually good exhibition of durability patterns because of both the hurricanes and the extreme daily conditions of humidity and salt air that must be endured there.
Patchable & Repairable
The myth of “no-maintenance” buildings is devouring huge swaths of the US. If a building component cannot be patched or repaired, then when it fails (as every building material must someday) it must all be ripped off and carted off to the landfill.
Some argue that we should never again build with masonry because of the carbon impact of the cement, but if a building is built lovably and durably enough, it can spread that carbon impact across several centuries. The life cycle carbon performance of such a building is almost certainly better than that of throwaway buildings built in other materials.
Timber & Masonry
Buildings throughout the Caribbean Rim and also far beyond tend to be those constructed with structural systems of timber and masonry. The durability of these systems stems from the fact that they are bulky, and losing a chip here or a sliver there will not bring the building down.
We discussed the lovability benefits of a wall base earlier, but there are durability benefits as well. A wall is most abused at its base by everything from children’s balls to string trimmers. A visible break some distance above the ground allows the base of the wall to be refinished as needed without being forced to refinish the entire wall.
Heavy Durable Roofing
There are two types of hurricane roofing that weather the storm beautifully. Heavy durable roofing such as this at Alys Beach gets part of its strength from being heavy, making it hard for the wind to lift it off the roof. And unlike clay tiles (which tend to become missiles in a hurricane) Alys Beach’s concrete roofing panels sit smoothly side-by-side, giving the wind less to “grab."
Light Durable Roofing
Mahogany Bay uses metal roofing, which is light and achieves its durability by being properly attached to the structure. Hurricane experts now say that of all the light roofing available, metal roofing clearly performs best.
Every closed cavity in high-humidity environments is a candidate for hosting mold and mildew growth. We therefore open as many walls as possible so those spaces can breathe. The vertical boards here are the actual wall studs; the horizontals are shelves, so an open wall has the added benefit of being able to store things.
Drywall remains a wall so long as you keep it dry. But let it get soaked, and it turns into a soggy mess. Because it is so extraordinarily poorly suited for a high-humidity environment where buildings need to open up and breathe, we finish one side of our open walls with wood boards. Our newest buildings have no drywall whatsoever.
Open-Frame Porch Floor
We open upper-level porch floor framing for similar reasons. A porch floor likely faces more moisture intrusion than any other part of a building.
It may seem unthinkable to discuss roofs without insulation, but in the tropics, the hottest days are rarely more than 20-25°F above the supposed high end of the human comfort range. Creating interior breezes with cross-ventilation and ceiling fans takes care of half of that difference, and if the roof is reflective like the two shown above, very little of the sun’s heat gets into the building. Unnecessary insulation in a humid environment is a bad thing because it can harbor moisture.
Rot-Resistant Local Woods
The tropics are full of rot-resistant woods like mahogany. Combine their durability with sustainable forest farming practices for an unbeatable combination. The mahogany used at Mahogany Bay arrived from forests only a hundred miles away.
Moisture-laden salty air plays havoc with most building hardware and fixtures. Elements that can be wood should be wood rather than metal. When metal is required, it is best to use hardward and fixtures designed for ships, such as this vaporproof fixture.
Hipped roofs are prevalent on historic buildings in hurricane zones because they are stronger in a storm. Each roof panel lays back to help brace the adjacent panels, and there are no gables to take the blunt force of the wind.
Long before there were hurricane experts, if someone was lucky enough to survive a hurricane but their house was unlucky enough not to, when they crawled out of its wreckage and saw a neighbor’s house still standing, they said “I’m going to rebuild like that!” One thing that emerged from this hard-won wisdom was a narrow range of roof pitches. Today, hurricane experts confirm the old wisdom, explaining that 8/12 to 9/12 pitched roofs are too steep to fail easily in uplift and too shallow to fail easily in overturning.
Most eaves should have shorter overhangs than they would inland because the overhang is a projection the wind can grab, and if the roof decking peels off, that is usually the precursor to building collapse in a hurricane.
Sometimes, short eaves are not practical. This porch, for example, is for structural purposes a very large overhang. It is therefore designed to be able to blow off without imperiling the main roof because the two are not attached.
Other eaves cannot be either short or sacrificial. Those eaves should be secured with structural brackets.
One of the most amazing things about the way Schooner Bay weathered the eye of Hurricane Irene was the fact that not a single pane of glass was broken, even thought the windows were not Miami-Dade rated. This happened because each window was protected with shutters and the people there did what Bahamians have always done: shut the shutters in advance of the storm.
Buildings that are both lovable and durable should be adaptable enough to be used for many things over time. This building, for example, began as a savings & loan institution. Today, it’s a Banana Republic. But as you can see from the holes in the wall where other signs have been attached, it has been other things in between.
Home to Many Generations
This Idea House was designed to house three generations of one family, and to allow each generation to move from one set of bedrooms to the next, keeping the house in the family long into the future.
We talked earlier about the durability benefits of opening walls for storage, but they also help the building adapt to other uses because workspaces of all sorts benefits from the ability to store useful things close at hand.
Earlier, we discussed the fact that small buildings enhance the serviceability of a place. They do so because they are so adaptable for many uses.
If a building is lovable, durable, and adaptable, then it really must be frugal because there’s nothing worse than a lovable, durable, and adaptable energy hog because people won’t let you tear them down.
Conditioning People First
This is me, working in my side garden. When we entice people into great outdoor realms, be they public or private, they get acclimated to the local environment and can often throw the windows open when they return indoors instead of cranking up the equipment. There is nothing more frugal we can do than conditioning people because the most efficient equipment is that which is off.
Here’s another way of conditioning people. When we designed the first houses at Alys Beach, we used tiny pools like this in most of the courtyards for the psychological cooling effects of water nearby. But when speaking with homeowners a few years later, one told me “Oh, no! That’s not the whole story. Because the courtyards are private enough, when I get uncomfortably warm, I simply take all my clothes off and jump in!"
Most people are burdened with expectations of what they think they might need in a home, shop, or office in the future when in reality they need far less today. Buildings designed to grow easily in obvious ways allow their owners to unburden themselves from future needs that might not ever happen. And building smaller and smarter starts several virtuous cycles of frugality.
Small is the New Luxury
I built my own home shortly after graduation and could barely afford to put drywall on the walls. That house was 3,000 square feet. Our condo in Miami is one-fourth that size, allowing me to use much better materials. Today, everyone has a budget, so small is the new luxury. Build it bigger, and what you build is impoverished. Build smaller, and it can be better.
Capturing Tiny Spaces
This is a Night Nook just off a couple’s bedroom where one can read or work while the other one sleeps. It occupies a tiny space under the landing of a stairwell that would normally be closed up and lost.
Expanding the View
Smaller spaces can work beautifully if they don’t make us feel like we’re boxed in. There are several ways to expand the view, including looking through one opening and then another to get a view to the outdoors. Another, shown here, is to use mirrors to double the apparent size of a room.
Using Every Inch
Why waste any space? Even the space under a bed? This storage basket slides out when you need what’s inside.
Storage on Boarded Walls
Those boarded walls we’ve been discussing have a frugality benefit as well: they allow shelves, pegs, hooks, and other storage devices to be attached securely at any point without needing to find hidden studs, allowing you to store more stuff in less space.
Design things that serve more than one purpose, or that serve more than one group of people whenever possible. This outdoor restroom serves both of the shops in those first two live/work units built at Mahogany Bay so that their tiny footprints aren’t burdened with restrooms. The restroom also acts as an edge to the courtyard in between the two shops.
Roofing in warm climates should be reflective to bounce the sun’s heat back up to the sky. Mill-finish metal roofing is best, reflecting over 90% of the heat. A white (or slightly off-white) roof is almost as good.
Courtyards carry many benefits, but they really must be shady to be comfortable in the tropics. Trees are the best way of achieving that shade in most cases.
Cross-ventilation is good; windows placed right where you’re working, standing, sitting, or lying down are better because the breeze gets directly to you.
Sometimes, the breeze isn’t blowing. On still days, a ceiling fan creates an interior breeze that’s just as cooling. The “wind chill factor” of a typical ceiling fan makes you feel 10-12°F cooler than dead air.
Naturally Ventilating Windows
Even on still days, true double-hung windows can still ventilate. In the cool of the day, in the early evening, just raise the bottom sash, lower the top sash, and cool air will come in at the bottom while warm air escapes at the top.
Windows That Breathe
Double-hung windows aren’t the only type of windows useful for ventilation; these louvered hardwood windows ventialte beautifully as well. But regardless of what type of window you use in the tropics, be sure it can breathe freely.
The Northern reaches of the “Echo Rim” along the US Gulf Coast gets cold enough in winter to require insulation above the ceiling. Using closed-cell insulation in the roofline instead of the conventional ceiling batt insulation allows the ceiling to be opened to the floor decking above, opening the space between the rafters to air circulation and increasing the apparent height of the top-level rooms.
Insulated Bed Alcove
In those Northern reaches with cold nights, beds that are surrounded by curtains that can be closed at night preserve body heat within the bed alcove, allowing the heat to be turned down to otherwise unthinkably low levels.
These last three items don’t exist yet, but should. Any living tradition should continue to grow, solving problems in better ways over time. The Breeze Chimneys on SmartDwelling I pivot to turn into the wind, using the Venturi Effect to pull air out of the house using no electricity. Its hood is built from sailcloth on spars to respect the nautical heritage of the region.
Tower of Wind & Water
The top element of SmartDwelling I’s Tower of Wind & Water is an axial wind generator. Most such generators today look a bit like egg-beaters in the sky. This is my first take on a more lovable way of designing such a generator. Below that is a rainwater cistern. All rainwater from the roof drains to the rain pond, then is pumped up into the cistern.
A side yard that doesn’t catch a prevailing breeze can be really hot in the tropics. So why not have a sail that pivots out above head height on the sidewalk, catching prevailing breezes to direct them across the garden rooms beside the house?
The Big Picture
Let’s finish by revisiting this image, which is now filled out with the things we know how to do. In the lower right corner, you’ll see that part of frugality can be accomplished using something I call “Gizmo Green,” which is made up of better materials and more efficient equipment. Unfortunately, almost all of the big conversations on sustainability are all about Gizmo Green. It is abundantly clear that focusing only on Gizmo Green means that we’re missing the big picture of what real sustainability is all about.
So that’s it… or at least what I can remember of it. And I finished it in just under 20 minutes. It was quite a sprint! What glaring things have I missed, especially on the Caribbean Rim?