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Renovating a Landmark

By Steve Fox

Anyone who has arrived by boat into Sopers Hole will be familiar with Steele Point Villa. Designed in the mid-1970s by Michael Helm, this unique and much-admired group of buildings has stood as an iconic landmark on the extreme western tip of Tortola, perched and poised on the rugged rocks, boldly and bravely resisting the aggressive and corrosive coastal environmental conditions. However, by late 2010, these conditions had seriously taken their toll on the wooden buildings, which became heavily weathered and had begun to decay and leak. The owners decided that the time had come for them to be completely refurbished and modernised, and hired OBMI to design and manage the work.

Renovations to the famed Steele Point property include reinforcements onto its rugged terrain. All photos by Steve Fox.

As well as a thorough refurbishment of all aspects of the building envelope and structure, the owners wanted to remodel most of the interior spaces and to expand and gain space in bedrooms and bathrooms which were felt to be too small. But any alteration of a landmark like Steele Point requires a respectful and sensitive approach. This is no ordinary house. The various elements sit dramatically on the rocks, as a complex but very neat, well-proportioned series of structures, with gravity-defying cantilevers and a tower element connected to the clifftop by a bridge. Any alterations would need to be done with the utmost of care to avoid spoiling the unique character of the place. We also saw this as an opportunity to not only renovate, but also to enhance and upgrade what was there—to make it even better, and to add and create value.

Of critical importance, on this and on any other major renovation, is to get a detailed survey of the existing conditions before starting any design or construction work. Full architectural and engineering surveys were done to identify problem areas and the required remedial measures. As the external skin of the buildings was stripped away, the extent of corrosion and decay became more evident, and proved to be quite severe in many areas. A creative and responsive approach was necessary to consistently come up with neat, practical and unobtrusive solutions to difficult problems. The elegance of the original structural engineering had to be matched with new and additional engineering measures to rectify problems and bring the buildings up to current hurricane and seismic code requirements.

A key factor in the success of a fast-track project like this is to ensure good communication between the owner, the architect, the structural engineer and the contractor. Most decisions are made on site, in response to ever-changing conditions as the job progresses and new areas of the work are uncovered. Decisions must be made quickly, in order to keep the work flowing and to avoid delays. Together with the need to respond to issues as they arise, there’s also the need to plan ahead. As in all building projects, and particularly in the BVI where almost everything is imported, we have to anticipate what materials are required and get them ordered soon enough to ensure they arrive on site when necessary, to avoid costly delays to the work. This can be particularly challenging on a project where we’re responding to issues as they arise, trying to anticipate quantities of materials to avoid over-ordering and wastage.

All new materials introduced into the building were chosen for their high durability and ease of maintenance. One of the major aspects of the Steele Point renovation was the complete replacement of the original plywood roofing with new standing seam metal sheet roofing, with a natural “weathered” finish. With a life expectancy of 50 years, this material is very practical, but also harmonises nicely with the modern lines of the buildings. Gutters and downspouts were custom coloured to match. The roofing details were completely revised, to eliminate all the concealed guttering and pipework which had been the cause of much leaking and water damage. All the roofs were insulated, to keep the house cool and maximize energy efficiency.

This has surely been one of the more challenging and delicate projects in recent times. Rising to the challenge, the construction site was run efficiently by Arthur Corion and his crew at AC Construction, to streamline the sequencing and logistics, manage waste and debris and keep things tidy and safe. Now, with the work almost complete, the three buildings are standing newly rejuvenated, ready to resist another few decades of exposure to the environment, and another few admiring generations of passing sailors and ferry passengers.

The serene vantage point from Steele Point over Sir Francis Drake Channel.



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