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Your Home, Your Canvas

One of the great benefits of living in the tropics is the strong light and colour that consistently brighten our days all year round. In contrast to the greys and browns which predominate in colder northern climes, we’re fortunate to be bathed in sunlight most of the time, and surrounded by the natural blues and greens of the sky, sea and hillside vegetation. When designing and building homes on these islands, one of the fundamental issues we need to think about is the colour palette of the building.

Selecting colours can be a challenge. Although most people instinctively have some kind of idea of what they would like, not everyone is confident about choosing and combining colours when faced with the bewildering and seemingly infinite ranges offered by paint suppliers. Most manufacturers produce thousands of minutely varying hues at every increment on the colour wheel. Thankfully, if they don’t want to employ the services of an expert interior designer, home decorators can devise their own colour schemes with the help of design source books, which explain the basics of colour theory and practice, and aim to show examples of harmonious colour combinations.

Colours of the Caribbean [photos by Dan O’Connor]:

So the approach to colouring the interior of the home is a much-discussed subject and, of course, the interior paint is one of the easiest elements of the house to change if you feel like something new. That’s the beauty of most applications of interior colour—at relatively low cost and effort, a fresh lick of paint can have a huge impact and can really transform the atmosphere of the home. But perhaps what is less discussed is the colour palette of the exterior of buildings; the more permanent, publically visible architectural elements that make up the envelope and structure.

Here in the Virgin Islands, whether you like it or not, the most prevalent and ultimately most practical and durable material for the exterior walls of a building is concrete, which is then rendered and finished with paint or sometimes a more sophisticated trowel-on material. This means that the majority of buildings have an applied colour, as opposed to a more natural self-coloured material such as brick. This also applies to roofs, which more often than not have a painted metal finish. So the individuality and personality of the owner is expressed, and the hillsides are dotted with buildings in all kinds of colours; some more bold—and tasteful—than others.

Some owners want their home to disappear into the trees and rocks. It’s possible, with the use of natural materials and earthy or leafy colours, to blend into the environment. A green roof or wood shakes, local stone wall facing and naturally-finished hardwoods for windows and doors, pergolas and decks, can be combined in a sensitive design to “camouflage” the building. Other owners want their homes to stand out, with light, bright colours, to contrast with the natural surroundings.

Often, it’s best to go for a combination of these approaches—to use natural materials together with a creative use of colour, or to blend in where you want to and to stand out in selected areas. Natural materials like local stone and tropical hardwoods tend to be expensive, so it’s often not feasible to use them extensively. If you want to use stone facing, it makes sense to concentrate it in key areas, where it’ll have the most impact. Likewise, hardwoods are often a good solution for door and window frames, but cost and maintenance factors need to be considered, not to mention the environmental consequences. Most of the tropical hardwoods used in these islands are a deep red-brown in colour; there doesn’t tend to be a great deal of variety. This is likely to weather to a grey-brown if not regularly sealed or oiled.


When choosing paint colours to combine with natural materials, it’s a good strategy to identify a group of three or four which harmonise well together and can be used in different areas—to break down the mass of the building and to give variety. On a steep hillside, we often study the colour of the predominant earth and rock, which can range from blue-grey to red-brown, to find a hue which blends well to use on the lower parts of the building to help to reduce the apparent height of the building. The roof is a major and often very visible element, so its colour needs to combine well with the overall palette. Green is popular, but it pays to consider more unusual options; I’ve seen yellow and bright blue roofs here which work beautifully and aren’t as outlandish as you might suppose. And it pays to remember: lighter colours are environmentally better, to reflect the sun and keep the building cool.

Ultimately, the building is a blank canvas, ready for you to explore. It’s fun to develop the palette of colours as the design progresses, balancing freshness, richness, strength, tranquility, earthiness and boldness, to reach the perfect harmonious personal expression.

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