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Green Living: Designing for Durability

As an architect, it’s very satisfying to complete a project and see a client move into their fresh, new home, with everything bright, clean and crisp. But the real satisfaction is in knowing that the building is designed and built to last. A home should provide shelter, protection and comfort, and should stand up to the elements. Wherever you are in the world, a building should be built to withstand everything that Mother Nature throws at it. This is particularly true here in the Caribbean, where the apparently benign and pleasant climate can be aggressive and harsh when things are left exposed.

There are many natural forces lining up to attack. The sun, which fades, dries out and degrades paints, plastics, fabrics and most other materials; the driving rain, which penetrates into any available crack and causes damage and rot; the wind and salt air, which erodes and corrodes; the bugs and other wildlife, which want to eat us and our possessions. These forces all combine and are amplified during times of heavy storm activity, when flooding and wind damage become serious concerns.

The exterior of the building is particularly exposed and vulnerable. The roof, walls, windows and doors are what make up the “envelope” of the structure, and obviously need to be weatherproof. One positive aspect of the BVI climate is that we don’t have the large swings in temperature which are common in more temperate zones, so we don’t have significant problems with materials expanding, contracting and cracking. We also have the benefit that the warm sun is very quick to dry out any areas which get wet. These factors mean that construction in the islands can generally be much simpler than in the US or Europe; there usually isn’t the need for complex detailing.

But this simple approach to construction means that good design is extremely important. The first step in designing for durability is to consider the location of the site and the building, to orientate the structures so that exposure to the elements is minimised. Any exposed surfaces and openings should be well protected so they are shaded and sheltered, to keep out the fierce sun and driving rain, particularly on the windward side of the building. Edges and junctions of materials should be designed with weathering in mind, to keep out and throw off water.

The next step is to specify appropriate, high quality materials and to be aware of their needs for long-term maintenance. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for, and the more you’re prepared to spend on an item, the longer it’s likely to last. This applies to most, if not all, building materials and products. The range of choices can be perplexing: stainless steel or bronze door hardware? Aluminium, pvc or hardwood doors and windows? Tile, stone or wooden floors? The options need to be carefully considered, and the potentially higher upfront costs need to be weighed up against the likely reduced long-term maintenance, repair and replacement costs over the life cycle of the building.

All of this is not to imply that the building needs to be built as an indestructible fortress. There’s much to be said for allowing a building to grow old gracefully, to accept and allow natural weathering to take place, to develop its own unique character and to sit in harmony with its natural environment. The Japanese term for this quality is wabi-sabi—an appreciation of patina and wear, the beauty and imperfection of natural processes. So the best answer may not be high-tech plastic or powder-coated aluminium. Sometimes it’s better to go with good high-quality natural materials which will age beautifully. Choose wisely, and the value of the property will be considerably improved, not to mention its longevity. 

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